Generating Buy-In and Creating Consistency When Switching to Student Centered Learning
Updated: Jul 9, 2021
I don't watch much television. I could probably live without one entirely! When I do watch, and even when I read, I prefer nonfiction (notwithstanding Marvel movies, they rock!). The world fascinates me. I am a trained scientist, after all.
Have you ever seen an episode of "The Dog Whisperer" with Caesar Milan? It was a reality show that aired several years ago and has recently been resurrected by Disney Plus in the National Geographic portion of their subscription app. Caesar is an accomplished dog trainer and is able to, essentially, tame some wild, out of control dogs. There are also instances where he encounters dogs who exist in a state of paralyzing fear 24/7. In the introduction to each show he says, "I rehabilitate dogs. I train people."
His strategy seems simple. He's always telling owners to change their energy. This is, of course, easier said than done. Most of his clients have tried to be dominant and set boundaries by using words to verbally correct their dogs and, sometimes, have supplemented that with some sort of physical action like tugging on a leash or physically blocking a doorway. Most actions the owners take are the right ones, Caesar says. In working to correct their energy, though, he basically teaches them how to correct their intent, their mindset.
You see, dogs will not adopt a calm, submissive state unless the owner/handler both believes they are strong, capable, confident and follows through with actions that demonstrate their strength, capability and confidence.
Likening our students to dogs is not appropriate imagery, I know. But, it's critical to understand that our success in managing any classroom will be two-fold in the same way that Caesar realizes success with the dogs he trains. We must both believe that our plans are robust and our students are capable and follow through with actions that demonstrate our plans are robust and our students are capable.
We must both believe that our plans are robust and our students are capable and follow through with actions that demonstrate our plans are robust and our students are capable.
In a previous post, I presented the 60% mindset as the first step in attempting to switch to student centered learning or deliver effective distance learning. The 60% mindset describes the belief system we must adopt in order for our student centered learning plans to work. The best intentions and the best plans are simply not enough. With the core of our being, we need to abandon the laundry list of excuses we may have for why our students don't excel. They will respond to our energy before they respond to our plans and, ultimately, they won't respond to one without the other.
They will respond to our energy before they respond to our plans and, ultimately, they won't respond to one without the other.
Once we understand the vital nature of our own mindset, we can begin to demonstrate it through our actions in the classroom. This is not accomplished only through positive, encouraging words. Student centered classrooms represent environments in which students take control of their learning. If you're anything like me, you're wondering, "What does that even mean?!". Allowing students the opportunity to assist in setting the expectations of the classroom, group themselves, and decide how they'll spend their active class time are more than reasonable examples of ways we can ensure students feel empowered toward reaching academic and, perhaps, even behavioral goals they've set for themselves. Think about it. For students to take control of their learning, they need be given the opportunity to make choices. When we make all the choices for them, there is an unspoken message that we don't believe they can make good choices for themselves. We teach them to be followers, not trailblazers.
The student-centered classroom is defined by an environment in which students take control of their learning.
Now, in my opinion, there are authors who take this too far. The famed Danielson Framework, for example, indicates that distinguished teaching occurring when "students participate in designing assessments for their own work" and "students develop rubrics according to teacher-specified learning objectives". I personally believe there are some aspects of education that serve to prepare students for adulthood and the workforce. Since I've yet to hold a job where my boss allows me to decide the parameters of my annual performance evaluation, I can only rationalize how this practice would, long-term, hurt my students rather than help them. But, I digress . . .
When we make all the choices for them, there is an unspoken message that we don't believe they can make good choices for themselves. We teach them to be followers, not trailblazers.
No matter when you decide to commit to a classroom transformation -- at the beginning of the school year or at some other point throughout -- generating buy-in and being consistent with your expectations will be important to the success of the initiative.
I honestly can't speak to how other science teachers in my cyber school lead their classrooms. I have a hunch that they are very teacher-centered. For example, I know many of my peers still complete entire lab activities with their students. By "with their students", I mean they demonstrate what students should do with the virtual lab activity and, in so doing, they manipulate the simulation such that all of the relevant lab questions can be answered by watching the demonstration and listening to the teacher as they give the tour. I, therefore, must assume that my students, at the start of the school year, are not adept at completing multi-step tasks on their own. I must assume that their expectation for class time will include some requests for volunteers, some cold-calling and some polling-type questioning. They might expect to be called upon to complete a group activity to which no individual accountability is attached.
So, on the very first day and throughout the entire first week, my primary challenge is to create and present an activity that will require my students to write, speak and collaborate because that's what I'll expect them to do each and everyday in my classroom.
So, on the very first day and throughout the entire first week, my primary challenge is to create and present an activity that will require my students to write, speak and collaborate because that's what I'll expect them to do each and everyday in my student centered classroom. The activities I choose and the consistency with which I apply them [in addition to my 60% mindset] will set a strong, yet unspoken, message and potentially reset any preconceived notion they had about what time in my classroom would entail.
On the first day, I introduce myself with a short presentation that includes pictures and text. My education and experience as well as personal details about my family, hobbies, and goals for the year are discussed. Then, for the remainder of class time, my students are charged with creating a short presentation to introduce themselves. They are provided a template and encouraged to include pictures and specific details about themselves similar to that which I include in my own. For the next day or two, each student introduces themselves using their presentations as a prompt to guide them.
In a student-centered classroom, students are active.
Check out this clip from one of my recorded class meetings to observe how I sold this to my group on the very first day!
This activity might not be applicable to some environments. For example, the school I attended was very small and we might have had one new transfer each year. Basically, we all knew each other since elementary school! The cyber school I teach for, however, is a great big melting pot of students from all over my state, many of whom are enrolled in this model for the first time. The nerves are usually high because of their inexperience and confidence is low. Some might have even enrolled because they thought they could hide behind their computer screen, taking an entire year of classes without speaking a single word out loud or even typing in a chat to anyone. I intend for this activity to initiate the formation of a community, one in which we can become familiar enough to share within and lean on for help.
The next few days of that first few week in my student centered classroom are marked by the development of a class contract. By creating a class contract in the early days of introducing student centered learning, every student is made aware of those expectations and realizes they must abide by them to be successful. While teacher expectations have an effect size of 0.40 (one year's worth of learning), according to Alamarode in his book, "Visible Learning: What Works Best to Optimize Student Learning", the students' expectations of themselves have an effect size of 1.44! That's more than 3.5 times one year's worth of learning! A great student centered learning experience with positive social/emotional implications would require students to collectively prepare a list of attributes and actions they want to observe from themselves and their peers in the classroom. As teachers, we can expect that every student will want to be treated with kindness and respect. They may not wish, themselves, to collaborate or be creative but we can expect that they'd appreciate those characteristics in others. Students should not only outline their expectations for class time, in general, but that of the teacher, as well.
An example of how I structured and delivered this activity is provided in the clip below. Here, following a mindfulness activity wherein students were to recall their best class or teacher or school experience, I asked students to write down all the positive words and phrases they recalled. When the reflective time was over, I told the story of what I saw in my memory to model for the type of information they should record. I also provided them some context. As the teacher, I am ultimately responsible for the classroom environment and I had just come off of a year that was cold and quiet in that regard. So, I outlined for them the type of classroom I imagined for us and had them consider what actions would allow us to collectively reach those goals. At the end of the learning experience, I shared student notes and discussed them. Being able to review other student ideas allows them to consider some ideals they may not have entertained. My platform enables me to do this anonymously which could also help ease the anxiety of sharing ideas in the early days of the school year. Ultimately, though, this informal method of reciprocal teaching mimics a key component of the scientific method: communicating results. Professional scientists always review one another's work, both in one-one-one environments as well as at large conferences.
If you're interested, you can watch how my session went, below. When you watch my videos, please keep in mind that my students can and do see me throughout the class period. My talking head, I believe, plays a key role in the humanity that can sometimes get lost in distance learning. The software I used to save my live session as a video simply didn't incorporate the sidebar where my webcam image and the classroom chat is usually located.
Ultimately, this type of student centered activity has three very important implications. First, very simply, it keeps them active. In a student centered classroom, students are active. They should do and say more than the teacher. Second, giving them the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about class time is informative for the teacher! It's amazing, actually, how much we can learn about our students when we let them take the reigns in this process. It not only informs us of their insecurities and, possibly, the bad experiences they may have endured in the past, but it might also reveal unexpected commonalities among them. For me, I was surprised to learn that students despise a quiet classroom as much as I do! Finally, exercises like this during which they've been given the opportunity to be heard begin the process of building trust and accountability. When we can agree on standards for behavior and participation, everyone is able to continue with a positive, growth mindset toward each other and the content.
Finally, the first week is perfect for sharing specific details about the course if you teach a high school class. Details regarding how work will be submitted and graded, along with countless other facts related to the course might be shared. Personally, I don't think sharing the content of a syllabus has enough value to occupy an instructional school day. However, providing the students time and practice working through it as an activity does continue to set the expectations for behavior and activity during class time. Making it a small group activity supports the collaboration you might be seeking to observe during regular class time. It also allows teachers to record and collect an important artifact: an acknowledgement that each student has been informed of all policies and procedures they will encounter throughout their time in the course. Being able to return to their work from this activity as a talking point later in the semester when a student might not be meeting their goals is very helpful!
For a look at how I have planned this student centered learning experience for students to become familiar with my syllabus, watch this short clip of the class session during which my students completed a related activity:
No matter how or when you decide to generate buy-in and establish consistency, they key to your success with be both believing in the outcome you've imagined and follow through with an action that will demonstrate that belief to your students. In doing so, you'll create connections that will foster a positive, rewarding classroom environment in which students do, learn and grow.