What Can Students Do?

A few years ago, I attended a Critical Thinking conference at Berkeley University. It was a fascinating event, particularly memorable for two key reasons. Firstly, it was not just a conference for educators. I was grouped with members of the US intelligence service, who pointed out how crucial critical thinking is to their roles. Secondly, I have a vivid recollection of a presenter claiming that teachers are guilty of doing far too much thinking for students.

On the trip home, I found myself wondering what students could take responsibility for that teachers tend to do for them; what learning experiences are we depriving them of? The most obvious response is grading/marking, the bane of a teacher’s life, but there is no way that students could do a teacher’s grading, it is a professional responsibility. Or are we being too precious? There is a large research body supporting the benefits of peer feedback and self-assessment. If you ever believe that kids are too young to provide each other with effective feedback, watch Austin’s Butterfly. Two particularly helpful peer feedback approaches are: Ron Berger’s KiSH (Kind, Specific, Helpful) framework for modeling feedback and the concept of radical revision from the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking, where students pair up and discuss what they feel good about in a written draft and what they think they will need to work on, followed by reading their drafts out loud to each other and engaging in a conversation about their work. Grade 9 student Hamish comments, “I have learned how to provide better feedback to my peers. When I read their work, I learn how I can improve my own writing and this helps me take more responsibility for my own learning.”

Assessment is usually something that is done to students so an empowering shift is to co-construct assessment rubric criteria with students. This puts assessment criteria into student-friendly language rather than teacher-designed robot-speak. Grade 9 student Spencer notes, “We designed the marking guide as a class. It helped us know what was needed before we did the task, instead of being told what we did wrong when it was too late.” 

This made me start wondering about writing student reports, which are so time-consuming for teachers. While many schools have moved to continuous reporting, lots have not made the shift and continue to write lengthy comments to parents several times a year. Surely students cannot write their own reports. Or can they? Here are some simple self-appraisal questions for students:

  •   How do you rate your effort? Why?
  •   What have you done well?
  •   How could you improve?
  •   What should your report say?

I preface this self-assessment process by telling students that I need their help to get their report right, and I want to astound their parents/guardians by how well I know them and their progress. I keep the completed self-appraisal in front of me while I type each student report, and I reflect the student’s ideas and language back in the report. It halved my workload, showed that I really knew my students, and it felt more beneficial. Students were pretty much always honest, sometimes scarily so, and on the odd occasion that a student wrote something I did not agree with, it led to a very constructive conversation with them. Win-win.

If students can do their own grading/marking and write their own reports, what else could they do? I wondered if they could actually teach the class themselves. I had my Grade 12 students each select a topic from the detailed mandated syllabus and accept responsibility for leading a 10-minute seminar when we got to that topic in class. Some of the seminars were outstanding, but a couple were not, and I needed to be ready to jump in and pick up the slack when the rest of the class felt they had been short-changed or when a presenting student was absent. Grade 12 student Tom comments, “The best way to learn something is to teach it to others. This approach works well when the students prepare thoroughly, but when a presentation isn’t very good, we feel that our time has been wasted.”

Another useful habit is to toss the whiteboard marker to a student on the first day of class and have that student scribe key points on the whiteboard. Students can then rotate this responsibility between each other for the rest of the year. Presto, the teacher never again turns their back on a class when writing on a whiteboard and they can devote their attention to facilitating the class. It is a nicer way to teach. 

The last class of the year is now a chance for me to bring in multiple copies of all my lesson planning documentation. We spend the final class with students in small groups leaving warm and cool feedback post-it note comments over everything. I have changed so much of my teaching based on these thoughtful feedback sessions with students. They help me co-construct what my class for the next year will look like. They are particularly helpful with framing questions and projects more effectively.

Can students set their own classroom rules? Of course they can. What about behavior management and discipline? Restorative practices solve that one. Almost anything that a teacher can think to complain about, can be solved by empowering young people. Most of the workload concerns that teachers grumble about are learning experiences that we deprive our students of, because we like to think they are not sufficiently capable; it boosts our sense of professional identity. This is supported by plenty of other assertions that teachers should never work harder than students and whoever is doing the work is doing the learning.

Teachers do too much of the learning and thinking for students. It does not have to be this way. When teachers work harder than students, young people become inculcated into coming to school to watch the adults work. If we want them to learn; if we want them to think, this is not something that can be outsourced. And if we want them to take responsibility for the culture and feel of the classroom and school, we need to invite them into the conversation, and even step away and let them take the lead. What do you complain about having to do that your students could do tomorrow?

One thought on “What Can Students Do?

  1. Personally, I have tried a few of these things when I was in the classroom, making the curriculum explicit and getting the students to work with me to design assessments. I even got my Year 8 Media Studies class to design their own excursion, including making inquiries with various places in preparation. In these situations I guess the focus of the teaching were the skills associated with how to learn.

    The issue that I had was that I was only one part of the week for these students and that this was all vastly different to how other teachers and classes were operating. I guess the point then is how much can students do when we let them?

    It is interesting thinking about all this outside of the classroom. In my role working with teachers and administration on some of the day-to-day technical trivialities, such as academic reporting and attendance. It is always so easy to just fix problems as they arise. However, I always endeavour to meet half-way, whether it be to provide a short summary or to actually walk through a problem. The challenges in these situations is the limits of time, I wonder if that too is sometimes the challenge in the classroom too.

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