Who’s Driving this Learning?

When I was in college, the phrase, “student-centered” learning was big in the world of education. The concept resonated deeply with me. My favorite teachers were the ones who gave us ownership over our learning. To this day, the learning I best remember is from teachers who asked me to be an active participant in the classroom.

These days, I’ve seen the phrase, “student-driven learning” resurfacing and I’m glad. If teachers learned anything during the days of virtual teaching it was that we, ultimately, don’t have all the control in our classroom. Spend 10 minutes on a Zoom call with 25 kindergarten students and you will quickly realize that power is shared when one kid just walks away and never comes back. Or when they mute themselves and throw their own dance party while everyone else is trying to figure out how to add two groups of five together.

When I was in college, the idea of student-driven learning made so much sense…with older students. But was it possible for all students? I can tell you that it is! Here are a few ways I have given my students, even kindergarteners, a chance to be in the driver’s seat of their own education.

1. Students as leaders of their own conferences:

Instead of a parent and teacher sitting down to talk about a student’s work, each child in my class prepared a portfolio of their work, some that were great, some that needed improvements, and presented it to their families. Each child shared a goal they wanted to accomplish. They beamed with pride during center time when they told me, “I’m going to count all my blocks in the math center because I am working on counting up to 20!” I used student-led conferences for every grade I have ever taught.

2. Project-based learning:

Thematic projects, project-based learning, whatever you want to call it – organizing content around a theme is a great way to give students power. When we studied bees, kids spent time learning facts about bees, flowers, and the challenge with a dying bee population. After we gathered information I would ask students, “What do you think we could do to help save the bees?” We brainstormed and then they got to choose our project. One year we wrote a letter to our local representative. One year we planted a wildflower garden. One year we hung up posters around the school. Another time we worked with the 5th graders to create bookmarks for the local library. My students drew a picture that represented something they learned and the 5th graders wrote short informational blurbs about how to save the bees.

3. Careful planning:

One of the most challenging parts of student-driven learning is really letting go of control. Some teachers might look at student-driven learning and think that the teacher planning this kind of learning isn’t doing any work. In reality, there is a lot more planning that goes into student-driven learning. When it comes time for the actual delivery of instruction, a teacher who has thoughtfully planned will be able to guide students to a higher level of understanding. One key is to offer limited choices. The mistake I made early on was not giving options. For example, “At the end of this unit, you can do any project you want to show what you learned!” The result of this directive was students who were overwhelmed by options and a teacher, me, without the resources I needed to help kids be successful. Later I learned I could do something along the lines of, “At the end of this unit, here are your 3 project options and a rubric to go along with each project. Here are the deadlines for the parts of your project. If you want to do something on your own, set up a separate time to meet with me to discuss.” Obviously, this is geared toward an older crowd but it worked with kindergarten students. Here’s an example of what I might say to a kindergarten student. “At the end of this project, you will create a diagram of either a bee, a flower, or a hive! Today you get to choose.” The next day I would introduce the next step, such as how to look at a picture and sketch, the next day would be a revision, and so on and so forth.

If you haven’t tried student-driven learning I suggest you set an achievable goal for yourself. Maybe one unit or project your first year. Then in the next year, you can either improve that one unit or try another one. Slow and steady, my friends, but with your students sharing the driver’s seat, you are all sure to win the race.

Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


About the Author

Megan Howe

Teacher and Children's Book Aficionado