Kids, What Do You Want to Learn Today?
Today, as I think about authentic learning, I’m reminded of a last century education conversation I had with a young, and very unprepared teacher, who said, “I go in each day and ask kids what they want to learn today, and then we do it.” Some of what he thought makes sense. Unfortunately, this is only a small piece of what is a larger and more complex concept. He really had no idea where he was going on a daily basis, or for the year ahead, and neither did his students. Parents were quite vocal about his meandering ways, and his evaluations by department heads weren’t great, other than comments about his students enjoying class-long discussions and enthusiastically participating. He had charisma but not a game plan or direction, so school and district administration made it so uncomfortable for him that he left teaching.
At that time, no one was really talking about giving students a say in their own learning. Personal learning devices weren’t thought of as necessary classroom tools, yet. Direct teaching from the front of a classroom was the norm, and most teachers taught from a desk or podium, and rarely ventured out into the students seated in rows. Moving desks to transform a classroom into a better learning environment—a circle, horseshoe, or groups—was often a highlight for students, and an interesting presentation challenge for teachers. Most times the rows returned, because it was easier. But, I do remember that line about asking students what they wanted to learn as a good thing, though. Sadly, I didn’t have the tools or skills to help that teacher beyond that one-liner. Today, I’d know, but it doesn’t stop me from thinking of him at the beginning of every new school year.
Now, just because we’re in this century, with the promise of all sorts of personalized learning devices in the hands of students, as well as interactive and collaborative displays, it doesn’t mean that teachers have ventured beyond that one line. I hear it all the time, “Let students guide their own learning.” Do educators really know what that takes to do, and do students really know how to do that, too? I asked this at a table talk, and got a pretty quick response from a very intelligent educator, who said, “If we give a kid a pencil, do we have to tell them how to use it?”
While that may sound brilliant, it is very similar to—“What do you want to learn today?”—but not as good. That’s simple thinking and irresponsible today when we know so much more, and we can share so much more. Students with pencils, or digital devices, in hand still need direction, and educators, who follow thought leaders, who say those things, should expect more. The wonderful thing is that we have the interactive technology to actually have students participate daily, and take control of what they want to learn as well as what they truly need to learn. Those two things can be more the same—than different. But, there has to be direction. Just because a student can operate a digital device, or use a simple app, doesn’t mean he/she has the ability to use those things in a more profound and planned learning way. That takes a plan. That takes know how. That takes teaching.
That means teaching and mentoring, which may take the form of substantial professional development for the majority of educators in a school or district. Teaching, today, should not look like last century, and when you ask students what they’d like to learn today, they should be prepared to enthusiastically take that to wherever it needs to go—personally and collaboratively—to an end result that is worthy of their efforts. The question really should be, “What do you want to learn today, and what will you do to get there?” And an educator’s follow-up could then be, “I’ll assist you on your journey in getting to where you need to go.”
About the Author:
Ken Royal is an educator with 34 years of classroom/school and instructional technology teaching experience, as well as a blogger on all things education and education technology. Teaching accomplishments include: 4-time district teacher of the year, Connecticut Middle School Teacher of the Year, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates award for Technology School of Excellence. He is a Promethean storyteller. Follow @KenRoyal on Twitter.