This was the quote the long-term substitute blurted at me in frustration after I'd walked her through our student-centered unit plan for the fourth time. Sigh. She was NOT having it.
Phenomena discovery stations? KWP charts? 5E model? Inquiry cycles? WHAT is this utter gibberish, and how can we sleep at night when students are confused and we don’t provide them with all the answers?
It was also the moment I knew the title of my first blog post. Because in that quote, and in that moment of frustration, doesn't this well-intentioned substitute teacher kind of speak for teachers everywhere? Doesn’t she perfectly capture the raw tension that lingers as we make the transition from teacher-centered to student-centered learning?
Hearing her words stopped me dead in my tracks; I had to deeply reflect on what had brought me from being in her exact shoes less than a decade ago to throwing around jargon like “student-centered inquiry cycles in the 5E format” with the greatest of ease. I had taken the struggle for granted, and it was time to get back in touch with it if she and I were ever going to be able to find a path forward in our coaching work together. Empathetic connection is where learning happens.
My own journey in student-centered learning began when my now husband and I ran away to New Zealand right out of college. After juggling 3 jobs at once and living at home to save up for the trip, gaining a 1-year working holiday visa, and losing count of how many schools rejected my application from across the world, it was time to head over and hope for the best. Thankfully, spending countless hours going door-to-door to hand my resume directly to principals paid off in more than hellacious blisters. I got hired at what would soon become my dream school!
Discovery 1, as it was known then, was a public charter school designed around student-directed and inquiry-based learning. They sent me to trainings to learn exactly what all those terms even meant and how to successfully implement them in the classroom. I was hooked.
So what does all this "student-centered stuff" actually look like in the classroom? There are myriad flavors of student-centered learning, alI originally stemming and branching off from the constructivist philosophy (more on that in a future post!). Inquiry was the particular flavor that first got my foot in the student-centered door, and it is probably the flavor that colors my teaching most to this day.
Here are the key ingredients that helped me begin to see myself as a student-centered (or at least inquiry-based) educator.
Become an expert questioner.
When I'm working with students, I ask TONS of questions to help them come to their own conclusions, rather than explicitly telling or giving directives. I'm always joking with them that “I am not the answer lady.” They have tools and skills to help answer their own questions. I’m happy to guide, but I refuse to tell. Students are able to make connections, problem solve, and truly direct their own learning when we step out of the way. We do not need to be the information bottleneck; we just need to ask the right questions that keep the process moving forward.
Seek student input, and truly take it.
When students are given the freedom to come up with their own ideas, they immediately feel a sense of ownership over their learning. It becomes theirs. Choice increases interest, and interest increases retention. By diving into a topic or project students already want to do, they are vested in the experience. Sure, this isn’t always going to be possible. That’s why we like to use the term “co-created” a lot around here. It is a partnership; both teachers and students have value to bring to the table. When all parties contribute, the learning is so much richer.
Step into the “I don’t know” zone.
I’ll be the first to admit, this learning style can at times be frustrating, but in the most wonderful way. I once attended a conference where the keynote speaker introduced us to what he termed the “I don’t know” zone. His top goal for his students was to see the “I don’t know” zone as a problem-solving place rather than a big fat stop sign. It’s OK if we don’t know what to do; that just means we need to look at the problem in a new way and approach it from a fresh angle. It gives us space to show our students that we are human, too.
Befriend the discomfort of letting go.
It also doesn’t come naturally to me as a teacher (as I’m hoping other teachers/parents can relate!) to release the reins and watch what happens. We as adults sometimes struggle with letting kids make mistakes, and tend to want to intervene. Doing inquiry in the classroom gives me much-needed practice at trusting kids to figure things out. As we work through projects, we sometimes run into problems we can’t fix immediately. I have learned to feel the discomfort of letting go, accept it, and just be there in it until it passes. Moving through discomfort is a learning process in and of itself.
Know that it is a 2-way street.
It turns out it isn’t just us teachers who get thrown off when the usual teacher-student paradigm gets flipped upside down. Each and every time I work with students who are new to inquiry, I see a lot of sitting around waiting for the teacher to start dishing out heaps of knowledge. I frequently have to remind kids during project work to ask me and each other the question, “What can I do to help?” so we can keep moving forward instead of getting stuck. Eventually, this exchange helps them exercise their independence muscles-- rather than waiting to be told what to do (as they are likely accustomed), they can offer up their own ideas and take action themselves!
Be patient, trust the process.
This phrase has actually become one of my life mottos. Nothing worth doing ever happens quickly or easily. But it is SO worth seeing it through! You will not see enormous immediate differences when you first begin this approach, so just go ahead and have that in mind going into it. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you’ll struggle, and you and your students will feel pretty frustrated at times. Then, before you know it, you’ll look back and marvel at the deep thinkers you and your students have become. Show yourself and your students some compassion, grace, and freedom from perfection. You got this.
So fast forward back to present day.
Did the long-term sub and I have a big breakthrough moment that changed everything and led to magical student-centered learning aplenty?
No. No, we very much did not. Womp, womp.
Mindsets might be the hardest thing in the world to change. And going from a teacher-centered to a student-centered mindset is one gigantic mindshift. We have to wrap our minds around a brand new image of what “learning” looks like, and what “teaching” looks like. So even though that particular situation did not work out, I’m not even close to giving up on the bigger picture of student-centered education and its humanizing potential for all.
So now that you’ve heard a bit of my path to student-centered practices and the struggles along the way, I’d love to hear your story, too.
Where are you in your journey to becoming a more student-centered educator? Why does it matter to you? What difference have you seen it make with your students? What has helped you shift your mindset over time?