My eighth graders have been grumbling in their free writes lately, and the current topic of their discontent is something (partially) directed at me: they hate self-paced learning.
As our district has adopted Diane Sweeney's Student Centered Coaching for our TLC (Teacher Leadership Compensation) program, the focus in our building has shifted from traditional teacher-centered classrooms, to student-centered learning environments. Three eighth grade classrooms in particular have pushed this approach to create self-paced classes for our students: math, social studies, and English (me).
My classroom has probably changed the least because workshop model is always student-centered and somewhat self-paced. I still have long-term due dates and deadlines for units and genre work. I'm teaching at the front of the room with even less frequency than I used to; most lessons that I would have used direct instruction for are now video lessons I've created using Explain Everything, posted for students to use as needed.
A month ago, I had the opportunity to observe my other two colleagues in a three-room rotation of our self-paced classrooms. We had a fruitful discussion afterward about the positive changes in student learning we've noticed since going self-paced, and ideas we could steal from each other to strengthen what we are doing. It was the first time our building has done a structured peer observation, and I loved seeing my students in the other classrooms, and also viewing how each teacher puts his or her own spin on a student-centered environment.
As with anything in education that goes against tradition, the backlash has arrived. I've heard and read the grumblings of students for a while now: I thought teachers were supposed to teach us. Self-paced is too hard. Why can't you teachers just do your jobs? It was easier when you just told us what to do.
I've tried to (not-so) subtly challenge my students' opinions when they choose to gripe about self-paced in their free writes. I give them the freedom to write whatever they want, even if it's critical of me, but that doesn't mean they are free from me commenting back with my own genuine thoughts and opinions. Free write for the student means they've also opened themselves up to free comment from me. This usually puts a stop to the grumbling, or at least forces them to more thoughtfully consider why we're making these changes.
But I knew this week would face a whole other backlash: parent-teacher conferences.
Yesterday, I had the first uncomfortable conversation during conferences that repeated much of the same as the student complaints: teachers aren't doing their jobs if students are moving through at their own pace. This conversation was not an attack, and was from a straight-A student and a genuinely concerned parent. It was as positive and civil of a conversation on the topic that could have occurred. I have a feeling that a version of this conversation will repeat in my room (and others) at least a few more times through Tuesday (the end of conferences).
Self-paced learning has meant the following things for English, math, and social studies in my building so far:
1. Self-paced means advanced learners can advance, and others can have more time. One of the biggest concerns with a traditional, teacher-at-the-front-of-the-room-lecturing classroom is that the higher level students are held back from achieving more, and lower level students are often left behind. Teacher-centered teaches to the middle, so very few students are well-served by it. I have seen my advanced writers push themselves to new heights in a self-paced environment. I have seen my struggling writers use more writing conferences to assist during their process.
2. Instruction is individualized for each learner. Now that I don't have to split time between being at the front of the classroom and being available for writing conferences, I can spend almost the entire period being available as my students need me. Their instruction from me is 100% individualized. The video lessons of direct instruction are available at any point in the writing process, and they are able to pause, stop, and rewind as needed. If a video lesson doesn't suit their particular writing needs, they can choose whether or not to watch it. If they are still struggling with a concept or strategy from the lesson, they can conference over it for reinforcement.
3. Students are in charge of their own learning. I am not a gatekeeper, and no teacher should be. I am a facilitator, a coach, and a cheerleader. This model allows me to give feedback more frequently. But it also forces students to take ownership of their progress as writers (and learners). I have no doubt that some of my students will go on to become better writers than me someday. Why should they be hampered by only learning what I know, then? Writers learn to write by writing. It's really that simple. I'm getting out of their way more than ever before, and that makes them better writers.
So what is there to complain about?
1. Playing the game of school just got harder. The most vocal complaints against self-paced learning at my school are coming from straight-A students. Why? Because they've made a career out of playing the game of school to perfection. They know exactly how to jump the hoops and follow the rules to earn A's with as little effort as possible. Being in charge of your own learning means pushing yourself. Getting the A is no longer as easy as following the rules; it takes critical thinking, application, and frustration.
2. Students are in charge of their own learning. (Yup, it's a complaint, too.) It's fairly easy for many students (not all) to write down notes of what the teacher says in a lecture, study those notes, then use memorization to write down what the teacher said on the test. (And then forget it all a week after the test.) This is the traditional model, right? This is why I stopped giving tests years ago. I never saw what students learned; I saw their regurgitated versions of what I said. When students have to move themselves through the learning targets, they learn in their own way. Many students reach the age of fourteen and don't even know how they best learn. (This is one area where IEP students are completely ahead of their peers: I guarantee an IEP kid knows if he's an auditory learner by the time he's in 8th grade.) I would have been in this same boat: I thought the best way for me to learn was to just memorize information as much as I could. And it worked for most of my secondary school career. Until I got to college and realized that I had no real study skills aside from trying to memorize information. Self-paced learning makes students uncomfortable because they have to choose how they learn best and then put it to use. Some would rather go back to the teacher-centered model so they don't have to risk that responsibility.
3. Failure is part of growth. True learning requires pushing yourself enough to risk failure. Kids who do well in school are terrified of failure. Most adults are terrified of failure. People would truly rather not learn anything new than risk being wrong. This is a widespread societal problem, not just an issue with my eighth graders. It's better to get over the fear of failure when you are young and supported than when you are older and have ruined a life by making decisions out of fear.
I'm ready to repeat the defense of self-paced learning and a student-centered classroom environment as many times as I have to in order for my students and their parents (and the wider community) to better understand how this benefits everyone. We don't want to create students who do well in a certain class because they have a certain teacher; we want to create learners who can thrive because they've taken ownership of their learning, and they know that no other person should ever be the gatekeeper of knowledge standing in the way of their success.
Change is always difficult; it's why people chose what is safe over what is best. I hope as the months go by, my 8th graders will start to realize the true power that some of their teachers have given them. I hope they seize that power and never let anyone take it away from them again.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.