5 Stages of Shifting Control to Students

Picture a classroom where the teacher maps out the lessons on monthly calendars to be sure everything will fit in the allotted time frame. He plans each lesson noting exactly what students will do and how their brains will process information in each class period.

Sounds like a good teacher, right? We agree. This teacher is likely a good teacher in Stage 2 of the framework.

What would happen if one day this teacher walked into the classroom and said, “Ok, students, you are going to solve a difficult real-world problem. I’m not going to tell you how to complete it. You have to plan all the steps you need to take. You have two months to do it. Come to class everyday prepared to work on it. All I’m going to do is give you feedback on your work and help coach you through any major hurdles that you can’t solve after trying without my help.”

This would probably not go over very well, would it? Some students might resist this change. Others might not know how to begin. Some may try it out but find it difficult to move on without the teacher validating every single move.

This is the point of the framework. It will take some time to go from teacher-directed classrooms to the ones we envision.

The evolution of giving control to students through each stage

Stage 1 – Adult Learning and Leadership

In this stage, educators commit to intellectual humility, continuous improvement, questioning assumptions and habits, taking risks and reflecting on their actions and choices. They model and embody lifelong, self-directed learning for their students.

What does that look like? Teachers are comfortable saying, “I’m not sure”. We get feedback on our lessons from students. We regularly read (in eyesight of students) and carry books and articles about teaching and our content areas. We constantly try new methods of improving instruction and engaging students.

Stage 2 – Joyful, Efficient Classrooms with Active Processing of Learning

No more “show and tell teaching” or intellectually mother robining. Kids do the thinking. Teachers build an environment where students understand that struggle = learning. Teachers allow students to make some choices in instructional activities and involve students in rule making. Students reflect on their preferences and passions throughout the year.

What does that look like? Teachers mix up information and make students put it in the right order. We pose problems to students that are slightly new or out of reach to increase the amount of thinking students have to apply to tasks. Students explain every response or answer. There is more praise for effort and reasoning than accuracy. Teachers think of ways to help students understand that the process of learning is fun and feels good. Prizes and rewards outside of the acts of learning are minimized. Teachers say less of “That’s correct” or “That’s incorrect” and more of “Does your answer make sense to you?” Classroom management is primarily accomplished through relationships with teachers and between students rather than through punishments.

Stage 3 – Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction & Critical Thinking

Teachers completely release the notion of “coverage.” The goals are no longer a list of the things we have to go over with students and are now conceptual understanding and improving students’ thinking. Students arrive at their own conceptual understandings by uncovering the truths of each discipline through multiple trials and errors, testing of hypotheses and increasing the sophistication of their understandings. We assess the transfer of conceptual understanding with novel tasks and situations. Teachers assess students’ ability to self-assess the quality of their thinking against established criteria.

What does that look like? Teachers identify around eight big conceptual understandings that articulate the relationship between two or more critical concepts for their subject. We plan learning experiences that guide students to reaching a conclusion about the relationship. We consistently use rubrics that compare students’ writing and thinking to established criteria. Students articulate where they fall on the rubric using evidence from their work and come up with specific ways to improve the quality of their thinking. The same learning objective can last a week or longer.

Stage 4 – Disciplinary Thinking

The classroom structure becomes investigation in a more disciplined way. Students continue to uncover truths of the discipline through trial and error and testing of hypotheses but increase the sophistication of their methods in ways that more carefully parallel practitioners in the field. The goal is to discover phenomena and solve problems by thinking like a disciplinarian, using the methods of reasoning and making sense of the world that are accepted in each subject. Everyone understands that content is the means to this end, such that students can be working on different content that most interests them while they increase their skill in the disciplined ways of approaching each subject.

What does that look like? Teachers pose a choice of a few complex tasks to students and assess them on the process and reasoning used to complete the task, such as the questions raised, the methods of gathering information and the quality of evidence their final product. Students can articulate the similarities and key differences in ways of thinking in each subject. They can articulate the knowledge they have constructed and discovered by using disciplined approaches. The same learning objective can last three weeks or longer.

Stage 5 – Students As World Changers

The teacher is a guide as students apply conceptual understandings and disciplined ways of thinking to real-world problems of their choosing. Together, teachers and students identify problems and create structures and plans to solve them. Most of the teacher’s time is spent listening to students explain what they are working on, asking them questions and providing feedback (not solutions).

What does that look like? See this blog post for a great example.

Although it is daunting, we must release control of learning over to the students. Almost half of U.S. teens drop out of school and more than half of students who start college do not complete it. Do you think that more students would stay in school if we gave them more control over their learning and tapped into their potential for making real change?

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