Student Driven Learning: My Journey

Many people have asked me recently about my push to make my classroom more student driven. For some, it is a large step and can be potentially scary to think about relinquishing control of your classroom to students. In an effort to help and also reflect on my journey, I provide the following phases of creating a student driven classroom. This is by no means ground breaking or the definitive answer, but simply one teacher’s journey.

Phase One:
As with any journey worth taking, the first step is often the most difficult to take. For me it was realizing that I was no longer the keeper of the knowledge and that I didn’t need to be “teaching” as much as I was. I needed to believe that my students could take more ownership and that I could guide more and instruct less. In order for a teacher to push more student driven learning, they first must be able to resign from teaching and trust they don’t need to be in front of the class at all times.

Phase Two:
Once I made the decision to resign and begin putting more the learning in my student’s hands I started with giving them more choices. This is a really simple and easy step to start, especially for younger kids. For me, I started with giving choices on simple things like projects and daily in class activities. If my goal was to see if students comprehended a concept, why does format matter? Let the students choose what works best for them.

Phase Three:
For me, the next step was no longer dictating the learning steps a student took in order to master a learning standard. Yes, I realize that the very presence of learning standards is counterintuitive to student driven learning, but it is also a reality of my job. I did this in a number of ways. First, I modeled with students how to turn a standard into a learning question. The students then decided how best to answer that question…what resources to use, what method of information gathering, and what format to share or present their learning. I created a series of organizers to help students go through this process and they became quite good at doing it.  

Phase Four:
The next phase is to turn all of the work completely over to the students. I did this last spring when I gave my Language Arts students a list of the learning standards for the entire trimester. They choose what learning activities to do, what order to do them in, and how to show evidence of their learning. I had a calendar and students filled in meeting times with me for mini lessons, small group discussions, and any other assistance they needed. They owned every aspect of their learning with the exception of the standards themselves. I shared many of these posts and experiences during my Reform Symposium presentation

Phase Five:
This is the best and most pure form of student driven learning and I experienced this on one occasion last year. For me, stage five is when students not only choose their activities and evidence, but also the content of their learning. They are not driven towards a predetermined standard but rather choose what to learn based on their passions and learning needs. My example of this was last year during our Innovation Day where students worked towards their own learning goals in whatever method best suited them.

As I move into this new school year, I am planning on continuing to evolve my process and always look for more opportunities to help students take more ownership of their learning. One example that I am looking to pursue is to have more days in phase five where students can create more long term and sustainable learning projects based on individual interest and passion. I am bound by certain learning standards within my class, but I will continue to nurture student driven learning as I firmly believe that is a huge step to creating lifelong learners. 


sarcasticnemesis said...

Thank you for this post. This is something that I came to realize as vitally important last year. After noticing a decline in student engagement and general lack of disinterest in school, I sat all my classes, grades 7-12 down for a heart-to-heart conversation about why they came to school and what they wanted/needed from school. A couple dominant ideas were to provide more hands on learning (authentic assessment for learning) and providing more choices. I immediately took these ideas and began to adopt them into my teaching practices. I realized I didn't need to "teach" for students to learn. I did need to provide the learning opportunities. I'd say I'm in phase two, though not completely--I am offering many more choices to my classes yet still have many required tasks as well--but I am desperately wanting to move to phase three. I am searching for a way to do so without having my students crash and burn. I have many "perfectionist" type students who desire constant feedback every step of the way, and I have some who do as little as possible and like it when the others require my focus so they can sit back fly under my radar, accomplishing nothing at all. Any suggestions?

Josh said...

Good questions...for me I try to "wean" students off of their over reliance on the teacher. I do this by asking them to ask a neighbor first before coming to me or give them time limits to work on it independently. The most effective way for me is to put it back on the students by asking them questions. Before too long, they realize I will not simply give them the answers but rather the tools needed.

In terms of your "under the radar" kids, I challenge them every step of the way. I give them prompts as well as demand constant feedback from them and ask them to reflect on their work regularly. By pushing your more needy students to be more self driven, you can free up more time to work with your under the radar kids and push them individually.

There are times though that is certainly feels like a delicate balancing act. :)

Ms A said...

Josh, thanks for sharing this. I have been struggling with making the shift to student driven learning and your post reassures me that even if I'm progressing slowly, I am heading in the right direction.

Thanks again for sharing.

Ms A said...

Josh, thanks for sharing this. I have been struggling with making the shift to student driven learning and your post reassures me that even if I'm progressing slowly, I am heading in the right direction.

Thanks again for sharing.

debryc said...

I'm on this road myself! I'm only on Phase One, where I've transitioned from teacher who teachers in front to teacher who structures instruction so that the students are doing the heavy lifting.

I'm slowly transitioning to Phase Two, where I'm giving students more choice.

I have at least two challenges, though. The first is that as I completely change my teaching style, I feel that I'm not skilled enough, yet, to help guide my students to high levels of mastery. They are much more engaged, yes, but they are not necessarily completely uncovering what they understand, and they are not completely tackling all their misconceptions to build new understandings.

The second is that I'm struggling with where I can find help for the next step.

Do you have advice on how to continue on this journey?

debryc said...

May I also see the organizers you used to Phase 3?

Kristen Beck said...

Josh, Thanks for the concise post. I was inspired to take the plunge and move into student driven leaning by following you on twitter and reading your blog. I am definitely new at this and as a teacher in her 21st year in the classroom, I have a new enthusiasm. My middle school students have been resistant because they are used to the teacher doing most of the work. Because I teach math, I am working this year to figure the nuts and bolts of truly turning the learning over to the students. There are definite issues with student confidence or lack there of. They do not trust in their innate ability to do math and so I need to find a way to build their confidence without interfering with their learning and build their capacity to drive their own learning. Thank you for giving me the confidence to continue on this path even though I am up against resistance from parents, students, and teachers. You are an inspiration and it is no wonder you are Illinois' Teacher of the Year!

KT said...

Thanks for this post! As an education student, I am very committed to making my future classroom as student-driven as I can. I believe it is the best way to engage students-- and I know that I learn best when I am in the driver's seat, so to speak.

My concerns are about my first year of teaching, especially. I have heard that in your first year, it's better to start off firm & with authority-- and I wonder how to do that while also creating a democratic environment.

Ann and Celina said...

Thank you for putting this student-driven learning journey (mindset) into words!'s comforting to know we are not the only ones on the path!

Mr. McCleary said...

Thanks Josh for putting our vision into thoughtful steps. I as well, have been inspired by your Reform presentation and your blog. I have been making the transition over the last year and am excitedly looking forward to our first "Personal Learning Day" tomorrow. Students have worked hard in preparing for this and I know it will be an incredible day!
Thanks for the inspiration.
Check out some of the results

Anonymous said...

Great post, John. You might like to consider joining the community at Inqire Within?
I'm @whatedsaid, if interested.

Prof. Edgar Martínez Echegaray said...

Hi Josh,
Your post is inspiring. I am a new Spanish teacher in Texas, USA. Really I would like to change my teaching and start to do what you did in your classroom. As an experienced teacher, you could help me a little bit more. Do you think that it is likely to make the shit to student driven learning? I wonder how to take the first step. You are very right when you write that it is the most difficult. Please, feel free to advise I will be waiting for your suggestions. Thank you very much.