Saturday, 27 April 2013

Letting Students Lead the Learning

Student-led independent learning is central to my beliefs as a teacher. I think it is vital to develop our young people into well-rounded, educated and future-ready people. I most certainly do not believe that this is all we need to do for success with our students, it is one element. For me, this element is a strong vein through my teaching and planning. I know that this has massive impact - I have seen it. I have sampled and developed many different student-led independent learning projects, initiatives and routines over the years. I thought I would share one of my experiences of making it work. Literacy Leaders.

A number of years back, I stumbled across Jim Smith's 'The Lazy Teachers Handbook'. I knew I had fallen a little bit in love. Me and student-led learning dated quite seriously for some time let me tell you! We had the best of times and the worst of times. We laughed and we cried. In the end we found a happy equilibrium and skipped off into the sunset, hand in hand. When you are sitting comfortably, I'll tell you the story of the start of our passionate affair.

Love at First Sight:
Reading about the dreamy class that Jim Smith talks of in his book, I wanted some of that! Smith takes the old-school teacher, and the clueless newbie, softly by the hand and leads them through the process of how to 'do' student-led learning with the ease of a seasoned risk taker in the classroom. What appealed to me was that the benefits were crystal clear for the teacher and the students alike. Students come away with the skills they really need for life after the institution. Tony Wagner in his SSAT keynote highlighted the essential skills employers are looking for now and in the future - Students need qualities of the heart, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, agility, adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurism. The students who are allowed to experience student-led learning, with a great teachers guiding them, will be experts in these skills. Teachers clearly benefit too. They are given more time to focus on what is evidenced to have the most impact on student progression according to the studies analysed and compiled by Professor John Hattie. For instance much more time can be given to class discussion, feedback and forming teacher-student relationships. The possibilities seemed endless to me in those first few weeks - my mind was abuzz with ideas. Like a bullet to the heart, the impact on my ideas about learning was immediate. But like all great love affairs, the road to follow was a rocky one.

I attended a conference on how to create a literacy community where I witnessed some amazing students leading learning in their school. I was inspired even more and took the leap into creating an environment conducive to student-led learning. I put together a literacy toolkit that had really jazzy, student-friendly literacy resources that the students could use over and over, without the need of help from the teacher. A literacy mat, punctuation fan, connectives cards etc... I decided to start with one class and get them to step up to the plate and take charge in my lessons. My bottom set Y9 class of "unteachable students" (not my words!) were challenged to apply for roles as teaching assistant for two weekly periods where they would plan with me, help/lead the starter/plenary. they would also work with groups in the class when we were in lessons. Their final responsibility was to promote the use of the resources in the literacy tool kit to other teachers and students across the year groups. Applications came flooding in! I put together a team of six students and Literacy Leaders was born. They were a brilliant team and we all bonded quickly.

Committed Relationship:
For any teacher, starting their journey towards handing the learning over to the students, it is a time filled with fear and trepidation. But there is also a touch of wicked excitement. There was no turning back now. Parents had been in, students were trained and excitement was mounting. There was also the inevitable mutterings of "She has lost her tiny mind!" from a few. This didn't phase me though. I can weather a storm, done it before and will happily do it again if the cause is one I believe in. The Literacy Leaders training sessions were brilliant. The team was amazing and really enthused about taking charge a little more in class. They all prepped their own starter and plenary resources, with my help, and we were ready to go for the next two half terms. Signed sealed delivered, the stage was theirs.

The Struggle:
Our first lesson was upon us. We were a team and all super excited about embarking on this journey together. The first lovely Literacy Leader on the schedule came in at break to set up her starter activity and we were ready. The class streamed in to the room, faces tinged with chocolate and crumbs from last minute break time scoffing on the way to the lesson. They settled down at their tables, opened their books and copied down the title and learning objective as usual. Then they sat excitedly waiting for the starter. 28 sets of eyes staring back at my Literacy Leader was not received well by her. She froze. After a minute of tumbleweeds a blowin' she began to stutter her way through her activity. The look of agony as she presented was a little off putting for the class in terms of getting the full benefit of the painstakingly prepared activity. Nonetheless she powered on, heaving a sigh of relief at the end. I really felt for her, she had been so blinded with fear that I don't think she even saw my thumbs up and nods of encouragement from the sidelines.

In the wake of her first slot as a Literacy leader, the student stood shaking slightly as I made my way up to the front of the room to start the next activity. Before I reached the front, I was stopped in my tracks. One boy at the back of the class, the naughtiest one, stood up and started clapping. Then one by one the rest of the students stood up and joined in. Then the cheers began to rise up form the sea of claps. A real sense of pride filled me. I was proud of my Literacy Leader for persevering, but I was also proud of my bottom set of "unteachable students" for rallying around their classmate. In response to the noise, the Deputy Head threw the door open ready to tell the class off for disruption and the ridiculous noise. The sight of the beaming, red-faced, head-bowed figure with a shining Literacy Leaders badge proudly adorning their blazer lapel changed that though - their face softened and they joined in. The Literacy Leaders were by no means perfect but the lesson slots went from strength to strength. The students would feed back to the Literacy Leader at the end of the lesson to help them improve. Their confidence in their own ability to take charge of the learning filtered down to all the students in the class. They taught me a lot during that that time too. The storm was worth weathering. In my next school I ran the scheme again and it was even better, they gained even more and the results were evident. I am now excited about the possibility of getting Digital Leaders up and running in my current school - new adventure.

There are challenges to making student-led learning work but for me it is well worth the battle. Yes, we need to cover a syllabus and help them pass exams but there are many roads that lead to the holy land that is exam success. I suppose the key question we need to ask ourselves is - what do we want our students to be when they leave us? What do we want our legacy to be? Some may say that the choice we need to make is simple. Option one - educated, independent, resilient, passionate, resourceful and curious beings. Option two - educated vessels full of facts with little clue what to do with them, bar regurgitate them in an exam. Perhaps it is not as simple as all that but we do need to consider what we are creating and if we are happy with it. Our challenge is to hold tight to our moral purpose when we teach in times of constant change.

"If you can keep your head when all around you a loosing theirs... you'll be a man my son."  


  1. Take a look at David Weikart, the founder of the High/Scooe Approach. We use this in our Nursery School, teaching that follows the children's interests. This is by no means the lazy way, much more difficult because you don't know where they will take it next. This seems to be embraced by early years practitioners but unfortunately seems to be lost to the 'teacher knows best' as they get older.