When Susan Wolfe, an elementary school teacher in Boise, Idaho, asks her class the qualities of a good student, kids often list things like: taking responsibility for themselves, doing homework, being good communicators. By focusing on the what the students believe — instead of what she could dictate to them — Wolfe applies techniques of student-centered learning, which she has embraced throughout her 18-year teaching career working almost exclusively in Title I schools.
“The kids need to believe that they’re not here to have learning crammed down their throats,” she said. She says it is fundamental for teachers to take the time to build a class culture for which students take ownership. And contrary to many stereotypes about disadvantaged kids, in her experience, every child, no matter their background, wants that learning autonomy.
To build that type of environment, Wolfe first asks students to list the qualities they think make a good student. Then they list the qualities of a good teacher. Finally they describe what makes a good learning environment.
“If you get them to reflect back on previous learning experiences, then they get what you’re trying to get from them,” Wolfe said.
Even if the lists get long, Wolfe has students group the qualities until there are four basic “critical factors” for good students, teachers and learning environments. Boiling it down to four keeps the “rules” simple, and the process ensures students take ownership over what they developed.
“Students have the ownership of the critical factors, so I’m no longer the ‘heavy,’ ” Wolfe said. “They designed this so they have to hold their own feet to the fire, and I’m just here to help them out.”
It’s true that at first students don’t always understand how to do what Wolfe is asking of them. But as she pushes them to reflect back and gives them space to generate their own answers without jumping in to prompt them, they begin to produce lists and the excitement grows.
“I start off with a lot of modeling and guiding and then it leads more to an open model,” Wolfe said. “Once they understand how to design a good open-ended question they get it — it’s just that no one has asked them or trained them.”
A common objection to approaches like Wolfe’s is that it takes a lot of time to co-create a list of guiding class rules, to model open-ended questions and to let kids be heard. But Wolfe insists that when students feel they are at the heart of the learning experience, the depth of work increases dramatically.
But, as with everything, she starts slow, modeling and training students on how to ask “essential questions,” ones that aren’t answerable with Google. First, every student will read the same book together and they will discuss topics by creating an inner and outer circle. In pairs, kids are encouraged to look for connections to themselves in the text, to pose essential questions to one another, and then to close-read the text for main ideas and vocabulary.
“I slowly step back and I give the kids more and more of the responsibility,” Wolfe said.
STEPPING INTO ROLES
Another way Wolfe helps kids take ownership over their learning space is to give everyone a job — class president, secretary, plant-waterer, paper-passer, etc. Students rotate into different roles every two to three weeks so there’s no fighting over roles.
“I’ve set up this environment where they feel needed,” Wolfe said. “They eat that up. They want to be needed.” Some parents even report that when their children are home sick, they worry about who will do their classroom job.
To make sure all students are participating, the class “maps” their discussions, with one student drawing lines between question asker and answerer, creating a network of communication that visually indicates if someone has been left out. Wolfe says as a class they analyze and discuss these maps, brainstorming reasons why some classmates aren’t ready to speak up.
“The kids know they can’t hide anymore because there’s that mapping going on,” said Wolfe, “and they’ve found out because of the language and communication skills that have been built up that it’s safe to disagree.”
Increasingly, schools are making time for students to learn about whatever excites them, inspired by Google’s 20 percent time when employees get to tinker on passion projects unrelated to their jobs. Wolfe finds this model a natural fit with both Common Core standards and her interest in making sure students are individually connected and passionate about the topics they are discovering.
“I’ve got kids doing parts of projects that I don’t think I could have ever talked them into doing if it hadn’t come from them,” Wolfe said.
For example, a group of students wanted to be outside more, so they are working to build an outdoor classroom. They teamed up with a group of parents who were interested in the same concept, connected with the Bureau of Land Management and eventually designed and began clearing the way for a native plant garden.
They’re working with the community, learning to fundraise, using Excel spreadsheets and building websites. But there’s no grumbling because students are invested in the end goal of the project.
Wolfe treats Genius Hour as a pass/fail class. Students are required to set a goal each week, blog about how they went about achieving that goal and what obstacles may have come in the way. This may sound scary to teachers concerned that they aren’t ticking off all the standards required by their districts and Wolfe understands this fear, but says the core skills of research, writing, communicating and collaborating, emphasized in all areas of the Common Core, become part of Genius Hour projects.
“A lot of teachers spend a lot of time trying to motivate kids, but if they can tie it into students’ passions, you can tap into a lot of energy,” Wolfe said.
She said student-centered learning works for low-income students especially well because it helps them build the non-cognitive skills, like effective communication, that they may not be learning outside the classroom. At Whitney Elementary, a school where 85-90 percent of students qualify for free and reduced priced lunch, Wolfe knows she had an impact on her students.
“I had a student that I could just not connect with,” Wolfe said. “I could not get this kid to do anything.” But she knew he loved skateboarding, so she suggested he research and become the expert on Tony Hawk and skateboarding. The principal even agreed to let him do a skateboarding demonstration at the end of the project.
The student made a total switch. He was staying in at recess to work on his report, asking for help and doing a great job on his work. Recently Wolfe bumped into him around town and he still remembered that project. He’s in college now, getting straight “A”s.
Often educators cite large class sizes as an impediment to implementing this kind of student-centered learning. Wolfe agrees it’s much harder with more kids, but she still thinks with careful planning it can be done.
“If you can integrate skills into one really fantastic project, that’s half the battle,” Wolfe said. “You have to unpack those Common Core standards and build them into the units and project-based learning being designed.” She finds that teaching skills and concepts together as one unit saves a lot of time.
Support from other teachers is another important condition for this work. “Finding a group of individuals who are interested in that same type of teaching and getting support from them is really important,” Wolfe said. At her current school, Hawthorne Elementary, Wolfe helps lead a book group focused on inquiry and student-centered learning.
One teacher in the group is slowly trying out some of the ideas. She started small, giving her students a little choice in their history of Boise projects. Rather than assigning topics, she told them she needed them to become experts and teach her. At first students didn’t know what to make of that, but soon they were charting out ideas and doing independent research on the computers for 30 minutes without help.
“She had never experienced that before and she’s probably got one of the lowest-skilled classes in the school,” Wolfe said.
The book group has helped convince educators of the rationale behind this pedagogy. After discussing books like “Inquiry Circles Illuminated” by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels, they are more ready to try some approaches in their own classrooms. And, Wolfe always encourages teachers to start slow and look for what they will stop doing in exchange. It’s not realistic to keep piling on new things without stripping something away.
“Kids want that ownership, they want to be in charge of their learning,” Wolfe said. “We just have to give them little pieces at a time to be in charge of and give them a space where it is safe to do so.”