As instructional leaders, we aim for students to self-actualize, set and achieve goals, reflect on learning, become intrinsically motivated, and help peers to self-actualize. To reach this level of autonomy in the classroom, students and teachers need to analyze varied perspectives, looking at solutions through different lenses to draw meaningful conclusions. True student autonomy requires teachers and leaders to shift their practice—in effect, they must model the behaviors they wish to see in students, both inside the classroom and as a collaborative community of fellow learners.
The Power of Student Evidence
Inside the classroom, the teacher is no longer the sole owner of thinking and learning: These responsibilities must intentionally be transitioned to students by designing purposeful tasks to elicit student evidence, and by organizing student teams to reach desired outcomes. For students to self-assess and provide effective peer feedback, they must have a clear understanding of the learning target and success criteria. Success criteria provide a clear understanding of student behaviors that should be evident in student work samples. With clear success criteria, students and student teams can evaluate their work for gaps in learning and misconceptions in thinking.
Planning lessons and units is just the beginning. School leaders and teachers must model and coach effective peer feedback and self-assessment protocols. Empowering students to own their learning requires advocacy and agency. Classrooms must be an academically safe environment where “soft skills”―risk-taking, perseverance, and productive struggle―are developed and celebrated more than simply getting to the right answer. Teachers should help students focus on how they arrived at their conclusions, so students learn to examine their reasoning and determine if there is more than one way to reach the desired outcome.
A New Focus on Learning, Not Teaching
As principal at Acreage Pines Elementary, I learned to focus on what was being learned in the classroom, and how to support teachers in shifting their practices to student-centered classrooms with rigor. First and foremost, this required shifts in my leadership practices. I had to anchor my actions and words to a strong new vision of instruction, changing classroom walk look-fors, providing feedback, and participating in professional learning communities.
In our school, shifting to an organizational culture that focused on learning rather than teaching did not occur overnight. We started with the adults, changing the way we planned learning experiences and how we interacted with each other. My feedback for the teachers I observed took a dramatic turn. I no longer looked at what the teacher was doing in the classroom or should be doing. Instead, I focused solely on student behaviors and evidence, using that data to provide reflective feedback for teachers.
As my practice shifted, so did the teacher practice in collaborative planning. If we wanted students to understand the demands of the standards, we first had to have a clear and consistent understanding of what the standards required students to know and do and what we needed from them to demonstrate mastery. Spending time in our teacher teams to unpack the standards and design student evidence provided a clear pathway to motivating students to take ownership of their learning.
It was during these collaborative meetings that our own misconceptions and gaps became evident. If, as a teacher team, we did not have a common understanding, there would be variance across our classrooms in performance data. The critical shift to standards-based professional learning communities paved the way to allow teachers to focus on student-led conversations, structures for feedback, and routines for self-assessment. Working in our teams, we defined mastery, so we knew what to coach in the classroom. Participating in the common planning provided me with a clear understanding of the standards being addressed and the intended implementation of the lesson, allowing me to focus on student behaviors and evidence when I was observing classrooms.
By modeling reflective feedback with my teachers, I showed them how to model similar practices in the classroom. Teachers stopped rescuing students when they were struggling; instead, they asked students reflective questions to get them to think differently around the content or to spur additional team talk. Soon, student teams adopted practices requiring student-generated feedback and reflection stems. The children demanded the stems so they could push the thinking of their peers and assess their own work. Self-efficacy, classroom culture, and agency for all learners, adult and student, surfaced because of our new practice.
Action Steps to Get Started:
- Model feedback and reflection
- Coach conversations and soft skills
- Plan for student evidence aligned to the standards and data-driven student grouping
- Reflect on what the evidence is telling you, and make appropriate adjustments.
Amy Dujon is currently a Practice Leader for Learning Sciences International. She has been an educator for 18 years, most recently as Director of Leadership Development and principal of Acreage Pines Elementary School, where she led a professional development implementation featuring student self-assessment. Connect with her on Twitter @AmyDujon