Can Student-Driven Learning Happen Under Common Core?

| February 26, 2013 | 26 Comments
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students problem

Erin Scott

By Marsha Ratzel

Teachers use different strategies to help students learn. With the inevitable arrival of the Common Core State Standards, however, the big unknown is what will happen when the assessments are released and the states and the federal government develop policies to accommodate them. If the assessments fall back on the kinds of narrow questions we saw with No Child Left Behind, and if governments create the same kind of high-stakes accountability, teachers will be herded back towards lower levels of prescriptive learning that leave little room for student voice and ownership.

But if assessments mirror the broad principles and effective pedagogy that the CCSS authors have championed, there is hope that rote learning and teacher-driven classrooms will not be necessary in order for students to pass the test.

STUDENT-DRIVEN LEARNING

Most student-driven classrooms start with a question. It’s usually one that springs from a common place but allows for individualization by students based on their interests. It allows them to build questions and go about answering them, utilizing the skills and knowledge that the curriculum provides. The teacher facilitates this learning, to be sure, but also gives authority to the student to “own” their question. The student moves to center stage and the teacher assumes a supporting role.

Three of the eight mathematical practices that lie at the heart of all the Common Core’s K-12 math standards could be statements that describe a student-centered classroom.

For example, the capacities stated in the CCSS to “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them,” “reason abstractly and quantitatively,” and “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others” are all integral to successful units where students ask and answer their own questions — and to a classroom where they see their viewpoint as valuable to the educational process.

The “tension” will come when the the goal of student-driven learning bumps up against the traditional teacher’s instinct to provide the context and the questions for students to use. Especially in the beginning years of CCSS implementation, this tension will be heightened as teachers learn what they are expected to teach (not just content but things like “sense-making, “reasoning,” and “constructing”) but have not yet figured out the places where they can turn the reins over to students.

HOW DO WE TEACH PERSEVERANCE?

A key CCSS principle (Math Practice MP1) is to “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.” The alignment between student-driven learning and CCSS is very close here. Student-driven learning revolves around identifying problems that students believe are important to them and applicable to their real life, and then finding ways to solve them. The CCSS encourages teachers to help students “find the meaning of a problem and look for entry points…analyzing givens, constraints, relationships and goals.” If a teacher has already established (or begun to establish) the student-centered classroom, this will be familiar territory.

Through artful inquiry-based instruction, teachers can co-learn along with students by gently guiding and providing probing questions of their own. We have to be patient as our kids gain the ability to do this. Students who have spent years in NCLB classrooms will struggle to find how to make sense of problems. Why? Simply because they have seldom been presented with complex scenarios. The deeper student learning that can emerge from this style of teaching can’t be assessed with a multiple choice question. So we haven’t encouraged teachers to become skillful in this way, and we’ve raised a generation of rote learners.

[RELATED: Why Inquiry Learning is Worth the Trouble]

Even so, our students can reconnect with their innate curiosity and excitement about learning. Over the past several years of shifting my practice, I have seen their natural curiosity return. When it does, persevering isn’t nearly so hard. Until it does, teachers will have to continually re-assure and support students in building deeper, higher level kinds of questions.

ELA STANDARDS AND STUDENT-DRIVEN TEACHING 

Within the first ELA strand, writing, the Common Core articulates steps for writing a good argument and defending it. Details about how these skills are going to build up from lower grades (with increasing amounts of sophistication) are not present in the standards. That will fall to the collective expertise of teachers working together to make this happen, and to curriculum writers at the district or state levels. We will have to work at understanding what kinds of vertical alignments are needed so we can craft lessons to be matched with our students’ needs at each level.

Common Core writing standards appear to emphasize “the ability to write logical arguments based on substantive claims…reasoning…and relevant evidence.” If students were able to demonstrate this ability in their writing, they would be able to describe and defend their ideas to others. And that empowering skill set is exactly what a student-driven classroom seeks to achieve.

THE INTERSECTION OF ELA AND STEM SUBJECTS 

More tension will arise for traditional teaching as educators are called upon to expand the student’s understanding of non-fiction and technical topics, like those associated with STEM subjects and social sciences. In recent years, students have been heavily focused on writing narrative and creative writing kinds of pieces. The expansion of real-world study topics called for in the Common Core should open up the student-driven classroom even more.

Writing’s partner is speaking and listening. In a student-driven classroom, there is much “argumentation, debate and discourse” as students wrestle with the questions. The best of those classrooms foster respect between students as they learn from each other. They have to develop the ability to hold their own during small group discussions as well as classroom discussions.

What should please teachers is the fact that the CCSS standards address the formal, stand-in-front-of-the-class presentation and the collegial discussions between students. When I read about “….informal discussions that take place as students collaborate to answer questions, build understanding and solve problems,” I see support of student choice. These words underscore the importance of students’ conversations about what they are learning and the interpersonal skills that are necessary for undertaking co-learning of ideas and content. Building understanding and solving problems are goals that demand we address the group dynamics involved in studying a real-world situation and brainstorming ideas back and forth.

[RELATED: How Teachers and Tech Can Let Students Take Control]

Ultimately there is room in the Common Core’s vision and principles for advocates of student-driven learning to thrive. As teachers gain experience in the CCSS standards that apply to their grade level, they will identify places where there are opportunities to put student questions at the forefront of their lesson plans. Over time, as students build up their ability to read, write, speak and find solutions to increasingly more complex kinds of problems, they will be able to take more and more ownership of the learning process.

All this assumes, of course, that the large-scale assessment and accountability systems are designed to promote this potentially powerful marriage of the Common Core and student-driven learning. I’ve been teaching a long time. I know how big that assumption is. But at the classroom level, the best way I know to make it happen is to show what could happen. So I’m going to keep doing that.

Marsha Ratzel is a National Board-certified teacher in the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, where she teaches middle school math and science. Her book about shifting her science teaching practice to emphasize student-driven learning will be published this spring by Powerful Learning Press. A portion of this post originally appeared on Voices from the Learning Revolution.

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  • Maureen Devlin

    The topic of this post has been at the root of many positive debates at our teaching team PLCs. Thanks for offering insight.

    • http://twitter.com/ratzelster ratzelster

      Dear Maureen,
      Sigh….honestly these topics have been at the root of the math wars for decades, haven’t they?

      Maybe that fact points to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter what side you come down on….as long as you (as the teacher) focus on being passionate about your content and present it that way to your students. Because at the end of the day, math teachers (regardless of how they approach things) just want students to love math and to feel like they are capable of doing it.
      Right?

  • barrygarelick

    I see, so now NCLB classrooms are the root cause of rote learning. Excuse me, but reform math has been around for more than 20 years. And excuse me again, but I’m tired of the meme that traditional math is taught by rote. Rote learning does not produce students who get into STEM programs, and traditional math teaching has a pretty good track record–an inconvenient truth, I know. See http://www.educationnews.org/education-policy-and-politics/barry-garelick-the-myth-about-traditional-math-education/

    Also, nothing in Common Core “requires” a particular pedagogy to be used. William McCallum, lead author of the CC math standards said as much in a comment he left at an article on Common Core in The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/11/why-the-new-common-core-math-standards-dont-add-up/265444/

    • http://twitter.com/ratzelster ratzelster

      Dear Barry,
      Thanks for your comment. I completely agree with your statement (and I think I’m interpreting it a bit) that you don’t think NCLB is root cause of rote learning. I think we are in agreement about that. And I agree that traditional math teaching has a wonderful track record with segments of the population and in getting them into STEM programs. I couldn’t agree more. I do think that there are subgroups of students that have not prospered in traditional classrooms and that do require non-traditional ways of approaching mathematics. Maybe even from a problem-based learning approach that you might get from tackling a STEM problem, for example.

      I just see the Common Core as a change in the approach to the classroom. I see the practices as an invitation to think differently and to feel liberated to put them emphasis on thinking, problem solving, sense-making. It is articulated loud and clear in a way that I haven’t seen done in the political circles that now hold the CCSS in high esteem.

      Is this different than what most people who believed in the NCTM standards, read the professional literature about best math practices, and who adopted engaging ways of teaching math? Nope. I think it’s a call to continue those practices, expand on them and see them adopted in every classroom.

      Thanks for clarifying this. You made a good points and I hope I explained my position a bit better.

      • barrygarelick

        Thanks for your response. I disagree that the SMP are different than the NCTM process standards. In fact, they are based on them. The way that the SMP and Common Core standards are presented in various articles is to paint a picture that math has NOT been taught with any emphasis on thinking, problem-solving or sense-making. In fact, I would agree with that statement only to the extent that the practices of reform math have been increasingly encroaching in various textbooks and teaching methods, so that if you are criticizing what is going on in math classrooms, you are probably criticizing the effects of the reform movement. (I went to ed school and saw what they offered as far as “best practices” and it is reform, student-centered, inquiry-based, with a minimal-guidance approach to problem-based learning).

        With respect to your statement that “there are subgroups of students that have not prospered in traditional classrooms and that do require non-traditional ways of approaching mathematics”, I would appreciate you defining those subgroups and the basis of evidence for identification of them. I have heard this statement made many times, usually at school board meetings. The criticism generally refers to the low numbers of students taking algebra and other math classes in the 50’s and 60’s and is taken as evidence that the techniques of traditional math—drills, memorization and word problems that were not necessarily related to the “real world”—worked only for bright students who learned math no matter how it was taught. Another side to this argument, however, is that the low numbers of students who took algebra and other math classes during this period was because of the tracking practices that were in force at the time. ( See : http://www.educationnews.org/commentaries/156298.html#sthash.xyagXDXn.dpuf)

        This is not to say that the reform methods of teaching math are all doomed to failure–there are teachers who work well with such methods, and in fact use techniques that teachers used (and still use) in traditionally taught classes. But just as reform math can be taught poorly, so too can traditionally taught math. That does not mean it is never taught properly, and it also does not mean that it is ineffective for certain subgroups. (View the results of Project Follow Through for the track record of direct and explicit instruction in math–a longitudinal study that was carried out for 17 years, starting in the mid 60′s.)

        I believe that there are good aspects to the Common Core Math Standards, but they are being interpreted in the ways I described in my first comment. They do not require student-centered or inquiry-based teaching, and this is based on a statement made by William McCallum, lead writer of the CC math standards. In fact, the explicit and direct instruction method is recommended for students with learning disabilities. (See in particular, http://www.educationnews.org/education-policy-and-politics/barry-garelick-math-education-being-outwitted-by-stupidity/).
        Thanks again for responding.

        • http://twitter.com/ratzelster ratzelster

          Dear Barry,

          Oh thank you for continuing this dialog. It’s really quite fun to find someone else who is as crazy about math as I am!!!

          The more you write the more I think we’ve got so much in common. Where I really wanted to stand up and shout hurray was when you said, “But just as reform math can be taught poorly, so too can traditionally taught math.” Isn’t that the big truth of all this?

          Math taught well by an expert teacher, who knows their kids, who understands the pedagogy of math, who understands the math and who can share that enthusiasm is going to be a good teacher for the students.

          Again…thank you for your ideas and your pushback. I think it has helped to make the article’s point even stronger…and probably more clearly articulated.

          • barrygarelick

            I’m glad we both agree that traditionally taught math is a superior method to inquiry-based approaches, which have inherent problems as pointed out by other commenters.

          • http://twitter.com/ratzelster ratzelster

            Dear Barrygarelick,

            I think you may have misunderstood my point of view. What I think is the critical element in math instruction is the expertise and ability of the teacher. I believe that either approach can be done well in the hands of an expert teacher who knows the content and who loves teaching.

            I believe any approach, traditional or inquiry, will have inherent problems in the hands of someone who isn’t well trained in the art of teaching and who doesn’t know the content.

            To me…..that’s the place where we agree.

      • SoundMath

        Both of the documents listed below recommend explicit example based instruction for struggling students. If this approach to instruction were initially used it is possible there would be fewer struggling students.

        Assisting Students Struggling with Mathematics: Response to Intervention (RtI) for Elementary and Middle Schools. What Works Clearinghouse. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance,
        Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, April 2009.
        http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/practiceguides/rti_math_pg_042109.pdf

        Foundations for Success. The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. U.S. Department of Education, 2008.
        http://www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/mathpanel/report/final-report.pdf

        More Information about explicit instruction verses reform instruction (constructivism, inquiry-based, and other minimal guidance
        approaches to instruction) can be found on the following webpage:
        http://wheresthemath.com/curriculum-reviews/explicit-instruction-or-reform/

        I prefer explicit example based instruction for my daughter. Her math and science teacher seems to think she and her classmates can discover it all on their own. It does not work well, especially for pre-calculus and physics. Fortunately, we are able to help our daughter at home. Many of her classmates don’t have such help. I don’t send my daughter to school for her to have to discover things for herself or for her to have teach other students as she often is called on to do.

        • http://twitter.com/ratzelster ratzelster

          Dear SoundMath,

          Interesting idea….this explicit example approach. I’ve never seen it called this before. But almost everything in education is recycled from somewhere.

          It seems like you discount the idea that students can and should discover things on their own. For me, as a math teacher, I think the key phrase there is “on their own”. Do I believe kids should be cast off into some remote corner of the school to discover math truths? Heavens no.

          I might suggest some intermediate kind of approach. One where the student is encouraged to think about the concepts and to wonder “what if”….encouraged to test their ideas to see if they work (ie they get the mathematically correct answer)….all under the watchful eye of a teacher who doesn’t abandon them, but who facilitates their learning. I facilitate by suggesting approaches, my wonder aloud how to harvest critical information, by helping them develop strategies for approaching problems, etc etc etc.

          Many might say that I don’t answer questions. That I refuse to tell a student the “right” way or the “right” answer. But I think I honor the intellect of my student by believing they can discover many math ideas with a bit of guidance, a whole lot of cheerleading and by being a backstop of strategy/brainstorming. I have not taught pre-calculus or physics at the HS level so I can’t comment on what works there. But I know this is highly effective in middle school….where I think we either hang onto kids’ interest or lose them.

          I’m delighted you can pitch in and help your kids learn things you see as important. I did the same for my own children. It is amazing what a school and parents can do together to launch another wonderful kiddo into the world. Thanks for posting your ideas and helping talk about student-driven learning.

  • Azar Aftimos

    Thank you Marsha for all the helpful information you provided.

    • http://twitter.com/ratzelster ratzelster

      Dear Azar,
      Thanks for your message. Do you teach math? Have you seen any of these trends in your school or classroom? What questions are still lingering?

  • Bill Ferriter

    Marsha wrote:

    All this assumes, of course, that the large-scale assessment and accountability systems are designed to promote this potentially powerful marriage of the Common Core and student-driven learning.

    - – - – - – - – - – -

    Maybe I’m just a pessimist, Pal, but I HIGHLY doubt that this will ever happen — and the power of the Common Core will be completely wasted as a result.

    To be wrong, I’d have to believe that the accountability systems that govern education were really about improving schools.

    Can we REALLY believe that’s the reason reformers have been pushing accountability down the throat of our school systems for so long? Is it REALLY about improving schools?

    Or is it REALLY about trying to gut unions, privatizing schools and railroading “the system,” which reformers seem so freaking passionate about destroying?

    Sorry to be the gray cloud in an otherwise brilliant post, but I just can’t see the kinds of assessments that it would take to make all of this happen becoming a reality in today’s #educlimate

    Bill

  • http://twitter.com/ratzelster ratzelster

    Dear Bill,
    First…thanks for stopping by and leaving me such good stuff to consider. I do agree with you in that I don’t see that the political interests that motivated the development of these standards are really in sync with what I think/believe is best for my student learning.

    But I would argue, I think, that accountability systems are improving schools. BECAUSE…teachers have made it so. I don’t think it’s what the political types or even the bureaucrats in state capitols or WashingtonDC analyze that makes the difference. It what WE do with the data that is generated by these high-stakes things we are forced to use.

    Maybe I am a rose-colored glasses kind of person….but I believe that I WILL change the world by adapting. I will comply and use the data in ways that blow the socks off of anything they could have ever dreamed about using it for. I see no escape, respite or anything that makes any sense on the horizon…but I cannot be sucked into the vortex of doing it and then not figuring out some way to make it into a positive.

    I guess where I am is this….and I know you’re already this kind of teacher…but go guerrilla. Be bold and use the data to make a difference. Yes you still have to sit thru all the meetings that mean nothing to improving your instruction, your own measurement of what kids know and still need to know or how to make things better for them…..but then use the data to do something that does make a difference. To heck with the large scale people—they don’t get it. Never will because they don’t think about that kid sitting in the 2nd row like you and I do….they don’t know each kid and their individual circumstances. We do and therefore I seize the chance to be bold, be creative and be successful in spite of all the obstacles.

  • http://twitter.com/EDactivistNH Ed Activist NH

    Is it any wonder that activists are pushing for MORE school choice? This is absurd. I don’t send my kids to school so they can discover knowledge. I send them to school to learn. To have a teacher who has knowledge of a subject, TEACH. More fads and nonsense. Keep ignoring the root problems in education (textbooks/curriculum that’s dumbed down).

    Here’s a clue: in college kids still have to listen to lectures, take notes and MEMORIZE content.

    • http://twitter.com/ratzelster ratzelster

      Dear EdActivist NH,

      WOW….I hear the anger in your post. Sorry that you’re so frustrated.

      You draw an interesting distinction between discovering knowledge and learning. I’m not sure I get the difference so I’m not sure what to say. But both of these ideas seem very related to me…..would you say that both involve taking information and figuring out what it means, how it applies to the world as I know it and what/when/how to use it?

      You’ll get no argument from me about having teachers who know their subject and are pushed to teach. In fact, I’d wager that every teacher across America would stand up and cheer that statement.

      Thanks for stopping by and posting your ideas. It’s the greatest part of a virtual article….everyone gets to join in, we get to hear many different perspectives and then figure out what it all means for us!

  • SteveH

    “All this assumes, of course, that the large-scale assessment and accountability systems are designed to promote this potentially powerful marriage of the Common Core and student-driven learning.”

    CCSS is open to wide interpretation, not only for pedagogy, but for levels of expectations. Our PARCC state will be driven by their PLD levels all the way back to the lowest grades. That definition does NOT include a content and skills path for a STEM career. Their top level 5 (“distinguished”) only hopes to prepare kids to succeed in college algebra.

    “Level 5 – Students performing at this level demonstrate a distinguished command of the knowledge, skills, and practices embodied by the Common Core State Standards assessed at their grade level. … They are academically well prepared to engage successfully in entry-level, credit-bearing courses in College Algebra, Introductory College Statistics, and technical courses requiring an equivalent level of mathematics.”

    “Distinguished?” Engage successfully means passing the course.

    In another document talking about PLDs, they specifically avoid any discussion of STEM preparation.

    This isn’t the only way to interpret the CCSS standards. The ACT and College Board are now in the process of developing and improving their own college readiness assessments, and the College Board, in particular, offers assessments geared towards AP classes and STEM careers. Some states, like Alabama, have dropped PARCC and are now going with ACT. We need more than CCSS, and my hope is that states will use tools from ACT and the College Board to define a high-level curriculum path back to the lowest grades. The words in the CCSS document are too vague and open to vast differences in interpretation and level of expectation. States need to pick the assessment tests and let those tests drive the curriculum.

    I didn’t care about our state’s tests when my son was in K-8. The proficiency cutoff level that everyone cared about was very low. The state test is even more meaningless for my son now that he is in high school. He received his scores a couple of weeks ago. The scores were uncalibrated to any college expectation. They were of no value. However, the PSAT test he took last fall gave him a lot of calibrated college feedback. This will be added to what he gets on the SAT, the SAT II, and the AP tests he will take. The new PARCC tests offer no such calibration. Their “distinguished” level will also be meaningless.

    Life will go on for many students and parents who know better than to look to a one-size-fits-all standard for how their kids are progressing. Most middle schools will continue to offer proper pre-algebra and algebra courses as lead-ins to a rigorous geomptry, algebra II, pre-calc, and calc sequence in high school – NOT integrated math curricula.. These math classes will continue to be driven by teacher-centered direct instruction, and these courses will continue to produce the STEM-prepared students that colleges are looking for. These students have not, and will continue to not be created by standardized state tests. For the most part, these STEM kids will be created by parents who reteach at home and with private tutors. STEM students will continue to be NOT be created by hands-on, group work in class. They will be created by a steady diet of individual homework sets, and parents, tutors, and teachers who ensure that students master those skills. I find it ironic that K-8 educators talk about having little Johnnie or Suzie think like a real mathematician or engineer while those professionals are telling them that they got it completely wrong.

    When my son had Everyday Math in K-6, I had to reteach at home to ensure that he mastered the material needed to stay on a STEM-career path. When he got to high school with his current traditional math curricula, I rarely have to help him with anything. Why is it that there is often a wholesale change in pedagogy between K-8 and high school? The reason is that the K-8 teachers don’t have to deal with the results of their pie-in-the-sky ideas of what math is. They don’t know what real mathematicians and engineers do. Try asking us. I can tell you all about creative problem solving that is based on mastery of skills.

    • http://twitter.com/ratzelster ratzelster

      Dear SteveH,
      Your post sounds so frustrated and disheartened by what you see your student receiving at school. But it also sounds as if you work to remedy the problems you see in that instruction. I know that, as a parent of three children, I have often supplemented what my own kids got at school….and I found that my advantage of working one-on-one with my kids helped them tremendously. They were able to master so much more sitting with me at the kitchen table than in a classroom with 34 other kids. Like you, I think my own kids had a pretty firm foundation by the time they reached HS and I was able to back off and let them find their own way.

      That said, I still believe in a student-driven classroom.

      From where I sit, and like you I sometimes am baffled by those who make assertions about the classroom without being a teacher, students thrive in environments where we honor their intellect and work to keep it engaged at the highest levels. I’ve found that this happens when we give some of our teacher power away to students to customize the way in which they study a particular topic.

      Does this mean we do it all the time, everyday, all year long? Heavens no. They are still kids and I’m still the adult. Plus I come into a classroom outfitted with terrific sets of resources, curriculum support materials, years of training and experience of watching hundreds if not thousands of kids struggle with the same concepts and learning the same processes. I can share all that when I design lessons, alter pacing, interject a funny story, a video, a song, etc etc etc to tie what we’re learning into something real that gives a problem context and interest.

      But there is a time and place for all things. And I see that when I give students a task where they have to wrestle with an idea….they have to come up with a way to test that idea….they have to analyze what they found out in their testing and articulate their findings. Well. They hit engagement on high and they also go further than I could have ever pushed them if I was the sage on the stage telling them about stuff.

      I may not have read what you wrote properly but I do my students are capable; they are able to do projects like engineers and mathematicians on a scale appropriate for their level; and that this sustains them and draws them in. And I chuckle when I see your comment to ask….that’s exactly what my students. We usually have parents who work in those kinds of jobs helping us with our project, answering email questions, and showing us new or different ways to approach ideas. It’s preciously why these kinds of project work….because we don’t depend on my expertise. We partner with the community and our parents.

      Thanks so much for giving some spark to this article’s dialog. You’ve given everyone some excellent food for thought. Maybe your comments will encourage other parents to volunteer and give time to the schools so projects can be more real world oriented. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?

      • SteveH

        “Maybe your comments will encourage other parents to volunteer and give time to the schools so projects can be more real world oriented. ”

        That’s completely the opposite of my goal.

        My goal is to point out that in so many cases, talk of student-driven, hands-on “real world” class work is just a front for lower expectations. You can always slow down the material and achieve better results. It’s alao a way to diminish the importance of individual work on homework assignments, many of which could be real world. Many teachers think that engagement and motivation are magic elixirs of learning. They are really just ways to put the onus of learning on the student. Many times, their goal is group learning in class, not necessarily better understanding or real world problem solving. Those things can and are done with homework. Individual homework problem sets are the key to individual success in math.

        Flipping the classroom is an interesting idea, but most use the class time for fun, hands-on learning rather than doing individual homework. When is the homework done? While it might look like a lot of active learning is being done, it’s probably being done by a small percentage of students who do most of the talking, and unfortunately, dominating. A few students might have a discovery light bulb go on, but then they directly teach it (badly) to the rest of the kids in the group. In some cases, the others are left in the dust.

        I find group work extraordinarily annoying. Engineers might work together on projects, but they don’t do group work. They have their own individual tasks to do. Besides, they are not learning. They are applying their already mastered skills. In college, we had learning courses and capstone-type courses. It’s not appropriate to remake all courses into a group-driven capstone project format. Randy Pausch at CMU was famous for developing an optional graduate degree program that tries to get students from various areas to work together to solve real problems. It was a graduate program, not an undergraduate program. At the University of Michigan, we had to take a year-long capstone project in our senior year that required our group to design a full ship; stability, hydrodynamics, structures, arrangements, economic justification and more. It might be nice to offer a grade-appropriate version of this in K-12 (our high school requires a senior year individual capstone independent project), but too many educators want to drive every class period with a group version of this approach. They are more interested in the pedagogy rather than whether it works or not.

        We have a Harkness Table high school in our area that works, but the teachers have to be very careful about the student-driven issue. It’s too easy to waste time and go off on tangents. When they are sitting around the table, the teacher has to be very active about keeping the discussion on track and moving along to cover all of the required material. The model is a one group class. In a class where there are many groups and the teacher is wandering around, there is much more chance for wasted time. And, since you can’t apply this technique to all of the material to be covered, what is done about the rest? Harkness Table high schools get it to work by setting very high expectations on individual homework.

        Many teachers love the idea of student driven courses, but are then quite uncritical about how the details and level of expectations influence success. They just raise the meme of bad old traditional rote learning as justification.

        • http://twitter.com/ratzelster ratzelster

          Dear Steve,

          Thanks again for offering new perspectives on the idea of student-driven classrooms. I think you have definitely missed the mark in understanding the idea.

          The idea is not to get out of work. It’s not to make the student responsible for planning, lesson design or building ways of teaching the curriculum.

          The idea is build students up so they are willing and able to take on more complex tasks that use the foundational skills we teach in class. It’s giving them a way to apply what they’ve learned…and through my classroom experience this has been very engaging for students.

          Let me give you an example. I’ve just been working with students to learn all about the Pythagorean Theorem, about circles, midpoints and so on. You would have seen a what I think you describe as the preferred kind of math instruction. Where I think we differ is in this way.

          Armed with all their new knowledge, students will try and design some kind of crop circle that we can either stamp into the snow (if we keep getting buried under snow storm after snow storm) or mowed into our athletic fields. This will require them to not only be able to do the math in the classroom but to take it outside…and use it. I’m tying into community resources…not to make it easier for me….but to expose my math students to someone who does crop circle art for a living. He lives nearby and will come into the classroom to supplement what I’ve already done….and if he’s able to show them more math….I think that’s a bonus.

          It’s a student-driven experience because the kids will design their own thing, figure out how to take what’s on paper out and “build it” outside. They will love this. And the motivation that they derive from being in charge of their own project is big….I’d expect that lots of them will go well beyond what we’ve learned in class and what is required by the curriculum.

          As far as I’m concerned this is a win-win-win. Students learn the official curriculum (and I think it addresses your concern that the teacher is doing their “job”), they get to apply it so they internalize the learning (my concern so that math sticks and has some real-world application) and they have fun and enjoy math class (connecting it to something where they can be in control).

          I’m not sure we’ll ever see eye to eye on math instruction. I’m not sure how much you’ve been in a classroom….and being able to see this viewpoint is probably the difference in our assessments of the situation. I know this is true…..my students learn math and they can apply it. They are well prepared for what’s to come. And they enjoy the process.

          • SteveH

            “Armed with all their new knowledge, students will try and design some kind of crop circle that we can either stamp into the snow (if we keep getting buried under snow storm after snow storm) or mowed into our athletic fields. ”

            What is NOT covered because you spend all of this time on simple concepts?

            “As far as I’m concerned this is a win-win-win.”

            No it isn’t. You are covering less material, or a lot of material is not getting your crop circle treatment. As I said before, you can always trade coverage for understanding or motivation. Are you comparing this with a faster-paced traditional math curriculum? Is this for students headed for geometry as a freshman in high school and AP calculus as a senior? Our middle school finally got rid of CMP in 7th and 8th grades because it did not provide a proper path for students who wanted to get to geometry as a freshman. For the other students, they got the same textbooks, but covered less material and spent more time on understanding and projects.

            One can argue about the benefits of a slower pace in math for many students. One can argue about spending more time on engaging and motivating projects, but what, exactly, are you comparing this with?

            “I’m not sure how much you’ve been in a classroom…. ”

            I used to teach college math and CS. I taught college algebra (an oxymoron) for many years. I’ve tutored high school kids. I’ve seen kids damaged by a lack of mastery of basic skills in K-8, a lack that no level of engagement and motivation will help.

            “….I’d expect that lots of them will go well beyond what we’ve learned in class and what is required by the curriculum.”

            You have to do more than place the onus on students and guess.

            I had to help my son deal with years of Everyday Math; help that many kids never get. Kids don’t need more engagement and motivation in 7th and 8th grades. They need to have better math curricula and teachers who know something about math in K-6.

            Your schools should really survey the parents of your best students to see exactly what they do at home. I’ll wager that’s it’s a lot more than turning off the TV and going to museums. I’ll also wager that it has little to do with studying crop circles or waiting for natural engagement and motivation to do the job.

          • http://twitter.com/ratzelster ratzelster

            Dear SteveH,
            I really have looked for common ground between us. I think we both have a passion for math. I can tell you feel strongly and have based most of your understanding on what might have happened to your own children.
            I’m sorry if you don’t agree with my viewpoint because I see the world from a completely different place than you. What you say doesn’t match up with anything that I’ve seen in the classroom or in the literature.
            But I’ve enjoyed the back and forth…..it’s just another version of the Math Wars that have been fought over and over and over.

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  • cindy@rbogner.com

    For what it is worth, and my experience is that the answer is “not much” when parents say it, student-centered learning/teaching is detested by many public school parents. A lot of the praise comes from private school educators and administrators who have the luxury of tiny classrooms (number of students) and a lot of money. I urge you to step away and see how this “concept” is being implemented in classrooms with 25-30 or more kids in public schools.