I once talked with some teachers in an online discussion about student engagement. The conversation quickly became a running list of apps, sites, and tools that will keep a student’s interest. There is no shortage of resources that educators can use to keep students entertained for time, but that interest and entertainment is often temporary. The engagement fades away when something new comes along and captures their attention.
As the conversation continued, I turned the focus from getting students interested to getting students invested. An invested learner perseveres through difficult situations. He doesn’t let disappointments deter him from reaching his goals. He is optimistic and regularly challenges himself to achieve more. How do we get our students to do this? What are some long-term strategies for creating students who are more driven to succeed academically? There are a few methods to consider, but the one I’d like to focus on is student-led conferences.
The Old Teacher-Driven Conferences
Student conferences are nothing new. However, they are typically teacher driven. The teacher outlines the student’s strengths and weaknesses and then pulls some samples of the student’s work to support her reasoning. Finally, the teacher offers some suggestions on what she thinks the learner should do to grow and improve.
The student, (a.k.a. the focus of the discussion, the one we are trying to develop, and the reason everyone is gathered) is often an incidental part of the conversation. They offer little input (if given the chance to share their thoughts at all), and they listen to grown-ups make decisions about their learning.
The New Student-Led Conferences
Altering the old style of conferencing to a model where students not only have a seat at the table, but a voice too, can dramatically change the way students view their education. Letting students guide the conversation about their learning can help them become the invested learner we discussed earlier.
So, let’s map this one out. Here are my three S’s for starting student-led conferences.
One place you can start is by getting students organized. Many schools have students keep a data notebook or binder where they store their work samples and assessments. Other schools have the students develop an ePortfolio that hosts the same information. You can allow your students to choose one or the other, but both are good options for helping them manage and showcase their own work. Showing the students how to organize their work by subject, date, and other key indicators will help them see a progression or pattern that can inform their decisions about their learning.
In addition to work samples and assessment data, you can also include a goal sheet. This could be a space where the student writes down what he wants to accomplish, when he wants to accomplish it, and exactly how he plans on accomplishing it.
Helping students to evaluate themselves as learners can have a dramatic impact on the way they approach their schoolwork. The idea here is getting students to think and make decisions about their learning. Some students will be able to take on this task quickly and effectively, while others will require some probing. Try to talk to them about what they are good at and in what areas they would like to improve. Most importantly, encourage them to back up their observations with data. When a student says he is good at a certain topic or standard, make sure that he includes multiple data points to support his claim.
Next steps or actions steps can be a tricky part of self-reflection for students. Once they have identified their strengths and weaknesses, now we need to guide them into thinking about what they should do next. Ask them: How can we turn your weaknesses into strengths? What aspect of your area of weakness gives you the most trouble? What are some ways we can address that? What did you do previously that made you successful (work in groups, direct instruction, watched video)? How can we replicate that?
As teachers, we can aid students in their self-reflection process by adjusting the suggestions or feedback we give our students. We often let grades and scores be our feedback, but a) that doesn’t give them enough information, and b) it teaches them to work toward a grade instead of working toward growth.
Imagine if your administration observed you weekly and then sent you an email that just said “Proficient,” “Accomplished,” or “Developing.” That doesn’t give much to go on when trying to decide where you need to grow professionally. What would happen if instead of leaving letters grades, percentages, or check marks on assignments, we left detailed comments, suggestions, or praise? How much more value would that add to their learning? How much easier would it make self-reflection for them?
Peer reviews are another great way for students to think more about about their growth. Constructing critiques of others’ work can help students rethink some of the work they have turned in. Also, reading the suggestions from peers can help them when they tackle future drafts, assignments, or projects.
Creating Confident Thinkers
Developing innovative thinkers is a process that teachers are still figuring out. We can see the goal; we are just trying to find out how to get there. By releasing some of the responsibility of the student success back to the student, we will help them build the creative and reflective thinking skills they need to be successful in life.
This is a guest blog by Aubrey Harrison. Harrison is an instructional technology specialist in Charlotte Mecklenburg School. He provides training and support for teachers looking to infuse digital tools in the classroom, particularly focusing on Google Suite, blended learning strategies, learning management systems, and digital citizenship. He has presented on digital learning for different groups and at several conferences including TECA.