Not Guide on the Side but Coach in the Middle
In reading Mike Anderson’s book on giving students choice, Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn: The Key to Student Motivation and Achievement, a line recently resonated very strongly. “There is nothing ‘on the side’ about facilitating student-centered learning. In fact, a better term might be ‘coach in the middle’ (pp.110).” Many of us have heard the adage that teachers need to move away from being the “sage on the stage” and the all-knowing lecturer of the classroom in favor of being a “guide on the side” allowing students to take control of their learning. No one would argue that students taking the lead with their learning to spur creativity and innovation is a great thing, however, simply guiding this from the sidelines isn’t going to go far. Students need the teacher down in the trenches with them carefully observing to spot the exact moments to give the just right amount of directed questioning to ignite the light bulb moments.
Even before the observations come to prime importance, the teacher must set the stage for student centered/driven learning to successfully take place. Some places to start with this are relationship building, student lead classroom routines (self sign-out for bathroom, automated lunch counts, class jobs, etc.), practicing centers or multi-part lessons with student lead transition, peer collaboration, peer reflection/evaluations, working with constructive criticism, designing instruction for student choice, growth mindset, and many more. Great examples of these and more can be found in Anderson’s book, Matt Miller’s DITCH That Textbook and blog, Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate book and blog, other blogs and books, Twitter/Twitter chats, and even through technology tools (2) like Class Dojo. Class Dojo is popular for its cartoon game-like characters that can help teachers track classroom management but has added many new features including a class news feed (Class Story) and growth mindset videos (Big Ideas). The technology and resources are far too numerous to list, however, rest assured that they are out there and, more importantly, their are many people out there like myself that would find it a privilege to help you.
Observing students for moments where just a little bit of prodding is needed is an art in itself. Teachers must carefully build relationships with students for this to be successful. Knowing students’ small tells or hints of frustration can make all the difference in timing assistance just right. Being too soon to help can tell students you don’t know them well, you don’t trust them to guide their own learning, or worse, you think they need more help than they do. Being too late to help can be just as bad as students may have already shut down or be frustrated past the point of thinking clearly. The Goldilocks moment of guidance needs to be timed just right to blend seamlessly into the student’s work. Students should be able to take the guidance, best in the form of open-ended questions, and keep running forward with their work. In some cases teachers may well be able to build a climate of collaborative help within their rooms enabling students to be these whispers of assistance.
As with anything a teacher or student tries in the classroom, it is critically important to reflect on the learning that has taken place on a regular basis. Many teachers make this a regular part of their instruction reflecting on what parts of a lesson went well, what parts didn’t go as well, and what parts should be expanded or supplemented. Much less often do teachers remember to plan time for students to reflect on their learning on a given day and the parts of the process that resonated the most with them. Depending on grade level and student experience teachers may need to teach and help guide meaningful reflection extending through the concept of a growth mindset and of failure simply being a step on the way to breakthroughs.
A student centered room is not one where the teacher simply props their feet up on their desk and grades papers (as some not in education may think). Instead, it is one where careful planning, collaborative instruction (student/teacher), student choice, strong relationships, and Goldilocks moments of guidance all come together in creative, innovative, and student centered learning.
Patrick B. Hausammann, M.S. Ed.
Emerging perpetual optimist, uncle, and #lifelonglearner… @GoogleforEducation Certified Trainer (#GoogleET), @Google Certified Admin, teacher, & ed. tech. Professional.