She rolled her eyes and exclaimed, “He wants us to annotate every page, and I have no idea what he wants. This book is so complicated. Why can’t he just tell us what we need to know for the test?”
I replied, “Because deep learning happens in the margins.”
So many students come to us today with the expectation that they will sit in our classrooms as teacups on a tray waiting to be filled, consumed, and filled again. In his provocative and insightful book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton Christensen argues that our students lack, for a variety of reasons, the extrinsic and ever-more-important intrinsic motivation required to be successful learners.
How do we as teachers (and parents) inspire our students to be self-motivated and engaged learners? Let’s consider two approaches:
(1) Stop doing it for them.
As my co-facilitator Brandi Sabb (Instructional Coach at Grady High School) and I discussed when considering the work of the 21st Century Classroom cohort, our fellows need to experience our “classroom” as empowering, student-centered, differentiated, and certainly not a “sit and get” training session. It requires a questioning approach, technology tools, individualized learning contracts, and group collaboration. It is much harder work to construct this PLC model than to design and deliver content. However, learning not training is happening here, and we believe the ultimate demonstrations of that learning will be richer, more varied, and “stickier” (hat tip to Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point and the Heath brother’s Made to Stick).
(2) Find out, and nurture, their interests.
A teacher sent me an email yesterday asking for how best to respond to the eager 6th student who asked, “Can we blog on other stuff or just when it is assigned.” I smiled. This on the heels of watching eight high school students show up at 7 a.m. on Friday for an opportunity to work with us and a PhD researcher to build an iPhone app for K-12 educational use. Both of these examples demonstrate student interest-their intrinsic motivation to write, collaborate, create, construct, critically think—all skills we are after—in a context they find relevant, authentic, and meaningful. (And, neither of these will be for “credit.”)
Brandi and I are trying to approach our cohort with this in mind. Each of our 21st century classroom fellows is a bright educator with a unique background, set of interests, pedagogy, and technology skills. We are experimenting with the use of group and individual “learning contracts” with the hope these will not only help us guide the learning, but identify and leverage the intrinsic motivation and interests of each individual, and maximize group and individual achievement. As we confer with each of our fellows on their contracts, it is exciting to see the range of interests and potential outcomes of their work this year.
Learning happens in the margins.
Classroom and school transformation for 21st century learning will not happen overnight. It is not prescriptive, and I have yet to find someone or some institution that has all the right answers. More student-centered learning, the need to differentiate, authentic experiences, and the successful integration of computers and other technology tools require much shifting of practice. (And we have not even touched on curriculum!) However, the hard work going on in the margins, with students and within our cohort, will help us construct our ideas, pilot new practices, reflect…and learn.
(Note: This article is scheduled to appear in The Westminster Schools' Center for Teaching fall publication.)