My last year of teaching third grade was during the 2010 school year. I was fortunate to have a group of students that all worked well together and seemed to really enjoy new challenges. Toward the end of that year in math, some of my students were ready for more challenging work than the grade level curriculum had in store for them. Another group of students needed to revisit concepts either to re-learn or review. This was probably always the case, it was just me who woke up to the value of pursuing a manageable solution.
We adjusted the structure of math class to the universal instruction but added on differentiated, student choice activities. At the time the manageable medium to me was leveled worksheets. It took up a lot of room and it was a lot of busy work to manage and monitor, but the students enjoyed this structure. They had some degree of choice of path, place, pace, and time. These are elements of Blended Learning before I knew what that was. Conferencing with my students on their progress and the process let me have an individual view of how and what they were learning.
…Fast forward a few years and now I am teaching computer literacy to middle school students. Immediately this became a project-based learning environment as the students taught me that direct instruction in a computer lab was the worst possible pedagogy to adopt. The “wait and click” delivery, mixed with the excitement of having a big screen connected to the internet just under a student’s fingertips, quickly led to control issue frustrations for everyone.
The lessons I learned with my third graders that years before came in handy. I realized that all the tools were there to create project lessons deployed on web pages with skills in self-paced videos. This changed everything, but not at first. There was a lot to figure out regarding the start and stop of projects, the structure of the class period, and training students to go get the information rather than wait for it. We figured it out and they got it pretty quickly. It was a very liberating experience to be able to bounce around the room helping students that needed support and challenging the students that picked up the concepts quickly. Each class started and ended with a 10-minute briefing and debriefing. The rest of the time was students doing things with me taking a supportive role in their learning. I felt I was a better teacher than I had ever been before.
Some lessons my students taught me on this journey:
- Students like control and choice.
- Control and choice give them ownership of process and product.
- Ownership breeds engagement.
- Most students can learn most things mostly by themselves in the right conditions.
- Short, skill-based videos get watched. Anything over 5 minutes gets skimmed and is harder to refer back to.
- The right technology tools and integration let a computer do what it does best and let a human do what we do best.
- Making mistakes can be fun.
- Less teacher talk, more students talk.
In my job now, I do not work much with students. So what’s next? How do we bring this to our teaching staff and change professional development to give our staff control and choice of path, place, pace, and time? Figuring this out would have the same impact on our teachers as it does on our students.
The best journeys never end.