Student-led teaching is a teaching strategy that helps students become more involved and interested in their classes.
Today’s blog post is written by Rebecca Gettelman who is a middle and high school teacher from the Midwest. She has been teaching for over eleven years. In this blog post, she shares her passion for getting students invested in their learning as an important part of her English Language Arts classroom.
Young people are innately programmed with a growing sense of independence and the desire to figure things out for themselves. It is what drives a baby to pick up a fork to feed himself and a high school student to want to leave their parents’ house and go to college. This is normal and healthy, but it often conflicts with a teacher-directed classroom.
Some of this conflict is unavoidable — without a certain amount of teacher guidance, most students would not choose to spend large chunks of time solving algebraic equations or discussing the symbolism in The Great Gatsby. A fully teacher-centered classroom will grate against many students’ sense of independence. Therefore, even if students do the work, they will not feel as connected to it or build a desire to go beyond what you ask to the natural curiosity that all teachers hope to encourage.
A good way to strike a balance between these things is to occasionally (or often) practice student-led teaching. This is something that can be used in the vast majority of classrooms irrespective of the age of the students or the subject taught. Student-led teaching gives students a sense of control over how they learn and what direction a given class takes, and it can run from small to large things.
Here are a couple of ways that you can practice student-led teaching in your classroom.
Choice Makes A Difference
Think about the difference between “I have to walk six blocks to my car tonight because that was the only parking available” and “I get to go on an all-day hike this Saturday.” It is as simple as have to versus get to. Get to indicates choice, and though that hike may be ten times as long and way more work, the vast majority of people look forward to the hike and dread the walk. This same principle applies to your classroom. Think about ways you can offer your students choice—those get to situations. Maybe it means the choice between which short stories to read in class. Do you really care if you teach “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Raven” this semester? Maybe it means asking your students if they want the big assignment tonight and the small one tomorrow or vice versa. Maybe you offer to let your students design the requirements of a project. They will often set the bar much higher than you would have. Regardless of how you go about it, the more often you can offer your students those get to moments, the more often they will cheer the all-day hike instead of dreading the short walk.
Student-Created Instead of Teacher-Created
One of my favorite ways to review for a test is to have students write their own review instead of just handing them a study guide. By doing this, students must come up with their own questions, determine what the important topics and information from the unit are, create study guides, and quiz themselves and others in preparation for the test. Looking for some advice on this approach? Download my free resource What Do You Know: Student-Led Review and Test of Any Subject.
Instead of the traditional teacher-directed approach to a study guide, students when allowed to work in groups are suddenly excited to discuss and review. Students usually go over the material multiple times and in multiple ways as they review. They discuss it, reread things they do not remember, make judgements about what is important, create and answer questions, and help their classmates come to the same answers and conclusions they themselves did.
If you want, you can even use some of the student-created questions to make your test. I tell my students that I will use any particularly excellent questions on the test – talk about motivation for a good review – plus it cuts down on your workload and you were going to ask similar or even the same questions anyway!
Students Doing It for Themselves
A third way to practice student-led teaching is to actually let your students be the teachers. This does not mean that you just hand the class over to the students and it does involve laying a lot of groundwork, but it is an effective and empowering teaching tool when done well. Having your students act as the teachers can mean a lot of different things, but here is one example of how I practice this in my classroom. My eighth graders read three novels and a whole slew of short stories in Literature class each year. By the time we come to the end of the year, my students have a very good idea of what makes an effective discussion question and how to effectively lead a group discussion.
For the last novel of the year, instead of me leading the discussions, each of my students chooses a chapter, designs discussion questions, and then leads the class discussion on that chapter. Students are required to turn in a copy of the discussion questions they will use with their own responses to each before they lead the day’s discussion (this not only lets me see what they think about the questions, but it also allows students to make sure that each of their questions is a good candidate for discussion since they must respond to them in writing before they attempt to use them in class).
During class discussions, I observe and grade students on their questions and how well they lead the discussion, including things like responding to classmates and asking follow-up questions to encourage more depth in the conversation and challenge their classmates’ thoughts and assumptions.
By getting students to lead discussions themselves, students are not simply more invested in the material, but they also pay closer attention to what they have read, push their own analytical skills, and develop a sense of confidence that they don’t need a teacher to tell them what to think or how to read a story. They learn they can do it themselves!
When it comes right down to it, student-led teaching boils down to getting your students to become active participants in your classroom and curriculum. Choice matters even as you guide those choices, review is integral but it is much more effective if you don’t just pour it down students’ throats, and good teaching means creating students who are not dependent on having a teacher.
By practicing student-led teaching, you are empowering your students and encouraging their investment in their own learning, their depth of understanding, and their confidence in themselves.