Saturday, March 5, 2016

Reflections on my “Shadow a Student Challenge”

I recently participated in the “Shadow a Student Challenge” by attending the classes of a student for one day.  Empathy was my purpose for this day as I looked beyond my assumptions and put myself in the shoes of our most important clients, our students.  I reminded myself to be curious, suspend judgment, and just observe.  At the end of the day, my goal was to have gained a better perspective of our students’ learning experience.

I am always cautious about making overgeneralizations.  One class on one particular day is not always representative of an entire semester or yearlong experience.  Similarly, one day does not always represent the overall learning experience of students in our schools or district.  That said, I can only share my experience for one day.

Let’s start with what is going well in the school I observed.  The students were polite and respectful in a very safe environment.  It was obvious students were interested in doing well academically.  Also, the teachers have good connections and share a mutual respect with their students.

I then thought about my observation experience in context of a recent blog post titledNatural Versus Unnatural Learning by Jackie Gerstein which describes the disconnect of how students learn naturally versus how students often learn in public schools.  Below are 4 of the points the author makes on “school” which were reinforced in my observation.

Sit in uncomfortable desks and chairs, and expected to pay attention for long periods of time.
Other than a few exceptions, students in the classes I observed sat for the entire day.  Here is one of my observation notes during the day: “Lot’s of sitting on hard plastic chairs and in uncomfortable desks.  There are few opportunities for students to get up and move other than between classes."

Be quiet, interacting with peers occurs only periodically and only with permission from the teacher.
Other than a lab class and a group project in another class, student voices were mostly absent.  During the day, I observed: “Students don’t appear to be engaged in some classes.  Teachers asking students questions to encourage discussion, gage understanding, or solicit deeper level understanding were often missing.  For the most part, one-word answers, one student responding, and limited expectations of all students to think about and produce an answer was the norm.  Students talking about learning during a group project took place in one class.  Most student accountability to the content seems to take place on summative quizzes and tests.”

Learn and understand isolated content and topics often without a real world context and in a very linear manner.
Real world connections were mostly surface-level with the exception for one class.  In this class, the group project was designed for students to learn the content in context of real world applications.  Additionally, the same group project was the only time throughout the day in which students were allowed to use technology (BYOD or Chromebook) as a tool to explore personalized inquiry in relation to the content.

Not connect and learn with others outside of the classroom population.
I did not observe students connecting with other students and experts outside the classroom.

I firmly believe there is always room for “better,” so after my day of shadowing a student I reflected on specific ways the learning experience could be improved for students.  Recognizing there is always a time and place for all instructional practices, there are also opportunities to consider and grow.  The following is my “MORE OF” recommendation list:

      Project Based Learning
      Student Collaboration
      Student Voice and Choice in Learning
      Authentic and Real-World Connections to the Curriculum
      BYOD and Chromebooks to Research, Connect, and Create
      Formative Assessments to Ensure All Students are Learning
      Student Movement
      Flexible Seating - Tables

My goal in participating in the ‘Shadow a Student Challenge” was to have gained a better perspective of our students’ learning experience.  Yes, I achieved my goal.  It was a long day for me sitting and soaking up the information presented.  I thought back to my days as a student and wondered how much has really changed since the 1980’s.

As an overarching theme from the day, I wondered how school could become more learner-centered.  I honestly don’t think it would take that much to change classrooms from “school” to places of “learning.”  What if we asked our students how they learn best and made adjustments accordingly?  What if we took some time to reflect on what we truly believe about how students learn?  What if we reflected on the “school” and “learning” list below by George Couros and started by moving just one of our current “school” practices to “learning?”  I know our students would appreciate our effort.

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