Friday, April 22, 2011

Student Driven Learning = Passion-Based Classrooms

I often speak and write about differentiating instruction. Unfortunately, when I go into schools I see very little differentiation occurring.  This is the case even schools who have bought "magic bullet" programs like Renzulli Learning who tout themselves as a "Differentiation Engine."  I have visited about a dozen schools using such programs but without a solid foundation in what differentiation means.  Instead, they have all their students working within the learning management system on the same thing!

When I dig a little deeper about why this is happening teachers confide that they can't possibly create 32 different lessons for each of their students.  When I hear this, I realize they're not getting something very important.  The students own the learning.  When we give up control and empower the students to learn the way they want with the tools they want, the results are terrific and the students are partners with their teacher in designing learning methods, tools, and environments that are best for them.  

Josh Stumpenhorst recently celebrated the results of this method of teaching in his blog in a post called, "Student-Driven Learning." In the post he shares the ways empowered students learned the literacy standards they were mandated to meet.  Here's what he did.

"I was going to give complete control of the learning in my Language Arts to the students. Starting three days ago, that is exactly what I did. First, we went over our district mandated standards that we had to “hit” between now and the end of the year. Then, I shared with my students various projects and activities I had used in years past that were related to the specific standards. Then it was all on them."
You can read about his initial motivation for a student driven classroom, how to “give it up”, an initial class update, and updates titled “It’s About the Learning”, “Learning Should be Viral”, “One on One is the Best”, “Sub Plans” and "I Am Done!" about his experiences from the classroom as related to his decision to hand over the learning decisions to his students.

To read about how other teachers are doing this work, read these posts.


  1. Your blog is da bomb Lisa! I really like the idea of letting students be their own guide. As a parent, I can already feel the fear in me. (What if he doesn't study?). I really think that is the way though.

  2. @Aparna, if a student doesn't study, I think it's worth finding out why. Maybe it's just not that important to him or her. Turns out most of what I learned wasn't that important to me. My valedictorian track cousin is frustrated because the amount of studying he has to do doesn't give him time to discover and/or develop any personal passions or hobbies. When a child doesn't study, I wouldn't automatically assume this is a bad thing. There might be important reasons such as what I just stated, or maybe it's just not natural to have kids sitting around all day and they're in touch with their innate need to move, be physically active or socialize.

  3. Great stuff here! The heart of your post is the appeal for teachers to give up control and empower students. That really flies in the face of some entrenched ideas about what it means to be a teacher. Your comments got me thinking about how concerned new teachers (and their administrators) are about classroom management. The worst thing that could happen is to have a classroom full of students who are "out of control." But as you say, that's kind of exactly what needs to happen to activate students' learning. Out of the teachers' control, and under their own.

    Intrinsic motivation is SO powerful in learning. Thanks for your ideas and encouragement to tap into this!

  4. Hey Lisa,

    Thank you compiling such rich examples of teachers having success with project based, differentiated learning. I love hearing the unique and creative ways teachers are framing their  instruction to maximize intrinsic motivation.  I like to think I meet my students individual needs but in reality, I could be doing more.

    I'm facing a lot of challenges this year, trying to meet the widest range of learners I've ever encountered coupled with coordinating with about 8 service providers.  The truth of the matter is that they're a tough group to manage but every time I've given them opportunities to work independently, I'm always pleasantly surprised by the results.  I want to build a structure for this style of classroom learning more often but I often wonder if I'll be able to meet all of my student's needs.

    Without question, it's wonderful to hear so many success stories and see so many productive exemplars.  Here's my question: what challenges have these teachers overcome to institute this type of environment? 

    Do you have a compilation of these types of posts? I know it would be extremely beneficial for myself to read more about the pitfalls that these wonderful educators encountered and forged through to achieve such success.  

    Thanks again,

  5. @Mr. Lewis, Thank you for commenting and asking an important question. In fact this question is probably at the heart of the trepidation that many educators may feel. The educators featured here all have blogs, Twitter names, Facebook profiles etc.

    My assignment to you is to go ahead and ask them and report back in either a comment, guest post, or link to your own post. It is information from which many would benefit.

  6. As an Early Education Specialist this sits at the core of my teaching. In the UK we talk about 'the unique child'
    I am currently trying to fund a Phd that will look into technology as a motivational factor for early literacy to try to close the gap between boys and girls literacy.

    if you would like to find out more

  7. I agree with this post, and I think it goes back to the heart of what Dewey wanted public education to be. I have the privilege to teach high school electives on leadership. The only draw back to this form of learning is that students quickly learn that when they are empowered they also have more work. The lazy students will gravitate back to the status quo. :( If we build an organization instead of a class students will follow. :)

    Pat Parris