What does the alternative to the Curriculum Transfer Model look like in practice? Clearly, in order to cultivate the attributes of success, students must be allowed to play a much more active, less managed role in their own learning. They must be trained to become self-directed learners.
Acquiring the desired character traits cannot happen in isolation, however. Too many of those traits are intimately linked to relationship skills — the ability to collaborate, a concern for the good of the group, responsible citizenship, the skill of self-organizing, the ability to lead — and these can only be learned through practice with other students.
But another, equally important reason to have students work with each other is that, for most people, it is simply more effective to learn that way. Conversational learning engages students more than listening to a lecture or doing homework alone at night. Working with others is also more fun, which, as we shall see, is no small consideration.
In order for students to learn the skills of independent learning and to do so with other students, a classroom must become a community of self-directed learners. The image to the right, also adapted from “The Courage to Teach”, shows what such a community might look like. Here, the teacher is a member of a group of people who are exploring a subject. The teacher knows much more about the subject than her students, but she is, in fact, still learning about it. The connections between the members are myriad and robust. Everyone is an active participant in the process. The subject — physics or history or a short story being discussed — is what the group is talking about while they pursue the goal of growing intellectually and personally as much as possible.
Every person takes responsibility for her own learning. Every person contributes to the good of the group. The act of learning with others, of contributing to the understanding of others, adds another level of richness and meaning to the classroom experience. It contributes to the personal growth and maturity of each individual member. When new knowledge is experienced as a shared enterprise, it fosters a sense of belonging.
An effective classroom is one with a common purpose: the success of every person in the room, both academically and in terms of personal growth. Having this common purpose means that the teacher and the students are “on the same side”.
Instilling this purpose in the hearts and minds of students requires rethinking a great deal of what we otherwise take for granted about how school operates. The chapters throughout this book describe how everyday classroom structures — student work, study groups, learning contracts, tests, and grading — can be redesigned to unite and motivate students.
This model does not negate the need for teacher-directed activities, of course. Introducing new material will often involve a lecture or demonstration, and whole-class discussions, led by a teacher, are often essential in exploring a concept or summarizing what has been learned at the end of a unit. In other words, there are times where the first diagram — knowledge flowing from the object through the expert to a group of amateurs — is still an appropriate model for classroom activities. But this should not be the model for the classroom culture itself.
The responsive classroom. Like all people, students have different forms of intelligence, different ways of processing and learning new information, different inherent strengths and weaknesses, different interests, drives, and abilities. If we are to prepare students to lead fulfilling lives, those individual distinctions must be acknowledged and even fostered. Schools must become more responsive to the needs of students.
This responsiveness begins by placing the students and their learning and growing at the center of the conversation. They are the subject. As important as curriculum and instruction are — what is taught and how it is taught — students must be seen as a means to an end. And the Prime Directive defines what that end is.