“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” — Buckminster Fuller
“If you are on a road to nowhere, find another road.” — Ashanti proverb
“School is a good idea being badly executed.” — Noah L., student
Imagine a classroom humming with activity. Scattered throughout the room, students are intently working. Some are by themselves, others in small groups actively teaching and learning from each other. They have chosen who they are working with and what they are working on. Some are practicing a new skill. Others, already proficient, are engaged in more challenging material. The teacher is sitting with a small group in the corner, running a workshop that they have chosen to attend. Everyone is busy. Everyone is learning.
A student in this room is self-sufficient. She has become a metacognitive learner — she pays attention to whether she has mastered new material and independently chooses to continue practicing new skills when she needs to. When she has achieved mastery, she will often choose to do enrichment activities, even though she won’t be rewarded with extra credit. She seeks out more challenging work simply because she wants to push herself. She is intrinsically motivated to learn and to excel.
In most cases, she grades herself. She participates in making decisions for herself. She feels a sense of ownership over how she learns. In her study group, she is skilled at asking questions when she doesn’t understand something and teaching others (rather than just giving answers to them) when she does. She feels that the academic and personal growth and success of every person in the room is a goal that she shares with the teacher and all the other students.
Does this sound like a utopian fantasy? It isn’t. This kind of learning environment is immensely practical and attainable. It is already happening in real classrooms in a wide range of disciplines — remedial algebra, A.P. psychology, reading and writing classes, physics, history and ESL. It is engaging rich and poor students, black and white, students who are academic superstars and students who otherwise hate school.
This can, in fact, be your classroom.
I know this is possible. During the nearly 30 years I taught in the classroom, my students and I experienced exactly this transformation. Following my career as a teacher, I have worked as a consultant with dozens of teachers in nearly every discipline. I have seen them use and adapt many of these strategies with transformative results.
This book is dedicated to helping you transform your classroom into a place where students are engaged in self-directed learning, where they take ownership of the process, where they are committed to the mutual success of everyone in the room — in short, a classroom that has become a community of self-directed learners.
Implementing these changes begins with rethinking the basics. What are the impediments to creating this type of classroom? How can we get there from here? Let’s begin by looking at how you perceive your own experience as a teacher and explore why it is the way it is.