The "ne plus ultra" of student-led learning
April 12, 2017 7:12 PM   Subscribe

I'll be finishing my Master's in math education this semester, which means a lot of lesson plans being written and evaluated by my professor. Some recent comments of his have made me want to find better examples of "student-led instruction".

Every time my cohort of grad students and I show him our lesson plans, or recordings of our lessons with class, One of his first criticisms is "it could be more student-led." This response annoys me, not because it's not true -- I certainly recognize the value of students being owners of their own learning, in either a constructivist or cognitivist plan of learning -- but because it's become a boilerplate criticism he attaches to everything.

It seems to me that if every lesson could be more student led, then it's a meaningless criticism. Would the ideal student-led learning would be one in which the teacher is not there? Doesn't that also depends on the existence of an ideal student?

So I'm putting the question to educators or education theorists on Metafilter: is there such a thing as a mathematical lesson that could not possibly be more student-led? Could someone show me an example, or a lesson plan, or even just a description of math instruction where you would say "nope, this is as student-led as it could possibly be"?

And if the answer is no, doesn't that make the criticism meaningless? If there is no ceiling, couldn't you say that about any lesson given by any teacher at any level of instruction?
posted by The Pluto Gangsta to Education (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, student-led learning is not something that takes place over the course of a single lesson, but rather it's something that develops over the whole year (or longer). It takes a lot of effort put into consistently building classroom culture, self-confidence of students, and expectations throughout the year, and a lot of modeling and building up the capacity of students to take the lead in their own learning. I think it is possible for a single lesson to prevent student-led learning, but not really possible for a lone lesson to cultivate it. How do I know this, you ask? From my many, many failures at accomplishing the ideal of student-led learning that I can see in my head.

So, here's the lesson that could not possibly be more student led:
Students enter into the classroom.
The teacher is relaxing in a chair.
The students begin enthusiastically working on math-related projects which
- they have chosen themselves
- towards specific goals that they independently defined
- creating end products of their own choosing that are relevant and exciting to them
- using research/problem-solving methods that they discovered or read about in materials that they found themselves.
Occasionally, a student walks over to the teacher to ask a specific question
Mostly they work on their own or in groups
They manage their own time, and take appropriate breaks when it's useful

That would be an amazing lesson, right? However it would be a ridiculous lesson plan to write down and submit for an assignment in an education class, because it shows absolutely no pedagogical understanding. The breathtaking pedagogical expertise that goes into implementing that amazing lesson would have happened over the nine months preceding that lesson.

Now, without any context, what I'd guess your professor probably means is that when you give them that set of word problems, instead of telling the students to use the pythagorean formula to solve the word problems, have them form groups and brainstorm problem-solving strategies themselves, or for less confident students, pick the appropriate strategy from a toolbox. Or, instead of giving them a procedure for finding the standard deviation of their heights then telling them to implement it, ask them an open ended question that leads them to invent and use their own measure of variation, then teach them how actually to calculate standard deviation afterwards.

Those things are good, and better than not doing them, but they are far from the "ne plus ultra" of student-led learning. However, since the idealized project-based inquiry lesson is usually not achievable, in the meantime, it's good to have some tools to push more traditional instruction in the direction of being student-led. So, I'd say the feedback isn't meaningless if the professor can articulate some concrete ways that they think the lesson could be made more student-led. If he's literally just writing "make it more student led" and refusing to offer ideas for doing that, then yeah, that's technically a good idea, but not particularly helpful.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:43 PM on April 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

In my ed masters they called it student-centred learning. It has a number of aspects including the content, delivery, the learning activities, and assessment. A thoroughly student-centred lesson could mean that the students pick which content they want to study, how they want to study it, what activities/problems they want to create/solve, what task they want to perform to illustrate their learning, and how they want their learning to be assessed.

Are you giving your students options in their tasks, learning activities, methods of learning, and exercises? Do they get to choose how to make their learning significant to their own interests? By incorporating some aspects where the students lead their own learning may be what your (critically unimaginative) professor is wanting to see.
posted by Thella at 8:34 PM on April 12, 2017

I'm a veteran teacher, nominated as teacher of the year in my state.

It seems to me that if every lesson could be more student led, then it's a meaningless criticism.

No, not at all, it just means you're not fully implementing or comfortable with the concept, and that's okay. Any teacher will tell you the hardest thing to do is to run a student-centered/student-led classroom, because it is WAY easier to be the experts with the knowledge and the students to be the vessels that we fill with our clever lesson plans. It's REALLY HARD to let that go because there's all that curriculum to get to, it's also a matter of ego, but it's also really scary because you have to trust your students will make the right choices as more independent learners.

Would the ideal student-led learning would be one in which the teacher is not there? Doesn't that also depends on the existence of an ideal student? See, this sort of indicates that you're not really getting what your instructor is saying.

An ideal student-led learning situation needs a solid educator at the helm, giving some guidance, support and tools.

What you should try to do is look over your lessons and see how much direct instruction is in there. If it's more than 1/5th of the class time, it's more than what this instructor wants. A lot of times, especially in math, a concept will be taught and then the kids have to do like 25 practice questions of that concept as opposed to taking those concepts and using them for something more meaningful.

A well-done, generic student-led lesson plan will look more like: student led review, teacher led direct instruction of new concept (5 minutes, tops), project or plan that has students implement concept in meaningful ways. Or several days of instruction, demonstrating real-life applications as you go, with multiple-day project led by students.

You can find some excellent student-led lessons at Buck Institute of Education where there's a ton of ideas about project based learning.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:53 AM on April 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is a good series of books about teaching student-centered math.

There's a few different "moments" where the learning can be student led rather than teacher-directed.
1. Coming up with a topic or question to learn about
2. Doing the mental "work" of learning a concept or piece of information, through research, problem-solving, or discovery/inquiry.
3. Sharing or presenting what they have learned (students can choose a format for a project, students can present to the class, students can teach others).
Any of these can happen singly or together. I agree that this is most successful when the groundwork of structures for this learning is laid over time, but there's still a lot you can do in a single lesson if you plan carefully.
posted by mai at 8:25 AM on April 13, 2017

Hmm... Your prof may legitimately be annoying, and he may really not bother to think through criticism based on your actual lesson... That would be frustrating, for sure. But you probably want to be a better teacher, and making lessons more student-directed is a reasonable way to go about getting better. So you might as well actually work on it, instead of turning your frustration into "He's stupid - i'm annoyed - this is stupid - fuck it all - student-directed is stupid." I'm going to work with the assumption that you're also interested in actual suggestions to work on this, not only commiseration and agreement that his criticism is meaningless.

I'm a math teacher and math coach with experience in grades 7 -12.

The thing that makes teaching an interesting career is that you can never be perfect. You can get better and better and better and better... and then the next day you can work at getting better still. This is a feature of teaching, not a bug.

In math, I think you will achieve the result your prof wants (and, more importantly, better teaching) if you strive to have your students THINKING as much as you possibly can. This sounds obvious but is actually really difficult.

Here's an example of what I mean. In math classes, a lesson (or series of lessons) tends to work like this:
1. Today we're going to learn how to solve a proportion.

2. Here's how you solve a proportion.

3. Practice this 10 times.

4. Now do these problems which require proportional reasoning.

Students are much more likely to use their brains if it runs more like this: (We basically turn that order around backwards.)

1. "Here's a problem. Work together to see if you can solve it." Teacher first ensures students understand the problem, and circulates giving students little pushes as needed. That part is very tricky - it's hard to keep everyone moving forward without doing the thinking for them.

2. "Let's discuss all the solutions you came up with, and problems you ran into." Teacher facilitates, and especially helps students make connections between solutions: "How does Group A's picture show the same information as Group B's chart? How does Group C's equation connect with the chart? What information is made clear here?"

3. "Let's do another problem" (or 3, but almost always fewer than the 10 above). Discuss different methods, their ease, their practicality, their limitations, etc. For example, discuss how powerful finding a unit rate can be by showing how Group D's solution is very quick and also easy to understand, while Group E's solution is easy to understand but they spent 20 minutes drawing all the balloons.

4. "The quantities in these problems are in proportional relationships, which means ... The solution methods we've talked about are examples of proportional reasoning."

This way of teaching is much harder than the first. It looks like the teacher is doing very little, but actually it's much more important that the teacher do the right things. You need to understand the math better and have a better knowledge of how kids learn it. You need to choose problems which everyone can do, but some students will do in sophisticated ways. You need to manage the class in a way that encourages kids to talk, but not about their weekend plans. But it's so much more fun!!

Many teachers aren't there yet. If you lessons look more like the first example, try just moving step 4 so that it's first: give the kids a problem, let them solve it together before you tell them how, and discuss. It's particularly enlightening from a mathematical standpoint, and it helps you sort out what parts of the math we teach are actually important, and what parts are just convention or habit. Reversing this order is a bit scary at first, and it will take a few tries to make it work right, but it will help students take over more of the thinking and class direction. Your prof will be happy(er?) and you'll have a blast.
posted by MangoNews at 9:03 AM on April 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

A. Homeschooling done right can be extremely student led. You might find it valuable to join a gifted homeschoolers list and eavesdrop.
B. For a college example, you might try reading up on St. John's College (not the famous one in New York). They use a Great Books curriculum and colloquiums are a big part of the program (or were when I was dreaming of going there decades ago).

It might help you to keep this quote in mind:
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
- William Butler Yeats

I can't find the quote and am not remembering it exactly, but someone once said something to the effect that learning comes more naturally than teaching.

A good teacher should provide guidance. They should not be overly controlling. If you are trying to "fill a pail," that is more like brainwashing than education. Your students should feel empowered to disagree with you or argue the point. You should not expect them to repeat everything verbatim.

When my kids were little, my standard was "Repeat it back to me in your own words." Anyone can parrot words without comprehension. It takes comprehension to communicate the idea in different words.
posted by Michele in California at 10:27 AM on April 13, 2017

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