Regardless of the best efforts to re-imagine education, we sometimes fail to recognize and act on the obvious. Even in the best circumstances where leaders strive to create a positive culture, and teachers drive learning, we often overlook the best compass for true learning: our students.

Through a combination of writings, informal conversation, and reflective feedback, the very students who sit before me (and even my own children) give me some of the best PD in terms of what will help them to learn in a meaningful way. In one instance, a student wrote an editorial on lengthening the school day. In her writing, the student does not reject a longer school day, but does remind us how easily we can shut students down by how we handle their wrong answers. She writes, “Students are made to look stupid whenever they don’t understand a lesson or ask a ‘stupid’ question in class. Teachers embarrass the student in front of the class if a student doesn’t understand what is being taught. When teachers do this, it prohibits the child from wanting to ask questions because the fear of being wrong is greater than the student’s effort to learn.” When I read this, I began to scrutinze the way I handle student questions and “wrong” answers. I was also reminded of the full measure of our influence with students. I was paradoxically humbled and empowered at the same time. This particular student goes on to say  that, “Society needs to rethink the educational system. Learning should be enjoyable. Kids shouldn’t dread going to school, it should be a pleasure to have the opportunity to learn and explore new things.” Well said, and probably more valuable than most PD.

In more specific terms regarding teaching practice, a student was reflecting aloud on the difference between testing and project based learning. To summarize, he stated that testing is just about memorizing stuff that you just forget, but with a project, you actually have to learn something. Imagine that, a student  grasping the difference between a culture of testing and a culture of learning. Another student, who was initially resistant to a 1:1, project-based environment, admitted that with PBL she really feels like she’s “accomplished something.” People with bigger credentials and more influence than me really need to take notice!

Aside from student writings and discussions, there is an obvious shift in energy when meaningful learning is taking place. Students are awake, active, and engaged. As deadlines and presentations approach it feels more like the last week before a school play than the final days of preparation for a project on The Civil War. Students collaborate and new ideas begin to emerge taking the teacher-envisioned product to a new creative level. That’s when it gets rewarding. Students driving the learning and truly creating something new.

As an educator, being a perpetual learner is a necessity. While there is tremendous value in connecting with and listening to colleagues and other experts regarding how to grow and move forward, never forget to listen to the students. They will point you to true meaning every time.

Visit Genius Hour for more information on allowing student interest to drive learning. These great educators are building something truly special for kids! If you want the best information about Project Based Learning, visit BIE; it’s simply an amazing and inspiring site. I visit regularly! Finally, my teacher partner, Cara Gurysh, has some great insights on her blog, Thriving in Chaos,  from our day to day experiences with our own version of Genius Hour, DaVinci Day, as well as our PBL efforts in a 9th grade 1:1 environment.



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