Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Making the Shift to "Our" Classroom

Creating a Culture of Learner Autonomy

Guest Post by Brian Anton, Social Studies Teacher, Forsyth High School, Forsyth, MO

One of the most difficult parts of our jobs as educators is to create a learning environment where our learners are engaged and meet content and curriculum goals. From my experience, the single most important challenge that needs to be addressed to earn engagement in our classrooms is to develop a culture of learner autonomy--allowing and encouraging learners to take control of their own learning. There are many barriers that we, as educators, must work to clear in order to create a strong culture that allows our learners to feel comfortable with working toward a common goal in the way that works best for them.

Over time, I have evolved, as we all do, in my philosophy on education and have worked to create a classroom atmosphere that allows learners to become active participants instead of passive onlookers. Looking back, I worked hard to put on a show for my learners with the goal of getting them engaged in my courses: I lectured, I led classroom activities, I set goals for my learners, I decided what they were going to learn and how they were going to do it. All was fine in my classroom. I was recognized for my work, receiving teaching awards and my administration was happy with my performance.

Now, I would like to ask you to go back and 
 read the previous paragraph again.  
What do you notice?

Noticing the Learning

I notice that there are at least ten instances of the use of “I” and “my.” Instead of creating an environment driven by learners, it was one driven by me, the teacher. It was my classroom, and I was dictating how and what learners would be expected to learn on a daily basis. In general, my classroom ran smoothly, I had very few discipline issues and learners met my expectations a majority of the time, but those attending my class were doing only that, attending. Engagement was low and they were doing the minimum to achieve a grade, all while not learning to their potential. They did not enjoy coming to my class for the most part and simply jumped through the hoops to get by and meet what I consider to be high expectations. Enrollment numbers for my courses, mostly upper level electives, were low and I wanted to increase them. The question that I asked myself pertained to how I could encourage learners to take my class while meeting the goal of having them achieve the same high level of expectations that I have had for them throughout my career.

My answer to that question:

By creating an atmosphere where they have a voice, choice, and freedom to learn in the fashion that works best for them to accomplish our achievement goals together.

Roles Changing

As teachers, it is difficult to let go of control and to let our learners find the best ways for them to achieve content and curriculum goals. To be clear, our role in the classroom needs to change, and I think the trend in education is moving the correct direction--achieving and creating a learner-driven, personalized atmosphere is the key. Providing learners with the tools to succeed should be the goal, and we should focus on allowing them to use those tools in the way that works best individually. Instead of providing the blueprint for learners to achieve a goal, educators should be allowing and guiding them in designing, developing, and implementing their plan for accomplishing it. When this happens, drastic changes take place regarding engagement in our classrooms and ownership of learning appears, leading to a higher level of achievement.

For this reason, I have worked to implement multiple learner-driven strategies that create an atmosphere that is “ours” instead of “mine.” Making this shift is difficult in many aspects, but the gains make it worth it. It takes a complete overhaul and change in mindset along with time and effort to make it successful, but I will never go back to the teacher-centered pedagogy that I used in the past. I am currently implementing project based learning that focuses on continuous inquiry (see links to blog posts below) with this in mind and have seen positive changes regarding engagement and comparable results in regard to achievement.

Learning from Feedback

After implementing project based learning throughout my entire government course last semester, I provided my learners with the opportunity to provide feedback on what they thought of the methods used in their course in comparison to traditional, teacher-driven methods via survey that contained both open and closed response items. Their responses overwhelmingly showed that they enjoyed this class, gave more effort, gained more real-world skills, were willing to work harder, were more engaged, used class time more efficiently, and (most exciting for me) made them more interested in social studies.


Project Based: Typical Daily Procedure

  • 2-3 assigned research tasks per day until design and creation phase begins
  • Continuous Know, Want to Know, Learned (KWL) throughout unit
  • Learners develop initial research questions based on the essential question for the unit and share with the class then class questions are presented daily for learners to research.
  • Learners add to research with questions as their guide, using whatever resources work best for them, then develop further research questions as focus for the next day.
  • Other interactive activities may take place in regard to collaboration and team-building, sharing research with the class, and guiding discussion

When asked, “What part of this project-based course made it more interesting than other traditional courses?” learners answered:
“You had to stay engaged in this course to be able to keep up with the class. It was very interactive.” 
“I think the increased motivation that came with the ability to choose your own project greatly help our curiosity.”
“With other traditional classes I get bored easily with lectures and taking notes. With this class it was more in my hands and I felt more responsible with what I found in my research than just writing down what my teacher tells me to.” 
“Making the projects were actually more interesting than traditional courses. In my other classes I zone out with lectures and I don't pay attention but with this class I was more involved in what I did.”

And, in response to the question: “Overall, what did you think of this project-based course compared to other traditional courses in regard to the amount that you learned?,” learners provided the following feedback:
“I liked the project based course more than traditional courses. I feel like I learned more than I would have with just lecturing.” 
“I found that I could focus so much better on the things we were learning by using hands-on learning rather than lectures. It was way more fun.” 
“I feel like having to research the information rather than it just being given to me I was more involved. I worked harder to obtain the information and learned a lot of things on my own.” 
“With this course I learned better because I was in charge of my research and what I found. I was responsible for the things that I found so I knew if I didn't do the research, I wouldn't pass the class, which pushed me more to complete my research and projects. With regular classes I write down the material I am told to write down and then just study that instead of looking for resources for that information.”

I think that this feedback speaks for itself. We, as educators, should be working to implement strategies centered around our learners’ needs that allow them to have a choice in the method that works best for them. If we implement these types of methods, educators and learners, will achieve our goals together, creating a more enjoyable and productive classroom experience.


532002.jpgBrian Anton is an experienced high school social studies teacher who has taught everything from high school courses in American History, American Government, World History, Economics, Psychology, Sociology, Contemporary Issues, and Missouri History to a dual-credit American History survey course. Brian has presented multiple times on his experiences in the student-driven classroom on Project Based Learning and the Flipped Classroom as well as on the identity of George Washington. He also serves his community as Ward I Alderman at the City of Forsyth, Missouri and is a National Advisory Board Member for Teaching History: A Journal of Methods​.


Personal Links to Related Information

“Let It Go!, Part I--The Challenges of Project Based Learning: Planning and Preparation” (Blog Post)

“Let It Go!, Part II--The Challenges of Project Based Learning: Successfully Executing the Student-Driven Classroom” (Blog Post)

“Flipping the Social Studies Classroom: Successes, Failures, and Results” (Presentation)

  Links to Information on Project Based Learning and The Guided Inquiry Process:

Tina Berseghian, “The Inquiry Process Step by Step,” MindShift,

University of Michigan Education Department, “Guided Inquiry Process,” Teaching Great Lakes Science,

Drew Perkins, “5 Characteristics of Project Based Learning that Works,” TeachThought,