Let students guide (and own) the learning

How might we rethink the role of the teacher? 

Let’s start by considering the title of this blog post — “Let students guide (and own) the learning.” Instead of having all students follow the same curriculum that has been pre-designed, try listening to individual students to find out what they want to learn.

In this rethought role of teacher, part of my role is to provide students with compelling — and age-appropriate — material they want to learn more about, and see where that material takes us. My goal is to help students develop their critical thinking and communication skills.

As an example, I have been working with a fifth grade student once a week to learn about current events. He chose to focus on the civil war in Syria (I wrote about this a few days ago in a post titled A fifth grader empathizes with Syria).

I recently had this student read an article titled What caused Syria’s civil war? It’s an article on a website called “Christian Today,” and the subtitle of the article is “Syrian Anglican priest gives his take on how the current conflict came into being.”

I found this article by searching for the cause of the Syrian civil war:

search box syria

As teacher, part of my role is to help students formulate intelligent search queries, provide relevant context, and to help the students sift through the search results. Here’s a sampling of the search results I got from the search above:

syria search results

I read the article in purple above, and found it to be a good match for the fifth grader I’m working with — it’s not too long, and while it uses some terms I don’t think he will know, it’s written clearly. Looking at the search results, I’d also recommend the BBC as a quality source for background.

I gave the parents of the student I’m working with these instructions for reading the article I chose:

Here is an article for your son to read. It uses terms like “Alewite” and “Sunni”, which I’m guessing he won’t know.  That’s fine — have him turn those into questions — what’s an Alewite?  What’s a Sunni?
For instance, I imagine he’d have some questions about the Ottoman Empire:
1) What was the Ottoman Empire and why were the Ottomans oppressing the people in the area for 500 years?
2) Which 500 years was that?
Just have him list whatever questions come up — I imagine his list might grow to 15-20 items.  Then, he should try to answer — in at least a preliminary way — a few of those questions.  For those questions, he should write what he finds out.

Here are a few of the questions the student came up with — note that he started to own his learning by answering questions #5 and #8 himself (okay, he had some help from his parents).

1. How many square miles is the Levant?

2. Did the Ottoman Empire occupy Syria for all of its existence?

3. What was the French Mandate? Why was it oppressive to Syria?

4. How do Judaism, Christianity and Islam relate to each other?

5. What are Druze, Alewites and Kurds?

Islamic sects. The Alewites took control of Syria in 1970.

6. Who is Hafez al-Assad and what did he do?

7. What is a coup d’etat?

8. What is a proxy war?

Having another country fight a war for you

9. What is sectarianism?

10. What is Hezbollah?

What I love about these questions is how genuine they are. This student really wants to understand — he’s not angling for a grade.

I thought that the fourth question he posed was a profound one — in it, he asks about how Judaism, Christianity and Islam relate to one another. Wow!

That’s a topic we will now pursue for the next few sessions (we could, of course, take years to unpack that question).

I put his questions in a shared Google Doc, and wrote some responses for him to react to — my initial writing is in black, my student’s writing is in red, and my follow-up writing is in green.  This is not me transmitting information to him — we’re having a conversation:

google doc1

It’s great to work in a living document that we can all edit from anywhere in the world.  Imagine how cool it will be when we have groups of 5-6 students at TLC Middle School all collaborating to make sense of the same topic!

I can’t tell you how often I’ve presented students with dates in BCE and CE in a traditional school setting to have them just blindly accept whatever I told them and parrot back those dates on a test. How refreshing to have a student ask how far back history goes.

Of course, I’ve raised that issue myself with students — when does history begin? — but it’s different when the teacher poses the question. When the question arises organically from a student’s curiosity — when the student guides (and owns) the learning — things tend to stick more. The learning is more genuine.

In response to my student’s question — “How far back does history in BCE go that is recorded?” — we made a timeline, and started to put Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on the timeline. Then we layered on Greece and Rome, and we got into a short discussion about what it meant for the Roman Empire to stop persecuting Christians and to make Christianity the official religion of the empire.

Here’s another selection of the “conversation” from our shared document:


By letting the student guide (and own) the learning, I’m finding out that he is interested in government sponsorship of religion and in the difference between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

Here’s another example of letting a student’s curiosity guide the learning: as we were looking at the world using Google Earth, the student looked at America and wondered where the name “America” came from. That led us into a short discussion of the mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci and of Christopher Columbus. We made a distinction on our timeline between Pre-Columbian history and the history once the Atlantic was open to regular exchanges.  1492 is a significant date in world history.

We ended our session with me asking the student to read and write questions about a PBS resource titled Three Religions, One God — I chose this resource in response to the question he posed: “How do Judaism, Christianity and Islam relate to each other?”

He owns the learning.

I could not have predicted that a discussion of the Syrian civil war would lead to a discussion of some of the world’s major religions, but there you have it…

I’m not sure what direction our conversation will take next, and that’s so much better than knowing that tomorrow “we have to cover X topic” because it’s “on the syllabus.”

Particularly for middle school students who are engaging with the world on a serious level for the first time — and the Syrian civil war is a pretty serious topic — it’s crucial to make sure they have a solid foundation. The best way to do that is to listen to their questions and proceed accordingly, filling knowledge gaps as we go.

Eventually, the student I am working with will make some sort of project that shares what he has learned with the world about the Syrian civil war.

And that brings us back to that idea of digital citizenship, where we have students (and teachers) make authentic contributions to the online world. 

This blog post is an example of how I model digital citizenship. Here’s an example — Malala Yousafzai has been in the news quite a bit lately, and my blog has gotten a lot of hits as a result, because I’ve blogged about her. Here are the statistics for my blog from yesterday:


What I find interesting is that I wrote my blog post about Malala Yousafzai more than a year ago (in October of 2012).

People are finding my blog post today by searching for Malala, and apparently, I have enough interesting things to say that people are linking to my blog, which pushes my post up the page rankings on Google.

Looking back at my post about Malala, I like what I had to say about how learning about a girl in Pakistan can serve as a springboard to learning about the world:

The point here is that starting to learn about (and empathize with) Malala — whose story is a compelling one and is worth reading about, thinking about, and learning from — gives us a springboard to learn about such broader issues as Pakistan, the Taliban, and the larger Muslim world.

The same is true for my current work with Syria’s civil war, or any large and complicated topic.

I also can’t help think about how cool will it be when TLC students start writing about what they are learning in the world and people around the world start reading their blog posts. If students do work that just goes to the teacher and comes back with a grade on it, they’re missing an opportunity. 

This is not to say that everything a student writes should go online, but each student’s quality reflections, thoughts, and projects should absolutely be shared with a wider audience.

I feel good that my post about Malala has been read more than 1,500 times — and it’s neat to see what topics have been most useful to other people during the three years I have been blogging. Apparently, I’m some sort of expert on the Zambezi River, which I happened to write about once:

all time

As students start blogging about what they learn at TLC, I expect that their posts will get more sophisticated as they move from 6th to 7th to 8th grade, and that by the time they enter high school, they will have a similar sort of portfolio to the one I have now on my blog, with people around the world reading what they have to write about topics they have researched and learned about and thought about.

That’s what happens when you let students guide (and own) the learning.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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