Let Students Take Control of Their Learning
By Larue Fitch
At Kankakee School District, we asked our students the question, "What was your most memorable moment in school?" More than 90% of their responses reflected a project they created on their own, and the relationship they had with a teacher during it. They remember the moments where they were excited and felt in charge of their own learning.
For a long time, we've been trying to nail down that golden learning style that works best for every student. But ultimately, every single person thinks and learns differently. To unlock every student's potential for growth, we have to start by letting them take control of their own learning.
'This is my classroom, and my work'
Since 2007, I've played a role in educating students, from being a middle school science teacher to becoming assistant principal in the Chicago Public School District. In my current role as a principal of an alternative school in the Chicago suburb of Kankakee, I've come to realize the importance of taking learning styles seriously in a way that encourages students to find their passion and truly fall in love with learning.
To do this, we held our own project-based learning day for the very first time this year. Students showcased their work and explained the steps they took. For example, they explained how they visited the county attorney's office over a period of time to better understand the court system. One student even discovered an interest in law and policy when visiting the county attorney's office! They were so proud of their efforts and the lessons they learned, because they were able to choose their project and guide their own learning. A project like this, where it's hands-on, real-world experience, truly brings the learning experience to a new level.
We made projects like this happen with the implementation of our online PBL platform Defined STEM, which provides a resource to guide teachers and students on their own competency-based learning journey. Students were able to articulate their understanding through their project in a way that suited them, whether it was a video they made or a presentation where they confidently talked to an audience. When students feel in control, it shows through in their excitement about learning new ideas and topics.
The impact of students owning their learning styles has been reflected in their achievement. For example, we've seen minor and major infractions decline tremendously, and attendance has increased since we started working on implementing a PBL platform more than two years ago. We've seen students who were on the verge of dropping out graduate with flying colors and talk about how excited they were to pursue a career that truly sparked their interests. Our students are on a path to excellence, with test scores going up and averaging the same as a nearby magnet school for gifted students.
Students are learning in an entirely new way that exposes them to ideas they may have never known they had an interest in. They feel connected and meaningfully involved in school when they can talk to issues that reflect their passions, interests, and personalities. Now that we've transitioned from a traditional classroom set-up with rows of chairs, teachers are playing the role of a facilitator, and students have said, "This is my classroom, and my work."
Giving Letter Grades an F
When we realized that our students don't "fit" the traditional A, B, C, D, F, grading system, we decided to adjust our grades to focus on mastery of skills and growth over time. To us, the grading system had ultimately failed. Just because we have a student who was technically in 8th grade, we didn't feel it was beneficial to them if they had demonstrated that they're capable of working at a higher level. The most important aspect of this is to keep in mind how to help our students continue to grow in a way that's most effective for them.
To us, there is no one way to mastery. We're figuring out what works and what doesn't. Not everything we try is going to be a silver bullet. But we're seeing students display and discover their multiple talents, and now it's up to us to get them to a point where they feel confident in their next steps in life after high school. It's no longer teacher center opportunities; instead, it's a learning center. And by leveraging PBL, we'll continue to meet students where their interests are, instead of teaching and telling them what to do.
Larue Fitch has been the Principal at Avis Huff Student Support Services Center, an alternative school in Kankakee, Illinois since 2017. Fitch first started his career as an elementary teacher of science, math, and literacy.