Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Student Centered . . . Or Not

There have been some interesting discussions going on recently at my high school. I think they are a result of a number of things, including a book study of Mindset (and now extending that to the community), starting an Advisory program for the first time, discussing our Mission and Vision, and having a once-a-month, drop-in "Warrior Talk" time when administration makes itself available to any staff who want to show up and discuss what's on their mind.

All of these things, plus probably some others I'm forgetting at the moment, have really centered around the idea of student growth, not just in the narrow sense of academic achievement (although that is certainly a big part of it), but also in terms of personal and emotional growth. I've heard more teachers having more discussions about students, and what they need (as opposed to conversations simply about curriculum or standards - although those are of course still happening as well), in the last month or so than I have in a long time. If I had to give an overall label to the discussions, it would have to be "student-centered." We really are talking about trying to make our school, our classrooms, our selves more student-centered.

Which is why it was so incredibly disappointing to hear what apparently happened at our Department Chair meeting this week ("apparently" because I am not a Department Chair so was not there). (Department Chair is a group of all of our Department Chairs that meets every other week with an agenda set by administration.) This week the idea was suggested that before we schedule for next year, we perhaps should do a pre-registration with students to gauge their interest in certain courses. That's easy enough to do, just have students enter in their requests online and then look at the results, the idea being that we could perhaps tweak our Master Schedule a bit based on student interest.

This suggestion was apparently met with tremendous resistance and immediately crushed. The concern seemed to be that if we ask the students what they want, they might tell us. Perhaps that's not a fair characterization, but from what I've heard that's seems like what it boils down to.
"What if students request 10 sections-worth of ?"
Well, what if? It's amazing how much this parallels the discussions I've participated in with Seniors in Government class about school and education, and are there any ways to improve the system we have. They always start out agreeing that school should be about learning and that they think we do a pretty good job at this, but a significant number of them end up agreeing that much of our system is actually not designed with learning - or their specific needs - in mind. Almost always, partway through the discussion, a student will say something like, "Well, if we let kids choose their own classes, they'd take the "easy" way out and take a bunch of Art classes." (To be fair, sometimes it's "PE".) After much discussion about what "easy" and "important" and "core" mean, and then pointing out that if we didn't have grades how would they determine what "easy" meant, the discussion starts to get really going. (And then the bell rings. But I digress.)

Now, let me be clear, I'm not suggesting that my school should immediately ditch all of our course offerings and just let the students do whatever they want. (However, to be just as clear, my "big ideas" series this summer shows that I don't think that's an entirely bad idea, just not what I'm suggesting we as a school do right now.) What I am suggesting is that perhaps we should at least consider our students' interests before building our master schedule, and we can perhaps make some small adjustments that would at least nudge us in a more student-centered direction, even if we still have a fairly rigid curriculum with many required classes. If a bunch of students indicate an interest in a particular Art class, or Law, or Woods, or even Computer Science (hey, a guy can dream), shouldn't we at least consider meeting them part way?

This doesn't mean getting rid of Algebra, Biology or American Lit. (Although, again, I think that's worth some discussion - after all, we teach students subjects, not just subjects). But it does mean acknowledging that our students are real, live human beings, with real, live interests, preferences and needs, and that they should have some say over what they get to learn. More say then simply getting to choose from a pre-determined set of courses and electives that are offered at pre-determined times, meaning they may or may not be able to get in to their top choices, and those from a list of choices they didn't even help create.

I think it comes down to this. We are either going to be student-centered, or we're not. We can't say in one context that we want to be more student-centered, but in another context (one that perhaps challenges our view of what school looks like as well as challenging what we "like" to teach) say, "Nah, just kidding." That doesn't mean throwing everything out and letting it be a free-for-all, but it does mean being open-minded enough to listen to our students, carefully consider what they have to say, and then making a well-thought-out decision about any changes we might want to make.

Perhaps as a building we need to go back and review our own mindsets to see if we truly are willing to grow. If we want to be more student-centered, we're going to have to let go of some of our own teacher-centered beliefs.


  1. I'm confused - how do you normally schedule classes for students? Do you just decide to offer X number of sections of a class and that's it? If so, what happens to students beyond the capacity of that number of sections?
    As far as I know, our school has always done it the other way around - find out how many sections of each class we'll need based on student enrollment, then move staff around to make sure we can offer them. Obviously, there are some physical limitations (we only have a couple of kitchens, so we can't offer everyone a commercial cooking spot), but I can't see the other way being healthy for a school.

    1. Yeah, you would think that would make sense. We've always built the schedule based on requirements, teachers, and our experience. Students then schedule and we do occasionally make adjustments during scheduling based on numbers.

    2. Wow - that just seems backwards. We have 2000 students, and I can't imagine not letting them set the classes they want to take...

    3. Hence the post . . .

      Curious, do you allow them to suggest classes as well, or they choose from a set list? Ultimately that's the direction I'd like to go in . . .

  2. Thanks Karl-

    I think what we're talking about here is how control. Do you want to give control over to the students? Over their learning? Over their path? And I agree that giving them "a little" control is kind of like letting your passenger drive with their left hand on the wheel. You want to put the students in the drivers seat- well there can only be one driver.

    That's pretty scary for a lot of teachers, and I can understand the hesitancy. That means teachers have to start seeing their roles more as designers, facilitators, and guiders, where curriculum isn't prescribed, but learning instead is designed.

    Are your teachers ready to give up control?

  3. I work with a number of schools on their master schedules... and you would not believe the reaction when you suggest doing something differently, no matter what it is. Master scheduling is one of the most immovable of objects in most high schools. Asking the hard questions with regard to master schedules (and bus schedules for that matter) usually yields a strong reaction. Teachers really, really like control and even when they are considering shifting the pedagogical focus, role of student, etc ... the master schedule is the comfortable 'rock' that is theirs. While most schools I've worked with do poll students, the results often impact but do not direct the exact offerings. That being said, sounds like for your community, even the possibility of inviting student voice into that space is challenging their control at what might feel like one of the last places to control.

    Master schedules are often confusing places for most teachers, very little transparency about process ... cracking that open to the light for all members of the community might just expose some unflattering facts. Wishing you all the best with this endeavor because I think its that important and know what that looks and feels like as I work with several schools this fall to make a change.

  4. At my school, students have the opportunity to register for a set of classes from a list of mostly predetermined courses. Depending on student interest, a new section of an already existing class may open, but other than that it is essentially fixed.

    I think that the idea of putting more control in students’ hands is both meaningful and risky. As you explain, the teacher fear of asking students what they want for “hearing what they want” is no joke - teachers clearly have curricula they are more or less comfortable teaching. Still, though, the process of asking for student feedback could be meaningful in and of itself. I think that oftentimes, even if given the choice, students will not ask for courses that are not already offered, since they are not on their radar. Gaging student interest might result in a lot of new ideas, but could likely just result in more simple insights into scheduling and numbers.

    As a school transitioning into this kind of student choice, one option could be to have student “pathways.” These are set course lineups that encourage students to take core classes and fulfill general credits, but give student choice of a central theme through which to focus their schedule. For example, an engineering pathway at my school still has students taking their math, science, english etc. courses, but the classes will focus more toward engineering skills. This way, it is not only electives that support student interest.

    Pathways give teachers control to still offer the classes they are comfortable with and maintain certainty that students will not just “take the easy classes,” but also give students more control over their learning.