The Difference

Two recent experiences have significantly impacted the way I think about teaching and learning and the importance of student autonomy and volition in our classrooms.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a PD seminar around embedding technology in the classroom.  A wonderful goal, really.  I think embedded tech is important; in fact, I think it should be the status quo in every classroom, every day.  I honestly think there’s little point to tech as an after thought so that we can say we’re doing something “techie”, as if that’s the goal instead of deep, authentic, transformative learning.

As I listened to the presenter, something didn’t sit right with me.  At first I couldn’t figure out what it was. So much of what was being said I agreed with.  Tech needs to be part of the entire learning process; social bookmarking during research, Google Docs to create a common document, collaboration between peers, the creation of technology projects –things that I advocate and have implemented in my own classroom. It wasn’t until talk turned to the importance of outlining  student objectives at the beginning of each class that it hit me — This is a teacher-centred classroom that’s being advocated  — the complete opposite of my own classroom.

As presenter and participants discussed the importance of  introducing students to the days objectives by posting them where students can see them, I thought, “”Why would I do that?” My students know what our objectives are because they’ve chosen them and they know how they’re going to be assessed because they construct the criteria.  Not that they can’t be posted, they can.  But who creates the objectives is even more important than where they’re posted.

And that’s when I realized — it’s not enough to embed technology.  It’s possible to embed technology in every aspect of teaching and learning and it still be a completely teacher-centred classroom.  The teacher in control of what is learned, how it’s learned and for a large part, how students show their learning. This needs to change.

The real power comes when students take responsibility and ownership for their learning — when they become co-creators of their learning experience, rather than their education being something that is done to them. This is where true student empowerment and engagement begins.

The second experience is somewhat along this same line.  It involved my two daughters.  Rebekah, who is 7, and Chloe, who is 4, were playing school. Rebekah was the teacher, and she’d spent a fair amount of time creating worksheets for Chloe. She was really proud of the work and effort that went into these magnificent artifacts of learning. Chloe, in her 4-year-old wisdom, didn’t want to do them. Why? They weren’t any fun.  Maybe we should have more 4-year-olds designing our educational system, but I digress.

Rebekah came to me completely distraught that Chloe wouldn’t jump through her hoops.  So I responded from my own experience as a teacher and said, “Well, why don’t you ask Chloe what she wants to learn about?”

Rebekah looked at me retorted, “That is not what school is like.”

“Well, that’s what my classroom is like.”

Quite emphatically she exclaimed with all of the authority that a seven-year-old can muster, “Well, all the years I’ve been at school I’ve never had a teacher like that.  Miss-so and-so didn’t do that, and Mrs. so-and-so didn’t do that. You sit in your desk and do what the teacher tells you. That’s how school works.” And she stomped away.

I knew the assimilation into factory schooling began pretty young, but I didn’t realize how much it had taken hold by grade 3.  It was honestly shocking to encounter it face to face, especially with my own daughter.  And to try to convince her that there was another way “to do” school was much like trying to convince her that fairies were real. Students aren’t really asked what they want to learn about. That’s a fairy tale.

We need to make this fairy tale a reality. Student-centred learning is powerful, transformative and life changing, for teachers and students.  I’ll be honest, it can be difficult and messy, but once you’ve experienced it, you’ll never go back.

Photo courtesy of cc flickr: mommyof4ruggies

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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9 Responses to The Difference

  1. A very interesting reminder that teachers can spend all the time they like planning and creating wonderfully designed lessons full of the latest tech tools – but if the students aren’t involved from the outset in the whole process, including establishing objectives and criteria for success, engagement and therefore deep, meaningful learning is unlikely to occur. Thanks, Shelley!


  2. Paul says:

    I agree with you! How do we ensure the curriculum is addressed in at least a satisfactory way, when the students may not have the experience to know what is “out there”?


    • I think the answer to that is teaching. Since I wasn’t preparing lessons or lecturing anymore, I spent my time talking to my students about their learning: how they learn– what they like to learn, what they need in order to learn. I push them to think and reflect. We look at the curriculum, and I explain what it’s purpose is and and how it works. They take tentative steps in their own learning, and we talk and reflect on the process. I’m there to re-direct if necessary, but I’ve always found that my students catch on pretty quick. In fact, they’re often the ones leading the process!


  3. Linda says:

    In response to Paul’s query – I am an ICT specialist in upper primary, and have grappled with the issues of embedding technology that you have described. I collaborate with teachers to integrate ICT in the students’ learning. Especially given that I teach four classes at each level, I’ve found it has not worked to show the students an appropriate tool that I choose for their learning, and expect them all to use it. Boring (for me as well as them)! And if the tool proves for some technical reason to be problematic – disasterous. And… as you have described, teacher centred rather than student centred.

    I’ve found it has worked best to give kids a couple of sessions in which they are shown a range of tools (eg presentation tools such as Prezi, Glogster, Linoit, Capzles, Popplet, Blabberize….) . I’ve stopped giving them a demo up front as to how they all work. I just show an example of a finished product for each tool, and then give them time to play with and explore the tools of their choice – with support. We’ve even done this with a whole level at a time – kids then learn in groups, with the support of all class teachers and relevant specialists.

    This process has meant that when students are undertaking an inquiry they have had some experience with a number of tech tools and can choose the one that will best suit their purpose. I can then help them with the application and fine tune any issues they have in using the tool when they are using it authentically in their learning.


    • I’ve had the same experience. I never show my students as a group how to do something. Instead I ask them, “If I wasn’t here to show you, how might you learn about that?” Usually it’s playing with it or a Youtube video. Like you, I give them a bunch of options and tell them to create something!


  4. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: Possibility | Stories of My Wandering Feet (& Mind)

  5. Rolf Assev says:

    Thanks Shelly for some inspiring thoughts around teaching and learning. I am working with a Vietnamese/French math teacher here in Norway, that has made a very interesting math game where the kids are able to learn algebra without really understanding that this is algebra as this appears as a pure game. It has been tested in schools in Norway and shows that after one hour 30 % of the kids are able to solve equations – and after two hours more than 80 % are able to solve equations. Wired Magazine tested this with their own kids. Would be great if you could try it out with your kids and evaluate your experience with the game. The game is called DragonBox+ and can be downloaded from Apple Appp Store for iPads or from


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