Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What High School Students Have to Say About Powerful Learning

Today I wished that Arne Duncan and Governor Christie might have been in the room quietly observing the 3 hours of discussion I had with 16 public high school students about their learning. The educational outcomes I think these political leaders seek for all students were clearly demonstrated by the students as they reflected on their learning during this school year.  It is important to listen to students and I wish politicians might do this more often, especially before determining educational priorities. What clearly was told by EVERY student is that it is their love for their teachers and the respect  and care their teachers show them that most influences their learning. It is a lesson adults, especially those setting policy, must hear. It was a privilege to listen to the students.

The students volunteered or were randomly selected from three new courses and one new academy at the 1500-student, highly diverse high school in the district where I work. My goal as the director of curriculum was to understand the effects participation in these courses might have had on students' achievement and their sense of themselves as learners. All of the courses and academy were determined by teachers based on their interest and passions. 

The new courses include American Studies I, American Studies II, and African American Studies which are all team taught courses and are experiential-based.  Additionally students from the senior level Classics Academy were also interviewed. Classics Academy is a year-long engagement for students who enroll in five courses: AP Vergil, AP English--Classics Academy, AP Modern European History, Classical History and Classical Mathematics (team taught course), and the Symposium. Curricula for all of these courses were developed by the teachers, including revision to all AP courses in order to increase relevancy, intensity and connections to ancient worlds. 

The Process
I interviewed 16 students from these courses, recording more than 3 hours of discussion.  It is important to note that on traditional measures, such as marking period grades and midterms, every student in these courses earned passing grades. There were no students issued a failing grade.

In quickly listening to the audio, the following themes emerged:

1.     Learning via these courses has been unlike any school-based learning the students have done previously.  As one student succinctly said, “This year we didn’t do high school.” Students clearly expressed that they were engaged as learners in these courses in powerful and memorable ways. Every student interviewed indicated that the learning they composed  transcended the border of school and continued to influence them in their non-school life. As one student said, “This year I found that not only am I making connections in different classes to other things I learned in other classes, but also outside of school I am still thinking about stuff I learned that day or past weeks.” Students emphasized that the learning they were doing was learning for life.

2.     Choice and rehearsal matters. Students referenced specific examples of how they co-designed the learning that happened in the course and cited how this sharing of power positively influenced their learning. For example, in the American Studies I course, a student indicated that she had not selected the course as an honors option, but had carefully watched students who did throughout the year.  She noted that they did not do “more work,” but did more complex work. As a result of this yearlong rehearsal, she is opting to taken American Studies II for honors credit next year, as she “now feels ready to be successful.” Students also indicated that being able to choose texts and determine how they would represent their learning influenced them.

3.     Every student used the term, family, to describe the relationship among students in the class and their teachers. Their use of the term was completely unprompted and was said during each and every interview.  The students indicated that they "love" and respect their teachers.

4.     Students expressed that being intellectually confident is a significant disposition they have developed during the year.  One reason students gave for their increased confidence is that their teachers and peers “really listen” to them and that they in turn have learned how to not simply hear, but to deeply listen and to appreciate other points of view.

5.     Many of the students indicated that a major learning they had was that the past informs the present.

6.     For students who have struggled as learners, specifically as reader and writers, they indicated that they had strengthened their skills by being able to think deeply about topics before writing, by the type of response teachers and peers offered, by not having to attend to strict “due dates” so that they could take the time to compose carefully, and by selecting and reading/viewing relevant texts. Some students indicated that a revised grading system (A, C and Inc.) led them to learn more and to develop the habit of revision. Students indicated that the differences they experienced this year suggested that their teachers were more interested in the quality and intensity of their learning, than in issuing them a grade. Equally interesting is the fact that for all of the senior students (8) who were interviewed, they made no reference to grades when describing their learning. 

7.   Senior students referenced that through class discussions, literary works, projects, simulations, and virtual chats--they rehearsed ethical situations they might encounter as adults and felt prepared not only for college, but for adulthood.  They said that important learning was thinking about how they are responsible for treating others with kindness and justice, becoming comfortable with ambiguity, and learning how to solve problems that offer no clear method of beginning. They indicated that this learning was greatly influenced by their teachers who attended to them as adults and treated them with respect throughout the year.

8.   All of the students said that it is their teachers' passion for the learning that most influenced their learning. One student indicated that he was "not very good at English" in previous years but that his teachers helped him to love reading and to respect the quality of work he composed, and that his skills improved significantly. Another student said that her teacher ignited her passion for reading.  One student said, "They (her teachers) are so passionate about what they are teaching. I mean, that's what gets me.  It's their passion. How do you expect me to learn if a teacher isn't passionate?"

9.   Students said that "failure is important to learning. You cannot learn without failing."

10.  Powerful learning is vital. One student said, "This year is a lot less like high school than other years have been. I felt like this was not high school. Maybe this is a lot more like high school should be like…This was such a change. Such a shift. I don’t have any classes this year like XXXXX where I go memorize things and then I go home and I don’t think about it.  We leave Symposium and (another student) and I walk home and the only thing we can talk about is what we were just doing in Symposium."

11. Curriculum gets lived in the classroom, not written in a book, said several students. Our voices matter and are respected. We share intimacies with one another. There is trust. We get to be responsible for what we do and say.

In thinking about the students' comments, as well as discussion with the teachers, some potential lessons include:

1.     Teacher and student autonomy and passions matter and need to be privileged in the design of courses, more so than a strict adherence to national and state standards. The local matters.
2.     Collaborative work brings tensions and challenges that are worth exploring at the student, teacher, and administrator levels.
3.     Students who are empowered to co-design learning, learn deeply and are able to strengthen their capacity to read, write and reason in ways that "remedial" courses cannot do.
4.     Mutual respect among peers and teachers may be correlated to student achievement.
5.     Blending "achievement" levels can help students to better challenge themselves and their peers.
6.     Teacher experience matters.
7.     Student learning is aided when administrators function as instructional leaders.
8.     Reflection by students, teachers, and administrators leads to better learning.
9.     Modeling aids learning. Expert modeling influences even more.
10.  The use of technology is seen as less important by students than the power of learning.
11. Curriculum is complicated conversation.  Documents may guide, but should not be confused with the lived course. 
12. A teacher's passion for teaching and learning ignites learners' desires to innovate, experiment, and compose.

By the way, the students in Classics Academy will be presenting via public exhibition culminating projects in June.  They plan to extend an invitation to Governor Christie.  I hope he can make it.


  1. I am always a fan of listening to the student voice, and that you chose to interview students to find out about their experiences in high school sets an example for all of us. We don't listen to our students nearly enough, and yet their thoughts are so important; we can learn so much from them.

    The feedback that you got from your students was so rich, would you be able to share your questions with us so that we might use something similar with our students?

    Thanks for the post.

  2. When I transcribe the interviews I will be writing more. Not sure if they will be done as posts or as article, or perhaps part of a book I am involved in writing.

    Thanks so much for you comments. Listening does matter, I agree.

  3. Really interesting - thanks so much for posting this. Do you have any plans to interview students at the low end of the achievement spectrum? I'd be really interested in a comparison.

  4. These students crossed achievement spectrum.

  5. The connections presented here are really powerful: student to curriculum, student to student, student to teacher. It's how school should be but a lot of times isn't. I love the emphasis on feeling. The emotional connection via feelings of respect, feelings of 'family', feelings of being heard. It played a large part in their sense of success, it seems.

    I particularly love the phrase: curriculum is complicated conversation! Not so much about material to be covered, rather, a meeting point of minds & connection. I'm writing that line down as a reminder to myself for when I get too caught up in trying to 'cover' material to 'get grades'. And also to remind myself of the importance of depth, and to not be afraid of that. 'Complicated' implies not simple, not superficial.

    Great post!

    Julie Johnson

  6. Thanks Julie so much for the comments. Curriculum as complicated conversation is a theory by William Pinar. I write about it in this post: