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Be the Lead Learner in your Classroom

It's amazing how a little Chinese take out can remind us to write a blog entry...

We are experts in our fields. Tested, certified, endorsed. We have experience, college credits, degrees and letters of recommendation. When it comes to knowing the material we teach, we know it, and we are confident in it (don't worry first year teachers, you'll get there). At the same time we learn and teach more content, we often forget something very important... What it was like NOT to know. We lose the mindset of a beginning learner.

We go about our school year trying to get our students to understand the key concepts of our disciplines. But sometimes the students just don't seem to relate. When I taught high school English, I used to meet freshmen who would inform me on day one, "I don't read, I don't write." The implied second part of the message here is "so don't try and make me, it can't be done." From the student's point-of-view, I'm an expert and, to him, I've always been one. "Of course you understand Shakespeare, you just told us you've taught this play for 10 years!"

What we need to be more conscious of is explicitly teaching what the path from beginner to expert looks like. Sometimes simple anecdotes are not enough. One year, I started my English class by writing all of my students a letter that outlined my journey as a reader and a writer (a letter I will shared in a another blog post). They were surprised to know my struggles and my shortcuts (Yes, I faked a book report in 10th grade... well, more like two). It helped the struggling learners gain an understanding that there is a path forward for them as well.

Here are some simple suggestions for becoming the "Lead Learner" in your classroom, and having students follow.

  1. Be honest with them when you make mistakes. Be open, and unashamed. Mistakes are the stuff of learning, not the dirty secrets in the educational closet. Students need to understand that.

  2. Show students how you plan to improve. Show them what you are improving on in your life right now. Are you trying a new exercise plan, reading a new book, learning a new skill or taking a class. Be public about it, sharing your successes, setbacks and strategies to continue.

  3. Learn with them, not for them. Try teaching them something you don't already know. Think aloud about how you might find out these new things and what you can do if you are stuck. Identify resources and experts with the students, not for the students. It's the difference between the old K-W-L (Know, Want, Learn) Chart and the K-W-H-L Chart (adding "How will I learn it").

  4. Teach students about Growth Mindset. Carol Dweck's work (see below) on what we think about thinking and learning can provide students with the strategies and language used by successful learners. I started work with all of my classes this year, polling my students to see which attitudes and strategies they have and will likely need in the future.

  5. Learn something new, right now, in front of them all. What if you started the school year with a role reversal. Students have to teach you something you don't know. Like a handshake, or a saying in a different language, or how to beat a computer game level. How empowering would it be for your students to "teach the teacher" and feel an immediate dose of success that first week? And how beneficial for them to see you learning, using the language and strategies of a learner's mindset, capable of growth.

Carol Dweck's work on Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset sets the tone for learning. Some research suggests teaching this concept benefits kids and shows some modest boost in achievement.

Carol Dweck's work on Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset sets the tone for learning. Some research suggests teaching this concept benefits kids and shows some modest boost in achievement.

There is a magic that comes into a classroom where there isn't just one expert, but instead becomes a classroom full of budding potential experts in learning. That should be our mission.

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