An Agile Classroom: Re-Energize Teaching through Student Ownership

This article was first published by Intrepid Ed News, on Nov 20, 2021

In an agile classroom, teachers do not dispense information to the whole group. They serve as the guide on each student’s learning pathway. By replacing the teacher as the “Sage on the Stage,” it frees the teacher to work in small groups, meet individual needs, dedicate time to building strong relationships and classroom culture of trust and love of learning.

To a group of professionals that are already at their wit’s end, this can sound exhausting; however, it is just the opposite in reality.

An agile classroom re-energizes the teacher. There is no classroom management struggle because the students have agency. Agile classrooms do not have repetitive lectures since students own their learning. Students have genuine learning experiences. Questions are authentic and the level of engagement brings an exciting energy to the classroom. They build trust and long-term relationships with one another and the teacher. Each interaction is unique. 

How to Achieve the Agile Classroom

In an agile classroom, students have autonomy and often work in teams. This means that students learn the traditional content but are able to navigate their own learning. Teachers can scaffold this experience by prepping different methods for students to learn content. This is the same content that has always been taught, but now it is presented in a way that students can access on their own. 

Teacher Mini-Lessons and Tutorials

The COVID lockdown necessitated that I record my lectures and instructions. During this time, I used visuals to go over key ideas and necessary important information. Soon I was recording everything: how to format research cards, how to review the essay rubric, how to annotate and create marginal notes, and more.

Creating videos tremendously helped my students. Students that were asleep during the first period could watch the lecture when their brains were awake. Students that needed repetition could watch it several times. Students that struggled with processing issues had constant access to the material. Students that were bored during lectures…didn’t watch it. They learned the content from another source I provided.

Recording instructions was incredibly effective for me as a teacher as well. Instead of repeating directions, students could watch the video, most of which included an example of me modeling the desired skill. Students were able to access the recordings over and over. If they had questions, they were well thought out questions about their individual work. They had time to process information and think about their questions before they came to me. It shifted the ownership of learning to my students. 

This method saved me time and energy, especially in the form of mental drag. We know that teaching is multi-tasking where we are often re-directing and re-focusing students. Not being interrupted to clarify answers or repeat directions freed up an incredible amount of time. With that time, I was able to concentrate on answering real questions, work with groups on meaningful issues and take a breath during the day to gather my thoughts. 

Videos

We have long relied on videos as an aid to “bring alive” our content. When teaching history, students struggle to imagine what life was like in a time before iPhones and the internet. Videos help bring the past to life and create a visual imprint that students can better recall. 

Videos also provide us access to scholars, doctors, astronauts, and other world-class experts that otherwise are out of reach to students. Why wouldn’t we provide students with access to these sources of information as a way to master content? 

Instead of watching the videos as a class, provide students with the links to watch at their own pace. With tools like EdPuzzle and Google Forms, you can check for understanding as the students watch. Videos can be mandatory or optional. If the goal is true student ownership, you can ask students to curate their own playlist of videos that are valuable to their learning pathway. 

Readings

We typically use readings as a supplement to our teaching. But what if we provided readings at different levels and points of view as a way to develop critical thinking? The purpose of differentiation is to provide students with choice. Students read at different paces, at different levels of difficulty, and with different comprehension needs. We should allow them to find what suits them best while they are mastering content. Students can even work through more difficult readings together by learning how to annotate and creating marginal notes to digest important information. They can use textbook chapters to build a foundation of knowledge at the beginning of the unit. Students practice analyzing primary and secondary sources as a way to learn from a different perspective. 

Application

Applying knowledge is fundamental to deep learning. There are mastery methods that students must learn, like writing an essay or developing an argument. However, in smaller activities, students can choose HOW to show mastery. A song can explain the FOIL method. A graphic novel can show reading comprehension. A commercial can “sell” the U.S. Constitution after the convention. Teachers can propose different applications to elements of the periodic table. Each of these activities will engage students’ critical thinking and creativity. A well-crafted rubric that outlines content mastery can be interpreted by students in different ways, all with spectacular results. When students have the choice of showing their learning, they are passionate, engaged and the assignment becomes one of pride instead of boxes on a checklist to check off. The learning becomes personal and students remember the content and assignment far longer than they will ever remember a multiple-choice test or essay. 

Benefits for Students

There are many ways to present information that give students choice and voice in the classroom. When students have ownership of their learning, it immediately becomes more purposeful and meaningful to them. When students are engaged, there are fewer classroom management issues and fewer battles over completing assignments. When students see that you trust them to make decisions, they enter the room excited to learn and develop the necessary soft skills. The ability to choose empowers our youngest learners. They build self-confidence, take pride in their work, and are overall more engaged. It is a way to address the whole child in any subject at any grade level.

Benefits for Teachers

Giving students choice in the way to master content is work upfront. It means building a unit “library” of resources that ensure learning goals are met. Once the students are engaged, the classroom runs itself. The teacher can step into fielding authentic questions, working with individual students, and overseeing productivity. The pace of a teacher’s day allows for more time to plan the next unit, reflect on progress and do what we all really love: connect with the students. The work to scaffold the unit is not comparable to the time and peace of mind that comes as the result. But wait, it gets better. As students are given the choice, they become more independent: they seize the opportunity to drive their own learning and within a few units, the classroom lifts off. Students can help gather materials, brainstorm application opportunities and answer questions for each other. The more this is practiced, the better the results for both students and teachers.

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