Historically the classroom was a teacher’s domain says Katey Street, Learning Designer, Independent Education Consultant and Podcast Host, ‘Cold Coffee, No Gluesticks!’
Children rarely had a say in what they were going to learn, let alone how they would learn it until the ‘learning types’ taxonomy (Jung, 1964) was applied to education in the late 1900’s. However, as we moved into the 21st Century, education professionals began to realise the connection between engagement and retention in the classroom, i.e. a learner who is interested in the content tends to learn better, and gained support from leaders within schools to try new methods of teaching and learning to better suit their students’ needs.
Now, teachers are well aware that children’s voices are integral to engagement and attainment in schools, so much so that some teachers are doing away with ‘canned curriculum’ altogether and employing students as learning designers instead. Across Australia, students are suggesting what and how they’d like to learn and putting our expectations for ‘relevant’ learning into serious perspective.
Jen Gibb, Director of Teaching and Learning, Faith Lutheran College (FLC) in Plainland, Queensland, has identified a need for a ‘different approach’ to re-stimulate learning and give her teachers a new sense of purpose: “Leaders must create an environment where teachers and students have agency in what teaching and learning looks like for them. Allowing young people to lead dialogue positions them as co-constructors of their experience. Students cannot learn if they are not engaged,” says Gibb.
The refocus to empowering students with choice is a familiar construct at FLC who are currently implementing a process of redesigning their curriculum by letting their students choose what they want to learn, a journey that was started back in 2019. Gibb challenged her teachers to develop overviews for a range of new courses that would cover curriculum outcomes with non-traditional content, and then present them to a student selection committee. Teachers have drawn from their expertise outside of the classroom, pitching on courses for ‘detective investigations’, ‘real estate matters’, ‘photography’, and even ‘20th Century German history’. The student committee evaluated each course on its merits, benefits and engagement potential and fed back to faculty, who will shortlist the new courses ready for implementation in 2024.
Gibb stresses that although the reimagined creative curriculum will be a key offering at FLC, the traditional pathway will still be available to families, students and staff who aren’t ready for a leap away from convention.
Independent learning plans that empower students through intense engagement is not a new concept in Australia. Templestowe College in Victoria boasts a personalised and progressive student-centred curriculum including around 150 elective courses. Human-Centred Learning Design has been the main goal of Lindfield Learning Village in NSW since it opened in 2018, aiming to give its students the power to ‘direct their own learning journey’.
This year it seems that a student voice-centric approach to educational design is finally being recognised at a national level. An initiative proposed by the NSW Minister’s Student Council to place students at the centre of discussions about their education will advise the creation of a national committee of students. This committee will advocate for student needs, interests and opinions, ensuring that students won’t be left out of decision making in education in the coming years. The initiative was accepted by the Education Ministers’ Meeting earlier this month and final plans for the national council will be presented at the next meeting in December.
While I don’t anticipate immediate and dramatic change to our education system, it certainly signals a step in the right direction for our kids to own the way they learn. We desperately need a transformation in the way education serves our young people to make sure they leave our classrooms ready to face their future and change their world. As the late, great Sir Ken Robinson said; ‘the answer is not to standardise education, but to personalise and customise it to the needs of each child…There is no alternative. There never was.’
And personalisation is nothing without the person it serves.
Tips: making it work in your school
- Start at the top. Stepping away from traditional learning pathways starts at the top. It the initiative isn’t supported by leadership, it won’t work.
- Student agency at all levels of decision making. It goes without saying that designing a learning experience that better meets the needs of the cohort needs student input, but this really does mean at all levels. Set up opportunities for students to engage and collaborate with staff and school leaders on policy and curriculum, as well as school design and extra-curricular offerings.
- Seek out and celebrate student interests. Find out what your students are into and design learning courses around interests. The Australian Curriculum is broad enough to hook into almost any real life context!
- Inclusive culture. Students need to feel comfortable speaking up. This could manifest as clear procedures signalling children how their opinion can be given and who will listen, or a respectful and comfortable physical space to share thoughts and ideas.
- Encourage problem solving discussions. If we want students to critically reflect on practices and policies that don’t serve them, we should also give them opportunities to offer alternative solutions. Student creativity can help us think about learning in a different way.