Empowered Students Lead and Learn

By Michael D. Toth

An excerpt from an article published in The Learning Professional.


In a traditional teacher-centered classroom, the teacher works harder and harder to move students to greater learning gains, especially students on the short end of achievement gaps and those with complex needs in mainstream classrooms. A pedagogical model called student-led academic teaming takes a different approach to personalizing instruction and meeting the multifaceted needs of each student without increasing teacher fatigue and burnout. It allows teachers to work smarter, not harder.

With student-led academic teaming, students take increased ownership and accountability for their own and their peers’ learning, relieving some of the pressure from the teacher and resulting in greater achievement gains. Working in teams, students are empowered to reach higher levels of critical thinking because they can rely on their peers for support and can challenge each other to move further.

Student-led academic teaming is a major component of Schools for Rigor, a school transformation approach created by Learning Sciences International that also includes assessment of school systems through scientific protocols, professional learning and coaching for teachers and school leaders, and constant tracking of student evidence to drive improvement in teaching and learning.

Schools for Rigor engages all leaders and staff in a common vision and language for rigorous instruction through academic teaming, which brings student ownership to the forefront of teaching and learning through shifts in lesson planning, classroom routines, instructional strategies, and expectations for teachers and students.

We recently conducted a study of Schools for Rigor in Des Moines, Iowa, one of our largest partner districts. Over the course of one school year, 22 schools that implemented the model built their capacity to facilitate 45-day cycles of professional learning for leaders and teachers. Students in these schools outperformed students in the district’s control schools. (See the article “Instructional leadership at the forefront”).

Notably, English learner students benefited significantly from the Schools for Rigor approach. We saw their engagement skyrocket and the achievement gap between English learners and non-English learner students narrow as they found the opportunity to share their thinking, respectfully challenge their peers’ thinking, and elevate their learning in teams. This is an important achievement in a district where one in five students is an English learner.

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