How do students learn best? — Reflections from Deeper Learning 2016

April 22, 2016

Last month, a few members of the Students at the Center Hub team attended the Deeper Learning 2016 conference at High Tech High (HTH), located in San Diego, CA. The conference was filled with engaging conversations with a variety of participants from the field of education, including teachers and school leaders. One of the most memorable experiences, however, was at a session run by HTH students themselves that addressed the question: “How do students learn best?”

High Tech High has been a long-time model for project-based learning. They are a lottery-based charter school that’s centered around four design principles: personalization, adult world connection, common intellectual mission, and teachers as designers. There are currently five High Tech High sites (high schools), home to 5,000 students of diverse backgrounds (63 percent identify as non-white, and 42 percent quality for free or reduced-price lunch).

This session stood out as a genuine representation of the work that happens at High Tech High. The student panel was refreshingly adult-free and peer-to-peer mentoring, an important component of the HTH model, was in full effect. The younger panelists looked towards the session leader, a senior and long time “member” of the High Tech High community, for direction and encouragement. 

Here were the five biggest takeaways on supporting students, as presented by the students themselves.

1. The classroom should be just as important as the coursework

Students want spaces with “noise”—spaces that invite collaboration, are welcoming, and that make students feel happy to be in class. One student noted that group discussions, especially with less-familiar classmates, have helped her grow intellectually. “[Group discussions] allow us to think of things we wouldn’t have thought of before.”

2. Give students real work

It was a short and simple statement from a student, “Real world connections are valuable.” The students at HTH showed an overwhelming appreciation and desire for real work. When there is a personal connection to the work, they are more willing to invest more time and energy to the task. One example students shared was the development of a real soap business as a semester-long chemistry class project that incorporated both science and business courses in a real, tangible way.

3. Students as young adults (keyword: adults)

Students want to be part of classroom decision-making. They appreciate being put in leadership roles, and appreciate it when more is asked of them: “When teachers put me [in a leadership position], I feel like I need to do more.” This includes course and project feedback. When students feel their opinions and decisions are valued and they are psychologically engaged, they’re more inclined to contribute real feedback and classroom leadership.

4. Teachers are people, too

In order for real personalized learning to take place, teachers must form real relationships with their students. Many students expressed the wish to view teachers not just as educators, but as colleagues and mentors. If they knew their teachers had similar hobbies or interests, students would be more comfortable approaching them for general guidance or school support. Students added that this doesn’t mean becoming best friends, but trusted partners: “Be nice, but strict, with fair and concrete rules.” Respect and trust are critical for both parties. As much as teachers need time to trust their students’ decision-making, students need to believe in a teacher’s intentions before truly becoming a partner in the learning and teaching process.

5. Acknowledge and support all learners

Students emphasized that effective teaching is involved teaching. “You have to care about [every] student’s learning, every step of the way.” When students feel supported, they are more motivated to learn. Yet the support students seek isn’t limited to their academic performance, but includes their interactions with the classroom community: “Be cautious about pushing up some students, and neglecting the lower-performing. Make sure to give attention to all students.” Students notice where teacher attention goes, and the more they feel noticed, the more responsibility they take to contribute to the classroom.

How do you learn best? Follow conversations about #deeperlearning and student-centered learning (#sclchat) on social media, or submit your own story for consideration on the Hub blog.


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