Which picture above most closely resembles your classroom?

I want to tell you an embarrassing story about a time I almost lost my neighbour’s dog.

It was a cool Autumn night, with a gentle breeze swaying through the pine trees. Daisy, my neighbor’s friendly and excitable poodle was leashed at my side. She was my responsibility while Jennifer, my neighbour was away on business.

And although Jennifer gave me only one instruction for watching Daisy: ‘Please don’t let her off her leash…” Naively, I decided that because we were in a fairly enclosed park, it would be ok. Besides, why should Daisy be forced to stay right next to me anyways, right?


Within a nanosecond of unhooking Daisy, she was gone.

I spent the next 20 minutes sprinting full speed behind Daisy while she weaved in and out of traffic and busy side streets. How she managed not to get hit by a car still baffles me to this day. Miraculously, she made it home unscathed, but that would be the last time I would be entrusted to her care.

What does this story have to do with ‘learner-centered classrooms??’

What happened to Daisy is what happens to some of our learners when we introduce wide open, project-based learning experiences for the very first time. We naively assume that by giving them full autonomy, they will somehow know which way to go.

But building this level of self- regulation and self-management takes time.

It requires the ability to prioritize, organize time, delegate tasks, establish milestones, and work with groups.

A 100% learner- led/learner-directed classroom should be the goal, but it shouldn’t be the starting point. Here are five strategies to start building those skills.

Morning Meeting/Circle Time: Elevating student voice and building Reflective Skills

Do you hold regular class meetings? Class meetings are a great way to elevate student voice, introduce leadership skills, and create community within your classroom. I like to center meetings around a familiar structure of greetings, a warm-up game, focused discussion, and a chance to address challenges faced in the classroom. As students became more familiar with the structure, I begin delegating roles of notetaker, facilitator, activity leaders, and discussion starter to students themselves. This slowly built their confidence to take on bigger roles in the classroom.

Learn more about morning meetings – -> ‘The Power of Morning Meetings’

End units with Presentations of Learning NOT tests: Build skills of Communication and Critical Thinking

How do you typically end your units of study?

Most teachers end with a big exam, extended essay, or closed question. The problem with these forms of assessment is that they test only a surface level of understanding. To really see what students know, give them the opportunity to present their learning. Provide them a list of the standards taught, and allow them to pick 2-3 to share on a deeper level. Provide a basic framework for planning the presentation, and allow their peers to serve as the ‘panel.’

Here is an example of a POL from High Tech High – -> Presentation of Learning

Quick Design Challenges: Building Skills of Creativity and Collaboration

If we are hoping our students to self manage 6-8 week long project experiences, its helpful to help them experience quick ‘wins’ with smaller design challenges first. A design challenge usually has a very clear outcome, limited materials, and tight parameters to work within. For example, ‘build a bridge to hold this toy car between two tables.’ ‘Build the highest tower using only these spaghetti noodles and marshmallows.’ When running these challenges, snap photos and make observations around how teams work together and come up with creative ideas. This positive re-enforcement will help foster the culture to allow for more learner-centered experiences.
Get inspired- 100 + Design Challenges – -> PBS Design Squad 

Student Portfolios: Build skills of reflection and empathy

During extended learning experiences, how do you help foster student growth and reflection? Blogs or portfolios are a great framework to capture reflection and help students discuss deeper levels of learning. For younger learners, I suggest ‘Seesaw,’ and for older learners, a blog creation site like Weebly or WordPress is best. Provide structure for each entry at first, and gradually allow for more open ended reflection. Here is an example of a student blog, and below are 10 great questions to ask to prompt deeper levels of thinking.

Develop Reflective Learners – – -> 10 questions to ask

Student-Led Conferences: Building skills of self-awareness

Most schools hold exhaustive parent teacher conferences around this time of the year. Parents are crammed into a 15-20 minute window to hear about their child’s progress from each of their 6+ teachers. The conversation is generally way too short, way too academic focused, and rarely touches on deeper, more meaningful reflection around how the child best learns. That needs to change. ‘Student-led conferences’ puts ownership of learning experiences in the learner’s hands, while also allowing you to offer deeper insight. To structure them, provide students a planning guide and time within class to prepare evidence of work.

Student-Led Conference Sample Planning Guide  – -> Planning Guide
Student-Led Conference Overview – -> SLC overview with Ron Berger