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Are Your Students the Protagonists of Their Own Educations? (Opinion)

Imagine a classroom where 10th graders devise procedures to ensure everyone’s perspective is considered and set their own deadlines in their work on a social studies project. Or a 3rd grade classroom where students agree on reading goals with their teacher, tracking their growth in a journal. As my colleague and co-author Kapono Ciotti puts it, every child deserves to feel like the Jason Bourne of their own action film at school, not just an extra in a movie controlled by the teacher.

In many schools, teachers choose all topics for learning, determine groups for collaborative work, set the outcomes students will work toward, and manage all documentation and evaluation of student work. Educators talk about the value of student choice and student agency, but they generally envision it as limited options designed and controlled by the teacher.

I am inviting you to go further to make students the protagonists of their own education. When students own their own learning, they can build skills in a safe environment, working toward ends that feel relevant to them. This tends to raise the quality of student work because students care more about what they’re learning. It also tends to address harmful biases that teachers unknowingly bring to the classroom.

Here are three ways educators can increase student protagonism in their classrooms, whatever pedagogies they use.

  1. Ensure all students feel seen, heard, and honored for who they are and the ideas they bring to the classroom.

    Magical things happen when we model less and elevate all students’ ideas more. Introverts and neurodivergent learners, for example, are rarely well served by classrooms that generate ideas through hand raising and more traditional forms of participation, and they often feel limited by teachers who control the direction of learning or offer only teacher-defined choices. Accessing these students’ best ideas means creating more think time, inviting students to contribute ideas in a variety of public and private forms, and fostering a sense of safety and community that encourages intellectual risk-taking. When students have an opportunity to journal before sharing their ideas, for example, or to generate ideas and questions in small groups, as in the World Café or Chalk Talk methods, educators can more effectively elevate all students’ voices and ideas.

    For all students to thrive, teachers also need to keep their assumptions from determining which students’ voices are heard most consistently. While I don’t believe that teachers intentionally ignore specific students, I have certainly noted implicit biases in the classrooms I’ve observed over three decades in education, and research supports this claim. Learning to notice and deconstruct such biases and making sure all students feel seen for their talents and potential helps ensure a meaningful experience for every child.

  2. Ensure all students succeed in their group work by managing more processes themselves.

    How we group students for collaborative work can help bring out the best in every child. While teachers need to make sure students have experiences with a variety of peers so they learn to collaborate across differences, opportunities for students to choose their own teams can help build motivation and a safer environment for all. Consider the brilliant introvert who became angrier and more introverted every time her group members ignored her. Although some adversity is part of the learning process and managing frustration is an essential skill for our times, feeling unsafe or unheard is unlikely to foster meaningful growth.

    Strategies like interest-based affinity mapping, which allow students to generate their own ideas and form groups on the basis of common interests, can help. Students will still encounter struggles in collaboration, but beginning on common ground can help them be more productive—and more likely to value all perspectives at the table. Similarly, opportunities for students to design team agreements and set their own goals for their work together can help ensure that all students feel safe and included during group work. By moving conflict resolution and goal setting to the students, teachers can foster skills such as autonomy and self-regulation instead of relying on teacher-controlled discipline. Students engage the teacher only when they haven’t managed to solve a problem themselves, what student-centered educators call the “three before me” strategy.

  3. Ensure all students’ growth is recognized by involving them in documenting and evaluating their learning.

    I am a big fan of student-led documentation in any learning process, perhaps because I experienced so much of it in my own education. Especially when we have students learning on slightly different pathways in a project-based classroom, a teacher who tracks all work as the sole documentarian misses the opportunity to empower students as leaders of their own learning.

    In student-led documentation, students learn to track progress, set goals for improvement, work together to solve challenges, and curate their best work to show their growth. With tools such as student portfolios and student-led conferences, students develop the metacognitive habits that allow them to articulate their learning—their needs, their successes, and their next steps for improvement—what Australian educator Guy Claxton calls the language of “learnish.”

    Such practices can also ensure that teachers don’t miss the nuances of individual contributions. In a meta-analysis of 20 studies, researchers found that teachers’ implicit biases consistently impact assessment. Even if the final assessment comes from the teacher, self-evaluation can help to spark growth and develop students’ ability to advocate their needs. The goal is not to let students run free or ignore the standards but to put them at the center of their own education and give them a role in defining what success looks like for them.

Educators’ assumptions about which students might have insights or creative solutions can too often limit whom we hear from and what we work toward in our classrooms. The more we can design with student protagonism at the heart of our work, the more we can foster opportunities to be surprised by our students, by brilliant ideas and solutions we hadn’t even envisioned, and by work that is deeply theirs, not just a cookie-cutter copy of something we directed them to create.

Educators who emphasize student protagonism ensure that all kinds of learners from all backgrounds thrive and succeed, even if that success is as varied as the students themselves. They also ensure that the diversity of the classroom—different thinkers, experiences, cultures, and identities—helps all students develop richer, more multidimensional understandings of our subjects and themselves.

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