Prepare, Trust and Verify
On most days, classrooms where deep learning is happening are noisy and electric. Like the democratic societies, democratic schooling helps to perpetuate, the voices are many and the viewpoints varied. In democratic learning spaces, intellectual engagement, civil disagreement, and laughter abound. Everyone, because of everyone else, truly learns something new.
These are the classrooms that help to make the kind of world most of us want to live in. Students that spend their days in these kinds of classrooms can access and digest information, think critically, respond flexibly to difference and dissonance, and articulate their understanding of and stance on a range of topics. Learners that spend their days in democratic classrooms are made ready for the world.
I'm always thrilled by how quickly learners of all ages adapt to and embrace this kind of learning environment. I'm never surprised. We know that learning is a social enterprise, and that the human brain is a problem seeking, sense making machine.
So the role of the teacher is to create the conditions for learning to occur, trust that it will happen and verify that it has. Here are a few tips on how to make it happen.
Preparing for Learning to Occur
I've found that good preparation requires 5 things: Good content, good questions, good grouping, good structures and good space. Choose readings and experiences that support the practice of academic standards and build knowledge about your discipline or the world. Craft questions that require students to elevate their thinking. Choose a good structure for discourse. My favorites are reciprocal reading and socratic seminars. These two structures are like the little black dress of teaching - timeless and versatile. If styled correctly, they can take you from 4-12 grade and across all disciplines. Finally, make sure your groups are heterogeneous and that your classroom space is set up to accommodate conversation (no rows please).
Trust that Learning will Happen
Let go and let them. Teachers already know how to read, engage in academic discourse, and write. Our students don't become accomplished learners on a steady diet of watching others read, talk, and write. Our students become accomplished learners and thinkers when they have an abundance of opportunities to do these things themselves. Because students are learning, many of their attempts will be a hot mess. They will mispronounce words, they will make seemingly outlandish assertions and miss entire layers of meaning. Ask questions, but require students to answer them. Breathe. Require answers that are full of meaning. Don't save them. They are more than capable of helping each other to save themselves.
Verify the Learning that's Occurred... and Push for More
Learning is always happening. The interesting thing is that students are not always learning what teachers intended to be learned. A common reaction to this ever present phenomenon is to discount or diminish the learning that has actually occurred and redirect the student to the learning goals of the teacher. Another approach that I've found to be more effective is to name and celebrate the learning that has occurred and then to invite the students to extend their learning to the goals that have been set for the class. Expect and appreciate the organic way that learning occurs.