The 5 Core Elements Series: Student as Expert

Inspired Teachers embrace the practice of engagement-based education. They recognize every child’s unique, inherent potential, challenging each student to solve complex problems, collaborate, and pursue continual learning and growth. In order for students to excel in the 4 I’s (Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity), we believe that teaching and learning in schools should be built around five core elements: student as expert; purpose, persistence, and action; wide-ranging evidence of student learning; joy; and mutual respect.

We’ve invited five guest bloggers to share their thoughts about the five elements. Writing on the subject of Student as Expert is Vicki Davis, veteran teacher and renowned education blogger. She’s also an author, speaker, global collaborative pioneer, ed tech advocate, and hosts the 10-Minute Teacher Podcast. Learn more about Vicki at her Cool Cat Teacher blog.

If you force a choice when students are working on projects, in a sense you’re taking away students’ unique voices. And what you may get in return is student apathy and disengagement. In this blog post, I hope to give you some examples that demonstrate this concept.

Recently, during a writing workshop at our school, we discussed a student mood survey about writing. One thing students said is that they want to “write about things they know.” While there’s a place for authentic research projects starting from limited knowledge, in my experience, I’ve learned that every student has natural interests and inclinations. (Just ask them!) I’ve found students to be more engaged in our classroom when I keep those interests and inclinations in mind.

Passion Instead of Apathy

Here are two examples of student engagement, one from ELA, the other from computer science.

At my previous school, which was in a rural area, we selected the book Shane because we wanted to engage more of our young boys in reading a story they’d find relevant. Yes, modern Georgia is a very different, far more peaceful place than the Wyoming Territory, and everyone grows up with a much clearer understanding of our roles and expectations, but this action-packed book tells a story of strength, justice, and community that still keeps young readers turning pages. Even though we chose the book, we chose it with an awareness of who would be reading it and what they’d bring to it.

When my computer science students are creating apps, I take them through a brainstorming process and help them create teams with common interests. Recently, I had two teams programming in augmented reality. One wanted to create a school tour, and the other wanted to create an app for teaching how to use VR glasses. Sure, I could have forced the choice, but as I mentioned earlier, forced choices can be a recipe for apathy and disengagement.

While I’ve heard some teachers complain about student apathy, I haven’t experienced it in my classroom for years. This is because I work hard to give my students choices to write, create, and program on topics that interest them. Thus, they bring their entire passion for that topic to what I’m trying to teach at the time.

Tapping the Power

Students are experts in themselves and their interests. Often, however, because they’re young people who are still growing, they may not have discovered what their talents and skills are. So getting them to learn new things can be very challenging. None of us like to feel “dumb” or uninformed about a topic, whatever age we are. But when we let students begin with a topic they already know or want to know something about, the unknowns that they’ll encounter won’t seem as daunting. My students might not understand how podcasting, website building, app making, and blogging work, but the less a child knows about what I’m about to teach them, the more I want them to be exploring a topic that is also a passion.

Whenever possible, I use topics of passionate interest as an attractive subject for teaching my content. As my students create and invent, they learn even more about a topic of interest while also learning about the content I’m teaching. As I see it, tapping into the power of student experts is a win for everyone.

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