Creating the Independent Learner

Over a year ago, I wrote a story titled, “The Middle School Learner.” The philosophy behind the post was to articulate how Palmer Trinity School was moving our middle school students forward for the world ahead - or at least for the next grade ahead.  In the article, I stated, “We work to create independent learners who take ownership of their learning, focus on the process of learning, are willing to take risks, and view failure as an opportunity for success.” 
At the time, I wasn’t quite sure of how the school or I would operate to better help these students become independent. Sure, we could stop doing things for them or allow them more opportunities to figure things out but that would only provide some independence and only a little bit of ownership. 

In thinking a lot more about ownership, I realized that many of the conversations about student progress a) focused on the results (the grades) and b) hovered among the adults - whether it was through parent-teacher conversations or teacher - teacher conversations. Rarely did we find students involved in the conversation and I thought it was time that we made a change. 

I enlisted the help of the Middle School Academic Council, a group consisting of Department Chairs, Lead Advisors, Academic Team members, and Learning Specialists to help provide students with a foundation for Student-Led Conferences (SLCs). This is not a brand new concept but certainly new to us and the Palmer Trinity School Community. I said, “Let’s put the students in the middle of the conversation and have them lead it. That will provide them with an opportunity for complete ownership.” From there, we spent many hours creating a framework that students could use to help plan and execute the conversation. 

Essentially we wanted three outcomes for the meeting: 
1) Students know what they are doing in each class to earn the grade that they are receiving (with an emphasis on what they are doing).
2) Students effectively communicate to their advisor and parent(s) their progress.
3) Students articulate a plan for them to undertake from now until the end of the semester.

Moving to Student-Led Conferences was a big shift in philosophy from the style that we have done previously. In the past, parents met directly with teachers. Often, during these meetings, the parents and teachers would create a plan for the students to follow and there always seemed to be a disconnect with how the students would then get the information. Was the teacher or the parent responsible? Instead of that model of a conference, now parents would meet with their child, who was not present before, and their child’s advisor. 

While most of the initial feedback when we unveiled this new method was positive, some parents and students did not like the format. Students, for obvious reasons, said they did not want to participate because they now had some real work to do. “Isn’t that what the parents and teachers discuss?” one student asked. Additionally, parents said they would rather meet with the teacher. They wanted to see the person who knows the subject and more importantly, how their child was doing in the class. While I understand the rationale, the new shift changes the focus from parent understanding to student ownership.  

During the conference, students were expected to discuss their progress in each class. They were to share their process-oriented goal, strengths, areas for improvement and create an action plan of specific steps to take for that improvement. Additionally, they created a portfolio as a means of keeping selected graded work samples that represented a strength and area for improvement. 

In order for us to do this well, internally, we knew we needed time. We had to take time in academic classes to make sure that students were aware of their progress. In Advisory, we needed time to make sure students were filling out their forms and that their portfolios were complete. 

Having just completed the semester conferences, from the School’s standpoint, this was extremely successful. Advisors felt that students were able to articulate their performance. As parents were leaving conferences I made it a point to be available to stop them in the hallway to get initial and quick feedback. Of the parents that I spoke to, many of them saw the benefit of having the students present to lead the conference and from that, they saw the ownership. As is our usual practice, we will gather feedback to make improvements. 

So, I would say that yes, we are well on our way to creating an independent learner. With the help of these conferences, it is our intention that students focus more on the process of learning and taking ownership of their learning. If they do both of these, then they may be more willing to take risks and view failure as an opportunity for growth. 

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