My Experience Shifting Students to “Learners”

A Balanced Assessment System that Works for All StudentsI have to believe that the most powerful word in the education arena is “learner.” It is transformative. It represents mindset. It has implications. Maybe I’m biased around this seven letter word, and it likely stems from one teaching experience many moons ago. However, witnessing this word literally take over another human being will make anyone a believer.

I had been working on transforming my 5th graders from students to learners for some time. My inspiration came from attending a conference and listening to other teachers’ success stories on implementing formative assessment in their classrooms. One veteran teacher, in particular, shared the instructional impact in a way that I simply could not ignore the possibilities. I was lucky enough to have collegial support (which meant reaching out beyond my building), and that snowballed into being part of a network of teachers in and out of my city — all working to embrace and implement formative assessment in our classrooms. I was on a mission to shift the responsibility of learning from primarily being owned by me to sharing it with my students and having my students share responsibility with each other. I realized that if I wanted to students to be motivated and engaged in school, I had to let them in on the secret of what I was trying to teach.

So I shared daily, lesson-sized learning targets, and we talked about them. Students started to have a better picture of what they needed to learn, what it would take to get there, and when they would know they had “arrived.” We would tackle a lesson, and we’d stop to gauge how we were doing. Were we learning? Were we stuck? We would monitor our progress and set goals accordingly. And those little 10-year olds were totally starting to get it, and better yet, they were invested!

We had conversations about how students were passive, but learners were in charge.”

Part of this mission included how we used language. It was about “us,” “we,” and “learners.” We had conversations about how students were passive, but learners were in charge. We joked about sitting in seats, sleeping and snoring, as opposed to moving, collaborating, and sharing. We had discussions about keeping each other in check and the collective responsibility we shared. It was awesome.

But one day, there was one particular shining moment. It took just a few seconds, but it happened. Sweet Arianna chose to sign her reading response journal, “Your Learner” and I knew. I knew that now she believed it. And that’s all it takes because from that moment on, you realize that the climate and culture have shifted. The learners are in the center of learning and growth. Learners believe they can do it, and so they do. Most importantly, it’s pretty contagious, which means there is no turning back.


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