Student Controlled Learning* (Conditions Apply!)

This year has been a good year for reading adventures. After finishing the Harry Potter series (for entirely professional reasons…) a good friend has lent me the first in the Earth’s Children series. It centers around Ayla, abandoned at a young age, who is found and adopted by a Neanderthal clan. But Ayla is *not clan*, she is different, and does things differently. And so the story begins.

For a book that is apparently an international bestseller, it’s a pity it’s message hasn’t hit the educational system, particularly when it comes to young people doing things differently.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of talk around student voice and student created learning. I was particularly inspired by Peter Hutton’s Talk on student controlled learning. What was most powerful for me was his point on moving past just being inspired, and actually doing something about it.

Unfortunately for an aspiring innovator like myself, Hutton did not go into great detail about how teachers schools can achieve this. Yes, there were fantastic anecdotes about what systemic approaches school’s can do, but I took it to heart about “doing something” and wanted to know what I could do.

I’m hoping that my efforts (and my students!) in today’s PBL lesson were the first steps.

About a week ago, the most amazing thing happened. Totally unprompted, a student volunteered “Don’t Stay in School” by boyinaband on our classroom:


The stars had aligned, this was the perfect opportunity. Today, my partner and I ran a number of ’round robin’ persuasive writing activities, one of which a debate. The topic: Should students have more control over what they learn? All teams (yes, Hogwarts House Teams again!) had the opportunity to discuss the prompt before and after viewing the video prompt the student posted. We also made a point of emphasising that yes, this was that video, and if you had something you’d like to focus on, your teachers would listen.

But it was also a valuable opportunity to see what the students thought of this seemingly-trendy education… trend.

It was great to see Ravenclaw and Slytherin to shine today in their philosophical discussions, with Slytherin actually being the first to genuinely debate/discuss towards each other, rather than just respond to me. Overall, students left the session with mixed feelings – students should have some kind of control, but not absolute control.

I also had the opportunity to debrief this concept with another PBL partner, Dr. Dean. Our discussion largely centred around that while student-controlled learning is the goal, “we are an outcome based education system, for the time being”. While we’d love for students to take more control over the learning, it’s just not realistic to expect all of them to have the skills, the ideas, or the drive. There is something to be said for teachers to be experts, (or, a “curator of knowledge” as Dr. Dean so eloquently says), and superficially having students “research” and “explore” only goes so far.

Genuine student-controlled learning would benefit from some limitations. There should be a balance between teacher-directed limitations and student-driven passion.

But how to do this? As a single teacher, or teacher team, or even school?

Unfortunately I don’t have the answer yet. What I have got so far is that, as Hutton says, you’ve got to be ready to do something. Beginning with simple student voice strategies, like a survey, or open debate, is a start.

I think, the most important thing you can do as a teacher is to be ready to act upon the opportunity when it arises. It’s important to set the expectation and build the culture that students have a voice in their learning. Start there and one day, they can even take control of the learning – maybe even without limitations.



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