During our workshops before school started, Trinity faculty were asked, “What percentage of student learning are you responsible for?” Responses varied with the ages of the children taught and the philosophies of individual teachers and ranged from a low of 35% to a high of 80%. Wherever we fell on the continuum, we all agreed that students have at least some degree of responsibility for their learning. There is a fundamental truth here. Teachers can teach their hearts out, pour every ounce of energy they have into their lessons, and plan engaging and rigorous learning activities, and students still might not learn. The lack of learning could be attributed to a learning difference, emotional distress, or some other challenge. Sometimes, though, students do not realize that they are in charge of their learning. In other words, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
Though the idea that students own the learning is relatively new, it is taking root in pedagogical practice. Back in the twentieth century, when I was in school and when I started teaching, learning was considered a knowledge transfer. Students went to school without knowledge, listened to the teacher, and then left knowing what the teacher knew. To use an apt cliché, the teacher was “the sage on the stage,” and students were there to receive whatever knowledge was offered. Even in this model, however, students bore some responsibility for their learning. They had to be good note takers, listeners, readers, and memorizers to be successful. However, content knowledge was the goal, and students were supposed to learn what teachers wanted them to know.
With our increased understanding about how the brain works, new challenges in our world, and a different generation of students and parents, school is changing. Content knowledge is still important, but it alone is no longer the desired result. Rather, students first need to learn the material and then they need to analyze, evaluate, and apply it to solve “real-world problems.” In some ways, this is nothing new. Think about word problems in math, engineering challenges in physics, or persuasive essays in English. Those learning activities require more than content knowledge acquisition. What is different is the growing understanding that students need much more practice in figuring out what to do with their content knowledge once they have it. They need more practice with creative thinking and brainstorming divergent answers to questions that do not have a single correct response. The only way that students can build these skills is to engage in them. The responsibility of the teacher is to create learning environments and activities that give students the practice they need, the resilience to persist when things inevitably go wrong, and the ability to ask questions that further their understanding. However, the kids must do the real work. Coaches and music and art teachers have known this for years. In these settings, the teachers engage in some direct instruction, but students spend the rest of time doing. Other disciplines are now adopting that approach.
At Trinity School, as we seek to enrich the mind, we are working to provide enduring knowledge and authentic practice that will prepare our students for college and for life. By teaching new courses like Robotics, Innovation and Technology, Project X, and Creativity and Design alongside English/Language Arts, math, social studies, and other traditional courses, students truly have the opportunity to enrich their minds and prepare for college and for life. Just as they did when they were in preschool and learned to tie their shoes, at the end of the day, we want to hear our students exclaim with confidence and pride, “I can do it myself!”
Shelby Hammer is Head of School at Trinity School of Midland. She decided to become an educator when she was in seventh grade and has enjoyed a variety of roles and schools over the past 25 years. She began her tenure at Trinity in 2018 and has embraced life in Midland. Prior to her move to Midland, Shelby served as the Head of Middle School and the Assistant Head of School for Special Projects at River Oaks Baptist School in Houston, Texas. In her spare time, she likes to cook, read, and play golf. She and her husband Allen, also an educator in Midland, have two children, a Trinity School alumnus and a current Trinity student.