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4 Ways Educators Can Lean into Student-Led Learning

Olivia Jones
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Teaching a classroom full of students with different interests, talents, and strengths, is one of the many challenges every teacher faces. That’s one reason why student-led learning is so valuable; when done properly, it can encourage students to be more self-directed in their learning, freeing up valuable time for their teachers to oversee the class and ensure student success. Leaning into student-led learning offers educators the opportunity to learn alongside their students as they grow in a nurturing, creative environment.

What is Student-Led Learning? 

Student-led learning is an education style that emphasizes self-directed education, creativity, and discovery, rather than rote memorization or traditional lecture-style education. Students are encouraged to incorporate their own interests into projects, within a set of broad guidelines. In student-led learning, teachers spend less time standing at the front of the class talking, and more time guiding and supporting students as they explore a hands-on lesson.

Student-led learning is incredibly beneficial for both students and teachers. For students, this education style makes learning fun by giving them creative freedom and empowering them to have control over their own learning.  It also instills values such as intrinsic motivation, self-discipline, and curiosity. For teachers, it means more time to help students individually and to make sure the class meets long-term goals. 

More and more schools are moving toward a student-led learning model because of its benefits for student growth. If you’re interested in learning more about what student-led learning could look like in your school, here are four ways to incorporate the concept into your lessons.

1. Create an inclusive learning space

Student-led learning is, at its core, about prioritizing students’ needs and valuing their ability to learn independently. It is an inherently inclusive approach to education, because it respects each child’s unique learning needs and interests. It also frees up time for educators to give extra help to students who need it, while allowing advanced or independent learners to continue with light supervision.

You can engage in student-led learning by making the physical and emotional classroom environments safe and inclusive. This could mean making a space feel “cozy” with features like bean bags or class pets. More broadly, it could mean encouraging kindness, keeping the classroom mood positive and fun, or incorporating music into your lessons. The goal is to foster an environment that gives students a feeling of safety, so that they can feel comfortable working independently.

2. Allow student choice

Another great way to engage with student-led learning is to give students choices whenever possible. The feeling of agency, no matter how small, can boost the classroom mood and make kids more excited to learn. You could do this by giving students time to study something they find interesting, or by allowing students to learn the same material in different ways depending on their learning style.Choice boards are a great example of this. 

Students respond well to the opportunity to choose and explore independently. Cathy Truesdale, a music teacher from Fort Myers, told us how she uses the Musical Splats lesson plan from Unruly Splats as a framework, but then allows her students to pick their own music as they code

“I’m always thinking about the big picture and after looking at the Musical Splats Activity Pack I saw the possibility of extending it even further,”  Truesdale said. “We experimented and tried different things over the summer. We started out with two Splats and used a MIDI conversion so that every note had its own number. One student was so into it that he re-created an Imagine Dragons song.”

3. Encourage student problem-solving

One of the most valuable components of student-led learning is the way that it empowers students to build their problem-solving and analytical skills. Because students have more freedom and control over their projects, they are more bought-in and invested in their learning . When students are more invested in the outcome, they may dig deeper and have more motivation to overcome missteps or failures..

One way to do this is to create assignments where the lesson is in the process, rather than the end result. Michael Fricano II, a K-6 Technology Integration Specialist and Computer Science Teacher, uses Splats technology to help his students learn problem-solving skills with coding. Give your students opportunities to cultivate resilience in their learning process, and encourage them to continue trying, even when they aren’t sure how to push ahead. Our coding game Bug Out, for example, helps students learn to code while developing problem-solving skills as they work to find the bug in the provided code.

Micheal said, “I always tell my students failing is an important part of the learning process. Getting to the point where something isn’t working, learning from that experience, continuing to move forward, and making some changes along the way really allows them to grow in their learning experience and create something unique and special to them.” 
SEL Bug Out!
Students demonstrate problem solving and communication skills while working together to find the bugs in the code.

4. Make time for reflection

Reflection is a key part of the learning process. It’s especially important in student-led learning, because each student may create something that is totally different. The wonderful part about that is it creates an opportunity for students to share their own experience and learn from each other.Incorporating reflection into your teaching encourages deep learning, self-discipline, and self-awareness. When framed as a way to learn about ourselves and acknowledge our progress, reflection activities can boost confidence and encourage a growth mindset.

You can incorporate reflection into lessons by making it a required component of large projects or activities, like having students write a reflection paragraph after they turn in an essay. You can also provide students with prompt questions and pair them off to discuss their progress with a peer. Check out our webinar with Tech Specialist Ashley Fort where she shares her resources on reflection and self-evaluation. 

With these tips, you’re ready to experiment with student-led learning to encourage your students to be independent, thoughtful learners!

Unruly Studios makers of Unruly Splats, programmable, stompable floor tiles that help kids learn fundamental coding skills through recess-style play. Best for elementary and middle school students from PE to science or coding class, a great addition to the classroom for active STEM coding and play!

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