How to Find the Middle Ground Between Data-Driven and Student-Driven Learning in Your Classroom


“I’ve done everything I can do! After I teach the whole class, I explain it again, sometimes 2-3 times, just for this student. My extensions for assignment-deadlines are met with apathy, attitude, and disrespect. I’ve called home several times, with zero success, and no one will return my calls. He does not seem to care at all, and the parent seems to care even less! What more can I do?”

No doubt, as classroom teachers, we have all experienced those feelings of hopelessness and frustration at one time or another as we exert ourselves to reach the seemingly “unreachable.” We begin to question if our time might be better spent on another student who does seem to care about his/her learning. All efforts seem futile, and we find ourselves satisfied with the notion that there is nothing more we can do, end of story, let’s just move on.

But, wait. Here’s a big truth: we will not move kids forward if we settle for the erroneous perceptions that there is nothing more we can do to teach and reach every student within our instructional care. Unquestionably, this is not a simple “clock-in and clock-out” undertaking, and even within the context of the very best practices and intentions to help students learn, teachers and educational leaders cannot control students’ lives outside of the classroom.

Hence, the question remains: How do we personalize? What can we do to reach every learner in our instructional care?

It’s Not Just All About Data

Oftentimes, schools and districts place more emphasis on data than anything else in the K-12 environment. And sure, over the past year, I’ve learned the importance of utilizing available edtech tools for the efficient collection of quantitative data, which can be used for both formative and summative assessment purposes.

However, using data alone to drive instruction wasn’t enough to meet the learning needs of my students when I was in the classroom.

As a high school English teacher, I had the special privilege of teaching a variety of learners, including high-achieving pre-AP students, English language learners, students with social and emotional disabilities, and students with IEPs (Individualized Learning Plans) carrying a wide range of special needs. Thus, I truly had to become a student of my students, constantly reflecting and retooling my practice as I ascertained what motivated my students and what caused them to shut down.

Along the way, I collected a number of activities that support a “student-centered” mindset. In fact, I found a balance—designing a learning environment that provided both quantitative and qualitative data, as my students regularly worked together to create and to pitch products of their learning.

Shifting Towards Student-Driven Activities

In my classroom, the main element that allowed me to meet my diverse students where they are as individual learners was this: I gave students “voice-and-choice” in regards to whichever modality they felt most confident with. I often looked for opportunities to connect content and learning goals to real-world situations. Here are a few examples of those student-centered activities we conducted—some more data-heavy, some less so.

Student Check-Ups and Student-Chosen Station Rotation: Two to four times a week, within the first few minutes of the class period, I would send quick, online formative “Check-Ups”to my students. By the end of the week, I had a pretty good snapshot of where my students were in that week of study. By Thursday nights, I would pull additional resources (e.g. John Green educational videos—FYI: ninth-graders love his commentaries much better than mine—online interactives, graphic organizers to breakdown concepts, etc.) to address specific learning gaps, and I would arranged my classroom into stations on Fridays so that students could work on specific areas in which they needed to focus. This approach provided opportunities for more individualized support.

Student-Developed Mini-Lessons: Those Fridays mentioned above eventually turned into “Flipped (Classroom) Fridays,” allowing me the time to move about my classroom to work side-by-side with individuals who needed deeper teacher intervention, while students who were at mastery could choose to create an “Each-1-Teach-1” mini-lesson related to the content. Those students could use tools of their choice (digital or low-tech) to publish the lesson online for the class to view.

Projects Targeting Student Interests: I also made time for projects throughout the week, but always gave the students a large degree of choice. For example, students applied writing, grammar, and language arts skills using actual job applications and role-playing interview scenarios for jobs they liked or wanted to do someday. Additionally, students learned research skills by working in teams to write fictitious grant proposals to start a nonprofit that would support the needs of a target population of their choice from within the local community. Fun fact: This past summer, just three years after, one of my students (now just a senior in high school) has actually taken steps to make her team’s nonprofit a reality. She wrote and was awarded an actual grant that allowed her and several of her classmates to direct a summer camp designed to prevent summer learning loss for underserved children.

Educators Should Be Like Anthropologists—Constantly Researching Students

As one of my wise colleagues said at the PBS Digital Innovators Conference this past summer, “We must be like anthropologists if we truly want to engage our students.” This statement is especially true for teachers in the U.S. Although the majority of students enrolled in schools are minority students, over 84% of the instructors are white teachers from middle-income households. Without a well-informed understanding of students’ interest, cultural norms and perceptions, teaching efforts could prove meaningless for many minority students if no schema or connection can be established as a part of the learning.

Data is important, don’t get me wrong—it helps you track how your students are progressing. But don’t get lost in it. If we truly want to personalize, we must design our classrooms in ways that allow us to know our students, and offer them the choice to be themselves.

Onward and upward.

Nira Dale (@MrsDale_Edu) is an Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), English teacher, and K-12 instructional specialist in Alabama.

This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of Alabama). The project is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the individual contributors alone and do not reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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