DisruptED TV Magazine

Education without Limits: Transform Learning and Culture to Unleash Student Potential

By Marisa E. Thompson

Students’ learning and experience shouldn’t be stagnant. And teachers shouldn’t settle.

Instead of leaving education after my 7th year, I changed what we were doing. We experienced great transformations and some “failures.” Each shift was worth every effort because each was content-, skill-, and future-focused, with a greater purpose in mind. I learned even the smallest incremental changes can have an impact by encouraging more. Eventually, we will lead ourselves to teach the way we dreamed we would when we entered the profession.

Now I don’t allow anything to serve as limits for what we do: time, funding, testing, tradition. Not even the standards.

Standards for Foundations, Not Limits

Standards are a starting point, a list of skills to master, but they certainly aren’t my end-goal. And tradition is fine if it’s for school colors, rallies, and fight songs, but replicating the education system of the past 100 years out of nostalgia will only give us more of the same.

Students should use the standards’ specific skills to create (based on their own understanding of the content, from their own lens and for their own purpose) and then communicate their creation for their audiences in written, verbal, and visual mediums.

Isn’t this what education should be? The chance for students to practice the skills they need for their life, college and career? Multiple choice tests and question lists won’t do this, and luckily, the standards rarely mention types of assessments. This leaves teachers — or more importantly, students — the freedom to produce what they want for themselves and to prove true mastery.

Removing Constraints from the Daily Experience

We have the power to provide an unlimited educational experience for our students. If we want creative thinkers, innovators, and collaborators, then we have to offer consistent opportunities and foster the confidence necessary to master these skills and make them habits. This is best practiced daily, until students stop conforming and are confident outside of their comfort zones.

We must change the daily lessons and routine activities because they are the daily experience. It’s time, and it’s possible. It’s not about changing everything and not all at once. One change starts the ripple effect.

Our Ripple’s Beginning

A few years ago, I decided I couldn’t cheapen To Kill a Mockingbird and Fahrenheit 451 with multiple choice tests. Then, a inspired our , our treasured solution to question lists. The next year, I saw the power of Genius Projects and a Socratic Seminar-only study of The Things They Carried. We ditched the traditional research paper so two classes could work together to submit a grant proposal which would benefit future students. I realized the classroom had to change, too, to support our ever-changing daily experience.

Tools for Soft Skills

Consider your classroom: the furniture, technology, tools, even your decor. What do they imply? Does your classroom inspire or limit?

Since our school was unable to provide any funding, a few families contributed to help me change our learning environment from standard desks to a variety of tables and chairs and then supplemented our new laptops with Collaboration Screens (click for a “”). When the laptop cart first arrived and students inevitably focused on their individual screens, I worried my class would stop providing the right experiences to make my students college-, career-, and life-ready. I expected some growing pains for all of us. I did not realize it would transform us into a team and forever change me as a teacher.

When I look back on the year, I recognize how this new environment helped me lead a class with purpose. Our new furniture forced students to discuss and pushed me to revamp lessons and activities. The laptops and Collaboration Screens led to even more creativity, autonomy, and collaboration. I didn’t bring in more technology to create Google or Apple experts. , the technology allows students to create and revise instantly and repeatedly until their work represents their thinking and professionalism.

We had more purpose and a modern learning environment, but something was still missing.

The Missing Skill

With constant practice, students gain enough experience to see their ideas through, beyond obstacles of time, funding, and other limited resources. Like we do, students must face these obstacles, get their gears turning, and make their plans succeed by finding the necessary balance between the idea and reality. They have to practice figuring it out.

Figure It Out is both a skill and a mindset. With enough experience trying and succeeding, students develop the resourcefulness and self-confidence necessary to overcome any obstacle.

I want students to figure it out when their learning and ideas meet resistance. In September, I front loaded my mantra-response with several discussions. As I promised I would, I’d respond, “you are smart and you have every tool you need to figure it out. See what you can do, and I’ll be back.” We agreed about how we’d get there, but the agreement didn’t stop the glares and murmurs.

A few weeks later, everything changed. Students no longer stopped all progress waiting for me to solve their problems, they approached their peers, and offered assistance to each other. They searched YouTube for tutorials, even created and shared their own, and sought advice from family members and friends. Students brought their own ideas to fruition rather than mine. They could accurately self-assess before seeking feedback, knowing their products were not yet at the quality they envisioned. Students wanted inspiration and collaboration, not instructions.

Building Confidence through Collaboration and Autonomy

I see great value in teamwork so the classroom became almost a completely collaborative environment. Some tables seat as many as eight, however our most common seating is four to six. We do have a handful of spots for individual work, but these are almost never occupied. Because of the classroom set up and the time they have to discuss and create, I can move from section to section easily and talk with every student at least once each class period. Our room provides us constant face-to-face time, encouraging discussion. Since my students tend to shy away from discussion at the beginning of every year, we practice this the most.

We do practice autonomy, but not in the traditional “sit down and complete this the way I showed you” sense. In fact, my approach is simple. When students ask, “Can I…?”, I answer “yes” with such frequency and passion, my students stop asking for permission to be creative, to try a different approach, and to go beyond the foundational skills.

That’s the autonomy we need from them.

Power of Academic Freedom

Regardless of whether we keep or change the content, the learning will increase when we increase the number of skills students practice and provide them with real freedom to think and create. It’s a matter of your physical space and your procedures reinforcing your purpose. It’s a trade of desks for a variety of work spaces and swapping several low-level thinking assignments for a larger project with as much student choice as possible.

Antigone-inspired, Student-created Public Service Announcement Posters

After a few months of experiencing complete creative freedom in my class and receiving page-long instructions in another, one of my more skeptical students shared her epiphany with me: “Instructions are limiting.”

And she’s right. Instructions are limitations.

As much as rows of desks are for compliance, explicit directions are recipes for conformity. They provide the exact ingredients and many of our rubrics provide the measurements (please consider a with the standard as the goal). Samples and scaffolds can have the same limiting effect. These “support” materials, especially when paired with instructions and rubrics, encourage students to produce carbon copies instead of work showing their understanding and ability.

When preparing for an essay, we discuss the different ways we brainstorm and review the supplies available so students can figure out what they want to write before starting a draft. And yes, of course, my students write their own prompts. I want to know that they can communicate what they think, not what I think.

Unlimited Education for All Students

This is what student-owned learning looks like. I have heard some teachers say they’ve taught this way with Honors and Advanced students, but every change we made was designed with and for all of my students. All students can thrive in an environment where they know people value their ideas, questions, and talents.

On the last day of our year, students said what they learned from our class was that they can. And what they gained was confidence.

They now believe in themselves as much as I always have.

When you’re ready for your students to have greater academic freedom, there will be obstacles, but not limitations. The only limitations are those we set and those we accept.

Key Takeaways:

  • Whether an educator or a student, one change can be a catalyst for more, providing the experience and confidence necessary to take another risk, and another.
  • Furniture and technology are not required to improve the lasting effect of your course, but they can be utilized with calculated intention as tools for student growth.
  • Assessments are not fixed. They can be designed by the teacher, or better yet, the student.
  • Duplication is the lowest assessment type. Students should create based on their learning and communicate the creation.
  • Autonomy can include community.
  • Confidence, purpose, and impact are determining factors in lifelong learning, risk-taking, and happiness.
  • We have trained students into an educational comfort zone and we must provide daily practice to help them escape it.
  • When students’ ideas, interests, talents, and questions are valued, they are more willing to actively participate in the team’s purpose.
  • Giving students creative freedom to use their skills to support their own purpose does not create chaos; it creates confidence.

Suggested Resources:

For more information on replacing question lists with Thoughts, Questions, and Epiphanies (student-led literacy practice), see .

For more information on Collaboration Screens and our Flexible Classroom, see and .

Marisa Thompson (M.A. Teacher Education) blogs about what works best for her students on . With more than a dozen years of classroom experience, Marisa supports other teachers as a University of San Diego professional development instructor, a conference presenter, and a designated cooperating teacher for several credential programs. Traveling internationally for nearly 30 years, including educational trips to Europe, South America, and Asia with her students, she believes in “the power of education, the transformative effects of travel and experience, and the joy the unexpected can bring” and pushes students to move past “so-called limitations” by embracing their voice, talent, and inspiration. Subscribe to and follow her on Twitter, .

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DisruptED TV Magazine is committed to elevating and celebrating great school teachers and school leaders.

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