Want to Improve Teaching? Listen to Students

Annie Emerson doesn't have to wonder about what it takes to help her kindergarten students learn how to write or do math. They've told her.

Several times during the year, the Pinewoods Elementary School teacher asks her students two basic questions: what are ways that I teach you that you like or that are really working for you? What could be changed to help you learn even more? And it turns out even 5-year-olds have plenty to say.

Emerson's students told her that they wanted more open-ended time to work on writing and math activities -- which is exactly what the Florida teacher gave them. Along with adding longer blocks of time for those activities during the day, Emerson began finding ways to help students weave math problems into their lives outside of school, including measuring how long it takes for the bus to get to school each day and comparing the heights of family members. Just as importantly, the conversations "brought on a whole new level of trust with my class," Emerson says. "The students realized they had 'voice' -- for them, having that at age five was a pretty big deal."

In Lee County, Florida, giving students voice has become a critical part of improving instruction. Part of a collaborative effort by the school district, its education foundation, and the local teachers union, teachers have learned how to listen to feedback from students to improve the way they teach, as well as how to help students set their own goals and expectations for behavior and learning. "Student feedback has created a new bridge between teachers and their students, more of a dialogue really, about what appears to be working and what is not," says Mark Castellano, president of the Teachers Association of Lee County.

Good teachers have long known the importance of knowing their students, both as learners and as individuals. But building and strengthening the relationship between teachers and students has become central to efforts to improve teaching.

As broad and ill-defined as the concept of "21st century learning" can be, a few consistent themes emerge. The idea of students taking more control of their learning experiences and guiding their own efforts to solve challenging problems pervades the Common Core and other initiatives. But efforts to foster this kind of complex learning will fall flat if teachers don't build the kinds of relationships with students that give them the confidence to tackle difficult work on their own. And the notion of teachers adjusting how they teach based on what students are doing in the classroom increasingly includes direct feedback from students. Research suggests that student feedback can be used to help teachers reflect on and improve their teaching practices.

Students who are given a voice in setting goals gain ownership in what they're learning. Teachers who listen to what students tell them they need to learn gain more than just a better understanding of the children they teach -- they gain clarity on their roadmap to better teaching. And when conversations about teaching and learning are allowed to happen, teachers and students develop mutual trust and high expectations. Just ask Annie Emerson -- or better yet, ask one of her students, like the one who said he feels like "he's learning all the time now, not just in school." And all it took was an opportunity to hear -- and be heard.

Harriet Sanford is President and CEO of the NEA Foundation. The NEA Foundation is a public charity supported by contributions from educators' dues, corporate sponsors, and others who support public education initiatives. We partner with education unions, districts, and communities to create powerful, sustainable improvements in teaching and learning. Visit www.neafoundation.org for more information.