Author and international educator, Ann Lautrette, describes a co-constructed classroom as a space where students are valued and empowered, where teachers and students work together to plan learning, to do learning, and to assess learning. How can coaches and school leaders create a space for teachers to stop doing some good things to make room for doing things that may be better?
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[00:00:00.330] – Steve [Intro]
Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.
[00:00:31.960] – Steve
Joining our podcast today is Ann Lautrette, the author of The Co-Constructed Classroom. Currently, she is the Deputy Head of Secondary in an international school in Taiwan. Ann has held a range of school leadership positions in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Switzerland. We’re so happy to have her here on the podcast. Welcome, Ann.
[00:00:56.330] – Ann
Thank you, Steve. I’m happy to be here.
[00:00:59.140] – Steve
So you describe a co-constructed classroom as a space where students are valued and empowered, where teachers and students work together to plan learning, to do learning, and to assess learning. So would you talk about what those components look like in a classroom? What’s it look like when they’re planning, learning, doing, learning, and assessing learning together?
[00:01:24.700] – Ann
Yeah. Well, the first component – sort of build a picture of the co-constructed classroom is that it’s a space where actually decisions about those aspects of learning, planning, doing and assessing it, are made in a shared way between the teacher and the student. So it’s a classroom that’s characterized by open discussions, negotiation, and two way feedback, not just from teacher to student, but also from students to teachers. And the teacher of a co-constructed classroom is really passionate about student voice and choice within the planning of the learning, the doing of the learning and the assessing of the learning. And I think the teacher would see themselves as a facilitator of learning rather than a source of knowledge. And so it’s a classroom where collaborative learning is a key component. So we would see students working together, they’re working with each other and they’re working with the teacher. It’s an environment which is flexible and adaptable to student needs. So teachers are open to adjusting lesson plans and activities based on student interests and would seek out to know those interests prior to planning learning with the students in mind. Students would be participating in discussion, debate, problem solving, hands on activities.
[00:02:40.780] – Ann
In terms of assessment methods, the assessment really is focused on being on authenticity. So teachers are looking to engage students in assessments that have real world applications of knowledge and skills. So projects, presentations, portfolios, other forms of assessment rather than memorization standardized testing. We’d also see reflection and metacognition as vital components of a co-constructed classroom. So students are encouraged to reflect on their learning experiences. They’re setting goals in connection with their teachers, they’re assessing their own progress in connection with their teachers and in collaboration with each other. And this develops student agency in really owning their own learning processes and understanding how they’re learning, not only what they’re learning, and also understanding how assessment helps them to develop and grow as a learner. And teachers and students are regularly reflecting on what’s working well, what could be improved, and making adjustments according to that, not sticking sort of slavishly to a curriculum that is planned. And all of these components really are designed to ensure that the classroom is an inclusive environment. So diverse perspectives, the backgrounds of students, they’re all actively valued through the curriculum design and different learning styles and abilities are recognized and accommodated through pedagogy and assessment.
[00:04:02.400] – Steve
So there’s a term that you use, and I think you’ve hit on that some here that I want to jump to, and that is that the teacher is making choices about what they teach based on who they are teaching. I don’t know that that’s in a lot of teacher’s initial mindset. I look at the curriculum and here’s what I’m going to teach. Then when I look at who my students are or what I know about my students, I might figure out how I’m going to teach it based on who my students are. How would school leaders, instructional coaches, how would they work with teachers who are looking at a prescriptive curriculum, but yet at the same time want to look at deciding what to teach based on who’s there in front of them?
[00:05:02.980] – Ann
So I know that some curricula are particularly prescriptive, but I don’t think that those curricula exist within a vacuum. So along a sort of continuum of co-construction, the sort of extreme right side would be that students are involved in course design, which is something I was doing this week with a class of mine where we sat down and looked at, okay, what are we going to learn this year? And they’re asking good questions, inquiry questions, and then I can use those inquiry questions to build the course in terms of I know what they’re interested in, so how do I build a course that helps ensure that they are following up on the interests that they have? It may not be possible always to involve students in course design, but the first step then would be, I think, for leaders, coaches, to encourage teachers to identify where the flexibility does exist. So as I say, curriculum is not within a vacuum. So there are text choices within language arts, for example, that teachers can make, or examples that we’re using in history within the humanities, or geographical examples, or even word problems and real life scenarios in maths.
[00:06:17.410] – Ann
A teacher can construct that, and we can construct that in ways that make the learning culturally and contextually relevant for our students and also inclusive and accessible to the unique students that we have in our classroom. So for me, as a leader, I believe in modeling and sharing. So for me, I would share with teachers on my team how I’m doing this in my classroom and also creating collaborative space for teachers to share what they’re doing. I think I would also encourage leaders to seek out the student experience and then share that with teachers. So what do students feel about their learning? Do they feel that their identities are represented in the choices made in the classroom? We have to ask them. It’s important to ask a diverse range of students so that we can understand what that experience is like for them and then respond based on what they’re saying. What ideas do students have for making learning more relevant? They have great ideas, usually around what we can do in our classrooms that would make the learning really meaningful for them. And I think as leaders, we can support teachers by really shaping a culture in our school of inquiry rather than a culture of fear.
[00:07:31.020] – Ann
Teachers need to know that they can try things out in the classroom, and that if those things don’t work, it’s okay to be open about that and to talk about failures and to talk about how they tried a particular strategy or they added something to their curriculum and it didn’t work with the students. And what did they learn by reflecting on what didn’t work? We often learn more by thinking about that than what actually did work. And once teachers have the space to feel like they can experiment, then we start to see more innovation and creativity, even within a curriculum that is really prescriptive.
[00:08:09.520] – Steve
There’s a phrase I use when I’m working with people developing professional learning communities, and that means, my phrase is asking the question, what do our students need us to learn? And so I guess we can come out and ask. [laughter]
[00:08:29.720] – Ann
Yeah, we definitely can.
[00:08:33.670] – Steve
Yeah. What is it that it’s obvious to you I don’t know that I should know which would influence approaches here in the classroom? You mentioned in your book the connection of teachers having flexible pedagogical approaches, and that a payoff of teachers having that is students developing flexible learning capabilities. You want to make that connection for us?
[00:09:06.480] – Ann
Yeah. So let’s go back a few years first. We probably all remember that a while ago we felt that the key to engaging students was to figure out their learning styles. And then we needed to ensure that we taught in ways that allowed students to learn in those styles. Apart from being practically impossible because of the range of supposed learning styles within one classroom, I think the problem with this approach is that it ultimately took away the challenge to students to be flexible and adaptable learners, because the minute we tailor everything to one particular learning style, we’re not actually challenging our students to learn in a way that they don’t necessarily feel comfortable with, and they actually need that skill. So we know today that to succeed in the world, the ability to adapt is vital. I think COVID and AI showed us that if we weren’t already convinced of it. So in a co-constructed classroom, we want to understand the strengths of our students and we encourage them to build on those strengths. But we also want to challenge them to learn in ways which are less comfortable for them because working at the very edge of that zone of proximal development is the way to progress for our students and our teachers.
[00:10:22.980] – Ann
So when teachers vary their approaches and support students to learn in different ways, then students become capable of, for example, listening to a lecture and taking good notes, but also taking on a project where they have to plan, execute and reflect. They can learn alone sometimes or collaboratively at other times, and they know how to engage in inquiry and access and evaluate sources and so on. They can flexibly move across this range of learning styles because teachers have challenged them to do so. And what’s important for teachers in varying their approaches is to ensure that teaching the skills to learn are prioritized. So it’s not just setting an inquiry and off the students go, but inquiry and project students need to be explicitly taught the skills that they need to be successful. And so while flexible pedagogies are incredibly important and assessing the skills that students have is incredibly important, then once we’ve done that, we need to explicitly teach those skills.
[00:11:28.480] – Steve
I look to connect that to really empowered learners. So flexible learners are empowered learners.
[00:11:34.440] – Ann
[00:11:36.560] – Steve
I know that if I have to look at a visual example and figure it out from looking at the visual, that’s the most difficult learning for me to do. Now, I skip it when I can, but I also know when I can’t, that it means I have to slow down. So I have to change my rate to learn in that style. I have to maybe talk out loud about what it is that I’m seeing, but I can’t just put it aside and say, well, I’m not going to do it because it’s not in my style. So that empowered learner of knowing how to make an adjustment when they need to.
[00:12:26.670] – Ann
Exactly. We talk about wanting to create lifelong learners. Well, lifelong learners have to be flexible and adaptable.
[00:12:33.640] – Steve
Yeah. There’s another term that you use in the book that I’d like you to spend a little time with, and that is learning through assessment. People talk about assessing for learning or assessing learning, but I hadn’t seen the phrase learning through assessment until I ran across it in your book.
[00:13:01.660] – Ann
Yeah, as you say, I think teachers are very familiar with the concept of assessment of learning, certainly. And most teachers would be certainly very familiar with assessment for learning. But for me, I like to focus on learning through assessment because I think it’s a way of seeing learning and assessment as integrated. So rather than a linear process of teaching learning and then assessing at the end, it’s seeing the two sort of side by side. So our planning approach, certainly, if we’re thinking about assessment of learning is to first design, perhaps, the assessment and then plan the learning that will help students to be successful on the assessment. So a sort of backwards design approach. But I do think that there are some concerns with that approach. I think firstly, it encourages students and teachers to sort of forget about learning because learning is joyful and rather focus on learning in order to get good grades in an assessment or do an assessment. And then my second concern with that is I think it results in that we teach and then we assess model of learning which ultimately makes assessment an endpoint rather than a way to learn.
[00:14:16.980] – Ann
And when we design assessment with the concept of learning through assessment in mind, I think that helps us to take away the looming fear of a final assessment and co-construct learning and assessment with our students. So in the book, I gave an example from a biology class, I can go through that a little bit. Let’s imagine that the topic is cell biology and a learning through assessment approach has the teacher introducing the outcome of the learning, which is to create and deliver a presentation to your class on a topic you’ve been assigned within cell biology. But then the teacher would ask the students to help them identify the inquiries that are implicit in the task. So they might ask, “what will you need to find out to develop the content of your presentation?” And students need to plan for that. So it’s prompting them to identify prior learning they’ve done and consider any gaps in their understanding and then what they will need to continue to learn before they can even approach completing this outcome. The teacher might ask them, “how will you find this out?” So where would be the appropriate places to start looking?
[00:15:25.550] – Ann
And this goes into the skills of research. So what are the research methods? Where do you identify sources? So they’re practicing the skills that they need in order to do this task successfully. And then teacher might ask, “how might you best structure your presentation? Who is your audience? How can you engage them?” And so this prompts the students to decide on the criteria for an effective presentation. They can identify, maybe length, the style, the need for visuals. So often we give all of this information to students but we can co construct it with students so that they’re activating their learning as they work towards engaging in an assessment. And we can also ask students to identify the criteria on which the presentation would be best assessed. And so this way we draw on their knowledge of subject criteria, reinforce that and reinforce what makes for an effective presentation. And so ultimately, this presentation that our students are preparing for serves not only as a way for the teacher to assess a student’s knowledge of cell biology, it also allows the students to learn subject content as they prepare, practice the learning skills of research and communication.
[00:16:40.430] – Ann
And all of this is through engaging in the assessment rather than for the assessment at the end.
[00:16:47.060] – Steve
Am I hearing the student doing much more self assessment because of the process?
[00:16:55.000] – Ann
[00:16:55.400] – Steve
It doesn’t mean the teacher isn’t going to, but the student is doing the assessment along the way.
[00:17:00.250] – Ann
Yeah. So in terms of developing student agency and owning their own learning and knowing how they’re progressing, it’s about encouraging them to look at what they know and understand already, what gaps they have in their learning and then how they can drive forward their progress in filling those gaps in order to complete this piece of work.
[00:17:21.440] – Steve
There’s a comment that you shared in the book from Dylan William that I thought was critical for leaders to be considering, and the quote that you had was, “stopping doing good things in order to make room for the things that may be better.” I’m wondering how you see that phrase connecting to leaders, looking at teachers, increasing the co-constructedness of classrooms.
[00:17:54.180] – Ann
Yeah, I think we can first sort of unpack what it means for something to be a good thing or to work in education. I think as leaders, we have multiple measures to examine if what is happening is working, but I’m not sure that we know exactly how to define that. So perhaps we look at exam results and we think they’re good, but do we really know how much better they could be? Maybe we measure student well being and are our students are happy, so we determine that what we’re doing is working. But what if our students could also be happy, but creative and innovative as well? Would they be happier if they were doing those things? So it’s actually really difficult to know if we’re the best that we can be as a school. And in fact, for me, I don’t think that really exists. I don’t think that there’s a point where we can say, right, that’s it, we’ve achieved everything we can in this school, let’s sort of relax now. So I think that then drives leaders to always be on the lookout for what else we could do. So we’re looking for changes we can make, we’re looking for initiatives we can start.
[00:18:57.150] – Ann
But to use a metaphor, we can’t just keep adding layers of icing to our cake. Because when we do that, that’s why a school becomes an overwhelming place to work for teachers, expectations just pile on top of expectations and everyone feels that they can’t keep up. So the reason that Dylan William phrase really sticks with me is because it means that as leaders, before introducing something new, we’re examining what we should stop doing. And it’s hard because if we tend to think that what we’re doing is working, and we do, because otherwise hopefully we wouldn’t be doing then want to stop doing anything. So we sort of have to shift away from worrying our measures working because in any case, we can’t really fully know. And so instead we look at, well, what do our students need and what do our teachers need? And we can ask them. And we can ask, what needs are all of our initiatives addressing? Rather than are these good initiatives and are they worth it? What needs are they actually addressing? What is helping our school to be an inclusive place, for example. What is helping our students to feel valued?
[00:20:09.620] – Ann
What is giving our students agency and engaging them in becoming learners who can shape their own worlds? I think if we look at our initiatives in line with those questions, then we can really see the things that we should do and the things that maybe we don’t want to do or we stop doing. Even if we think they’re working, even if we think they’re good, but they’re not in line with the values of where we want to go in terms of creating an inclusive place where students have agency. So it helps us to stop doing things because then we create space for other things. And I think if leaders believe that co-constructed classrooms are the answer, which I do, to some of these questions, then the best thing that they can do, really, is give their teachers the time, support, and professional trust needed to develop curriculum and also to experiment with pedagogy and design authentic and inclusive assessment. And they can assess what is draining time away from teachers and then look to remove or minimize things that aren’t directly contributing to the things that are most important to the school. They can give them more freedom to co-construct with students.
[00:21:14.140] – Ann
They can give them the freedom to demonstrate understanding also that things won’t also always go to plan, but that reflection is the way to growth. So to offer an example, leaders can show that they value creativity, innovation and reflection over getting everything right by, for example, changing policies and practices around, I don’t know, something like appraisals and lesson observations. They can move from a system of individual checks and balances to one of collaborative growth and support where teachers feel that they have greater agency and therefore that agency transfers to students in the classroom and co-constructed classrooms become the norm.
[00:21:55.240] – Steve
Something’s going through my head as I’ve listened to you all along the way and I’m going to float it by you so tell me, it seems like a real critical component here is questioning.
[00:22:11.160] – Ann
[00:22:12.360] – Steve
So whether I’m talking leading or I’m talking teaching or I’m talking learning, it’s about expanding the questions and learning what the questions are. So as a teacher, what questions do I ask the students that bring them more into the co-construction part? And as a leader, what questions am I asking the teachers? And then for all of us, what questions are we asking them ourselves about what could be instead of what is?
[00:22:48.540] – Ann
I think that’s exactly right. I think we are working in a collaborative environment where we can’t really function if we don’t work together. Teachers need to work together, teachers and students need to work together and leaders and teachers and students all need to work together and parents and everybody else in our community. But we can’t really purport to know what is best for absolutely everyone in our community. So the questions are about getting to know what the needs are in those different groups. And when we question and we listen, then we can really start to respond.
[00:23:27.300] – Steve
Sounds like there could be two more books coming. I would love to the co constructed school and the co constructed I do.
[00:23:35.820] – Ann
Have some ideas around that and the.
[00:23:38.220] – Steve
Co constructed community for sure as you move the process out. All of those things built to design what could be. Yeah, it’s powerful. Powerful. Well, Anne, thank you so much. It’s just been a delight for me. I’d recommend your book to listeners, so let folks know easiest way that they can touch base with you with questions or thoughts that they have and where to find the co constructed book.
[00:24:12.420] – Ann
Yeah, so I have my own website, so it’s thecoconstructedclassroom.com and so on the website I do have a blog and there’s also a contact me section, so it’s very easy to put some questions in there. You can subscribe to the blog too and there’s a link also through the website to the book which is available on Amazon. It’s available in Kindle form and in paperback form at the moment.
[00:24:39.420] – Steve
Well, terrific. Thank you so much. You’ve extended my thinking and I’m sure that’s going to happen to many of the listeners. I really appreciate it.
[00:24:52.950] – Ann
Thank you so much, Steve. It’s been a real pleasure.
[00:24:57.280] – Steve
Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn at steve Barkley or send me your questions and find my videos and email@example.com.