When I step back and think about my own evolution as a teacher, I am struck by how dramatically different my approach to teaching is today compared to 14 years ago. When I first stepped into the classroom as a new teacher, at the age of 22, I felt I had to be the expert on everything. In retrospect, this is, of course, ridiculous.

Even after 14 years in the classroom, I do not claim to be an expert! Instead, I’ve learned something much more valuable: I should not strive to be a fountain of knowledge but rather an architect of learning experiences.

In first few years of my teaching career, I prepared mini-lectures to help my students understand concepts, vocabulary, grammar, writing, and literature. Unfortunately, this approach, which involved me talking and them listening, kept my students firmly in the role of passive consumers. As a result, it failed to yield meaningful learning. It also failed to capitalize on the collective intelligence in my classroom.

Today, my classroom is a more chaotic space where students collaborate almost constantly to learn from and with one another. It isn’t that my role is less valuable. However, the focus of the actual lesson is not on me; it’s on them. My energy is spent in two specific areas: building lessons that challenge students to construct knowledge together and providing support/feedback throughout the process as needed.

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Many educators refer to the role of the teacher today as the “guide on the side”; however, that title feels too passive given how challenging our jobs are! I like the analogy of the architect – one who designs a building and as needed supervises its construction. That is how I view my role as a teacher. I design lessons with the goal of providing meaningful learning experiences that demand students be curious and creative. Then I am a presence in the classroom to lend support as their interactions drive the lesson.

Shifting to the role of the architect is challenging. The truth is it’s easier to stand in front of a classroom and tell students everything we know about a topic we have been teaching for years. It is exponentially more challenging to design learning experiences that allow students to construct knowledge. Conversely, it’s easier for students to sit passively staring at a teacher while taking notes; it’s harder to be an active and engaged member of a group. However, being an active participant in a classroom is much more socially and mentally rewarding.

The more we can make learning an experience and engage our students as active generators of information using the tools at our disposal and the collective intelligence in our classrooms, the more likely we are to cultivate students who are intellectually curious and armed with the skills needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world.

18 Responses

  1. And what are some ways teachers can become learning architects? How does one go from having kids passively receive information to engaging and interacting with material?

  2. Beautifully said! I have always been a constructivist, and fan of emergent curriculum. However, that is so often misunderstood as passivity. I like the term “negotiated curriculum” better, implying that teacher and children both play active roles in designing the learning experiences. I love the notion of teacher as architect, which provides further explanation to the active role of the teacher!

  3. Caitlin, you would so love Dr. Phil Schlechty’s work. Your metaphor of the architect is similar to his vision of of a Leader, Designer, and Guide to Instruction. Please find time to read “Engaging Students”. And thanks for your great blogs. Ron Wright @schlechtycenter

  4. Teachers at any Montessori School are architects of learning experiences in a well prepared surrounding which enables students to learn by themselves in a self given timeframe! Montessori Method can be implemented in any school from Kindergarten to High School, even University! Why re-inveting wheels which already exist since over 100 years!
    Google, Amazon, The Sims, Wikipedia and many other things especially also here in Thailand perhaps won’t even exist like they exist right now without those people who made them so big and stable as they went to schools which are following the Montessori Approach already in Kindergarten. I believe if we would convert all schools to be Montessori Schools, the world would be a much more peaceful place.
    If you want to see how to engage students, simply visit a Montessori School in your neighborhood for a day or two! I am pretty sure that after that visit you would like to learn more about the Montessori method.

    • Hi Andy,

      My own children went to a Montessori preschool-kindergarten! It was absolutely fabulous because it gave my children the opportunity to move and make decisions about their learning. There are so many aspects of this approach that make sense.


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