Letting Students Lead the Learning

According to a Gallup Student Poll (2015) of public school children, 47% report being “disengaged” at school. Unfortunately, this statistic doesn’t shock me. Too many classrooms are not set up with the intention of engaging students.

Student engagement is “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught.” As a teacher, it’s my job to engage student curiosity, interest and passion in relation to the curriculum. I cannot do that effectively if I place myself at the center of learning and ask students to focus on me. A class designed to engage learners must place the students at the center of the learning happening.

I realize this goes far beyond simply shifting away from a lecture model. It means really rethinking our entire approach to teaching. I experienced a moment of clarity as I prepared to introduce a large scale project last month…

My students were about to start an RSA animation project focused on a genocide of their choice. I was preparing a Google Document with an explanation of what RSA animation is, detailed directions for creating an RSA film, and suggested roles for students. As I looked at my detailed explanation of the project, I asked myself, “Why do I need to tell students how to do this? Why not let students figure it out? Wouldn’t figuring it out be more interesting and engaging?”

The truth is I didn’t need to teach my 9th and 10th-grade students what an RSA animated film is or how to create one. When students leave high school, they will be expected to successfully navigate myriad challenges and novel situations. If I tell them how to complete a project, then 1) they haven’t had to struggle, problem solve, or learn how to learn and 2) I’ve only shown them my way (not necessarily the best way) of completing this project.

Instead of giving them access to that Google Document full of information and instructions, I asked students to investigate RSA animation to find out what it is and how they are created. Then groups worked together to write a project proposal explaining how they were going to execute this project. It required them to think through the purpose, strategy, and process before beginning their work. It asked them to do the work that most teachers do for them.

I spent time with each group reviewing the proposals before they began their work. From then on, it was up to them to pull the parts of the project together–research, script, storyboarding, filming, editing, and publishing. They struggled and they problem solved. They were frustrated and they were excited. It was a challenge but, at the end, almost every group had a completed film.

The finished products are a testament to how successful students can be when they are given a chance to lead the learning happening in the classroom.

I’ve come to realize that if I tell my students how to do their work, I remove the incentive for them to really engage, think critically, and problem solve. It’s so important that students learn how to learn and navigate unfamiliar tasks and challenges.

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20 Responses to Letting Students Lead the Learning

  1. Scott Auspelmyer says:

    Great stuff! As a history teacher and a United States Holocaust Memorial Mueum Teaching Fellow, I am always excited to see teachers in other subject areas having students learn more about genocides. Additionally, your seamless integration of student creation of RSA to present their learning is fantastic! Engaging minds in creative learning activities is how to engage students in the 21st century. I only hope to continue to learn from your example moving forward.

    Thanks again for sharing.

    • Thank you, Scott! My students read Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night about his experience during the Holocaust, but I wanted them to realize that genocides have happened since the Holocaust. Most of my students didn’t realize that there have been so many genocides. They really enjoyed the project!

      Thanks for the comment!


      • jane wisdom says:

        When I taught “A Raisin in the Sun” I asked students to decide whether or not one of the main characters would have a better, worse or about the same chance of achieving his/her dream today than the character did during the time of the play. I like this idea to update it! Crazy, I devised the same assignment for “Night” last year; I asked if we’ve learned anything from the Holocaust, based on the genocide they chose to study. I had them do a power point or Prezi last year; this year I’ll definitely try RSA!! Thanks so much.

        • I love that question, Jane, about whether or not it would be easier or more challenging to achieve dreams (or the American Dream) today. That question could be used with so many different texts and help students think about how our country has changed.


    • lucas says:

      I totally agree. Genocides are things everybody should learn so that we dont make the same mistake again.

  2. Thanks for the reply!

    Yes, unfortunately, there have been many genocides and it is often eye-opening to students to realize that the Holocaust was not the first, nor the last. A great companion piece to Weisel’s work is “Leap Into Darkness” by Leo Bretholz. He was a teenager on the run from the Nazis throughout the course of the war. He was arrested, and escaped, the Nazis several times, including his last escape – a daring jump off a train of victims destined for Auschwitz. It is a remarkable story that offers a very different experience, but one no less traumatic than Weisel’s. I’ve used it many times and the students really enjoy reading it.

    Keep up the great work!


  3. What started out as an experiment to garner more participation has turned into one of my favorite classroom activities. I highly recommend letting students take the lead. I believe you will find that your silence will break down theirs.

  4. I think this is an important point you are making about giving students control, and I am sure your students learned a lot from this exercise. However, I do worry that students might learn more deeply from writing a traditional paper than from making an RSA-style video. I watched the Rwandan Genocide video, and it’s good — but it seems a bit superficial. It doesn’t get at some crucial questions: how were 800,000 people able to be slaughtered in 100 days? That’s 8,000 per day. How could that happen? How could the world watch that happen? The video makes it seem like there were just the Hutu and Tutsi, isolated from the rest of the world. I fear that the time spent learning to make RSA-style video may have taken away from some of the depth and complexity of the Rwandan Genocide. Did the students watch Hotel Rwanda, for example? That film generates some powerful discussions.

    Also, I’m curious what class worked on this (what age student and what class) and how long students had to work on the project. I teach US History to high school sophomores and juniors, and there’s a good bit of material the state says we have to cover, which makes it challenging (though not impossible) to do extended projects of the sort you describe here. I’m working now on having students write a short paper explaining the Iraq War. I’m not sure we’ll also have time to make videos, but now I’m thinking about it, thanks to your blog and video. Thanks for sharing and for making me think more deeply about my own teaching.

    • Hi Steve,

      As a 9th and 10th grade English teacher, my students complete a variety of pieces of writing to analyze different texts, topics, and issues. I agree that writing is one way to demonstrate understanding, but it isn’t the only way or even the best way for many students. My goal with RSA, as well as a wide range of other types of alternative types of assignments (i.e. infographics, thematic memes, Instagram sensory walks), is to provide students with different avenues to demonstrate their understanding. Some students excel at writing while others are more creative and artistic.

      What I like about RSA is that students are developing a whole host of skills by working collaboratively to create the films. They conduct research, collaborate on a shared script to take their research and turn it into a story, design a storyboard, and edit/publish their films. There are so many important skills cultivated with this one assignment that go beyond simply understanding the causes, realities and impacts of the actual genocide they are researching.

      We did not watch Hotel Rwanda. Each of the groups in my class selected a separate genocide to focus on for this assignment. The goal was to get them to understand that there have been genocides beyond the Holocaust, which we were reading about. Often students hear that they must learn about the Holocaust to ensure that nothing like that happens again. I want them to understand that genocide has happened and is happening around the world.

      My husband is a World History teacher, so I know the history standards are intense. That said, I worry that marching through the events in history without opportunities to dive deeper will result in kids who don’t remember much. If there is time to take some deeper dives into aspects of history that are particularly important, I think projects like RSA film making can be incredibly valuable and worthwhile. That’s not to say every film will be incredible, but it’s important to consider what else the kids are learning as they work together to execute a multifaceted project like this.

      I appreciate your comment as I’m sure other teachers are curious about similar issues!


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  9. Beth says:

    I think this is a great idea!! I do a lot of technology with my students and I was wondering if you ever had students create their own essential question to coincide with the proposal. How many days did did it take from start to finished product?

    • Hi Beth,

      I have had students craft essential questions to guide their work on RSA (and other research based work). It’s a great way to have them narrow their focus and stay on point. The RSA project took about a week and a half from start to finish and we dedicated about half of our 90 minute class to it each day. That includes research, drafting and editings scripts, drawing and recording.


  10. Debbie says:

    This is a great way for students to collaborate and create together using a different medium for expression. I am a library media specialist working with students who are in grade 5. In their classroom the students are working on social issues in book clubs and I was going to have the create PSA’s about the issue depicted in their book club book. I am interested in RSS but I am concerned it may be a bit much for this age group. Have you had any experience with students as young as 5th grade using this tool?

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  12. lucas says:

    I like this because everybody sould learn about this kind of thing. They will be better off for the future if they learn about this stuff.

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