Vail Daily column: Putting students in the center |

Vail Daily column: Putting students in the center

Jason E. Glass
Valley Voices

For most adults, the reality is we were passengers in our own education.

We were first sorted by age levels and sorted into grades and then into classes. Within these classes, teachers exposed us to different content — things like math, reading, science, etc. The pace was dictated by how much “stuff” (or facts) a teacher had to cover within the traditional school calendar and away we went. Some of us thrived in this structure, while others struggled.

In many cases, this structure of school left learners with the impression that they weren’t very smart — but in reality many former struggling students turned into brilliant people — once they got the chance to call their own shots and follow their own dreams.

The problem with the “student as passenger” model is that the structure of school and the adults working in it are the ones making all the decisions about what and how students learn.

This is not to say that we don’t need talented, skilled and well-trained professional educators supporting and guiding the educational process. It is to say that we need to revolutionize learning so that student voice is a co-equal part of the equation.

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The geeky-education-jargon term for this shift is known as “student agency” and it refers to the level of autonomy, power, control and engagement students have in their own learning.

The more common-sense term for this is “self-directed learning,” and it has some important implications as to what the school experience should be for our students.

The self-directed learner (as opposed to the passenger learner) is able to understand what is to be learned and why, and most importantly, has a voice in setting the learning path.

The self-directed learner is skilled at self-monitoring their own progress, knowing in what areas they are strong and where they need more support.

The self-directed learner understands their individual intellectual growth and continuously reflects back and learns forward.

Putting the student at the center of their own learning is one of the major educational transformations happening in our schools today. But, this is not easy work. Practically everyone involved in the educational process, from students to teachers to parents — as well as many so-called education experts — are very used to and comfortable with the model of the teacher being in control and delivering education to the students, pouring knowledge like water into empty vessels.

But our students are not empty vessels; they bring their own background knowledge, talents, passions and dreams into our schools. They deserve partnership status in the educational process and the opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to become enthusiastic, self-directed life-long learners.

If we are honest, we’ve got a lot of work to do in making this transformation in our schools. Students aren’t used to being put in the center and asked to participate as partners in their learning. Educators have to find ways to invite students into this work and to both value and act on the student voice. And parents have to get used to an educational system where an expert “practitioner” does not hold all the answers and is expected to work all the miracles.

Putting the student in the center of the learning means some very different (and uncomfortable and exciting) relationships for our educators, our kids and our parents. But it’s the right work; and if we can really and authentically engage students in their own learning, then we would be so much closer to making good on the promise of no child being left behind.

Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at

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