Teachers Making Themselves Unneeded

On Tuesday, March 8th, we walked into Chicago Bulls College Prep (CBCP) to witness the “magic” at the highest-performing campus in the Noble Street Charter School system. Our first stop was Mr. Kuzma’s room where he was setting up norms for a discussion. Students reviewed the expectations to:

  • be clearly audible
  • not use pronouns
  • be exhaustive
  • be confident, and
  • remember the goal: group mastery for 42 students

And they were off! A student demonstrating balancing a chemical equation on her whiteboard checked in with her group mates: “Does anyone not understand?” We saw this over and over — students challenging each other respectfully, ensuring that each member of their group also understood each concept. It was unusual to see the classroom led by students, rather than a teacher leading the class in direct instruction. We had to see more.

Before the bell rang to end the passing period, Ms. Segerson was already addressing her English 3 class: “Alright, team, let’s read these directions together.” Each student was silently following along with the directions in preparation for their discussion. Very tight procedures were in place, from the co-teacher seamlessly handing out packets to late comers, to each student giving snaps when they agreed with a classmate. In all, teachers were focused on facilitating an environment where students would direct their own learning. After coming to a group conclusion, one student says, “I’m still confused; isn’t this question testing our use of punctuation?” In response, a group member patiently explains, “There shouldn’t be any commas because that would interrupt the meaning of the sentence.” In these classrooms, teachers were pushing students to rely on each other more, and on the teacher less.

We were realizing that CBCP was implementing a radical shift in teaching pedagogy. Traditionally, students often listen passively to a lecturer. At CBCP, however, students contribute to the knowledge via conversations and ensure that their classmates are engaged. The students and teachers in each room were focused on the goal originally stated in the Chemistry classroom: group mastery for every student in the room.

This group mastery was only possible through teachers who provided the structure, expectations, and freedom for students to express their learnings and uncertainties while the teachers continued to reduce their role in attaining knowledge. CBCP is calling it their Discussion Based Model. (See more here.)

As the next class came in, we heard Ms. Marlow provide the entirety of her direct instruction for the period; “Let’s begin.”

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