Capitalizing on What Students Do Best: Socialize.

Actual picture of me in my classroom.

Sometimes I pretend like I am a ghost in my classroom. As a ghost, I am invisible, float around, and just listen. At this point in the semester, it is a thing of beauty: a room full of learners working together like an orchestra, all doing different things at once, but somehow managing to achieve the goal of learning.

See the thing is, I like a loud classroom. I am actually extremely uncomfortable in silence in part because I was uncomfortable when I sat in a classroom in complete silence being talked at. Actually, I still am uncomfortable being talked at, be it in graduate classes or meetings (sorrynotsorry to my administrators). Last year I worked to change the structure of my classroom, focusing heavily on the student experience. That meant I had to monitor and evaluate the amount of airspace I took, create opportunities for learner choice and voice, and, essentially, give up control of the classroom to my my learners.

I notice that last piece invokes a sense of fear and anxiety in many teachers, and I get it. Teachers are, traditionally, the knowers of all things; they are the experts. They are the center of the classroom. Throughout my entire learning experience, and at the beginning of my teaching career, this is how classrooms were structured:

curriculum transfer modelCurriculum Transfer Model (Geni, n.d.)

One problem with this learning model is that it is impossible for the teacher to learn everything about the curriculum. They might be really knowledgeable in a specific content area, but to know everything? I’m skeptical. Likewise it is impossible for learners to learn everything about the curriculum through the teacher for a variety of reasons (intellectual maturity, sufficient and appropriate explanations or lack thereof, content knowledge deficits, and more).

This model also shows that learning is very passive. There is little interaction between learners and the curriculum. It is boring. If I am being honest: I zone out during teacher-centered lecture, even today. I will doodle, text, tweet, check my Instagram feed, and send SOS Snapchats to my friends…just like our students.

To combat the passivity, boredom, and isolation, I have built a community learners that capitalizes on what students are good at: TALKING.

community of learnersCommunity of Learners Model (Geni, n.d.)

One of the first things that most people notice about this model is that the curriculum is at the center of the classroom, with all parties engaging with it and each other. There is another, more subtle difference in this picture. Do you see it? I’m talking about the arrows: they point in both directions. This small detail emphasizes the importance of the idea that that no single person knows everything, not even the teacher, and everybody in the classroom has something to contribute to learning.

My learners and I have a classroom mantra: share the wealth. It really speaks to what  I have described above, and drives home to purpose of why we are in class, school: to learn as much as possible and to grow as much as possible…with each other.

In order for this to work, a certain environment must be set up such that each member of the group, class feels valued. A lot of the structures that I implemented were adopted and modified from/with Larry Geni, a former high school physics teacher, current consultant, and my educational therapist (seriously). For more information about building a social learning environment, as well as structures to promote self-directed learners, check out Geni’s books; they are free to read on his website.

Social learning environments can definitely be very scary. The status of the teacher is lessened dramatically, while the status of each individual learner is raised. It brings this idea of “student-owned learning” to a whole new meaning. But it is a delicate thing to accomplish.

Interested in facilitating a classroom like this? I know I was very eager at the beginning, and I jumped right in. To put it lightly, I failed a bunch of times. But you know what? That’s the whole point of learning! We try something. Receive feedback. Try it again. Reflect. Repeat.

At this moment, I feel much more confident in facilitating a social learning environment. Many of the facilitation strategies I utilize were picked up from the Complex Instruction Consortium, and my educational therapist, Geni. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Phrase that Pays

In essence, I like to emphasize the importance of sharing ideas and openly communicating with each other. I will typically open an activity/task with something like:

Today you will work together on a task. It is important that your group works together on this task. While you may think you know everything, unfortunately you do not. BUT each of you has something to contribute, and the more each of you contributes, the richer your group solution will be…

Whenever we do group tasks, I always deliver The Phrase that Pays (TPTP). To me, and to our classroom, it just reinforces our mantra. It encourages learners to actively and effectively communicate with each other, which Tony Wagner identifies as one of his Seven Survival Skills.

Classroom Spies


What are spies good at? Creeping around. Watching. Listening. Not being seen. These are a few of the attributes I recommend to learners if they are stuck and want some help without interrupting anybody else’s learning. This facilitation strategy works particularly well with students working on similar tasks. I encourage learners to send one group member to spy around the room, picking up, err, writing down and information that might help their own group.

It is crucial to encourage the rest of the group to continue discussing the task at hand while their spy is floating around, because, you know, classroom management.

Group Questions

Whenever an individual raises their hand, I walk over to that individual, maintaining eye contact until I arrive at their desk…and then I abruptly turn to someone in their group and ask their what about the question. If they do not know, I walk away.

[Cue the argument between group mates]

L1: Wait, where are you going?! Why did he just walk away??!
L2: Why didn’t you ask us first? We could have helped.
L1: [zero comeback]

Nine times out of ten, the learner who had the question did not ask their group. Well, at the beginning it is nine times out of ten. Once a group picks up on the whole “group question” thing, they are much more cognizant of utilizing each other as resources first.

Peer Pressure

I remember growing up hearing that peer pressure was bad. Not from my parents or anything, but from television; my parents are first generation immigrants who did not know what the teenage American upbringing entailed. Having said that, peer pressure is very real, but it can be used in a classroom to encourage learners to work, both individually and as a group.

One of the structures Geni helped me build with my high school mathematics classes dramatically improved homework/practice completion across the board. The short answer is I started stamping practice that was completed on-time. Some of the criteria to receive a stamp include:

  • Title & date
  • Attempt at each problem
  • Level of understanding for each problem (up, side, down arrows)
  • Questions, comments for problems any side or down arrow

Mind you, no points or grades are awarded for doing practice (s/o to the #tg2 squad). Completed work did receive a sweet stamp (including, but not limited to, a number of different, amazing dinosaurs). This is where the peer pressure comes in: if everyone in the group received a stamp for a given practice (on the day it is checked in), each member gets a double stamp. And if the group continues to do so for consecutive days, they can build a streak (a la Snapchat) and receive triple, quadruple, quintuple, …, n-number of stamps. It really is so simple and so trivial, but for some reason it worked wonders….on high schoolers. Apparently streaks are a big deal; learners got mad if a streak was broken.

What I saw in doing this really amazed me: learners talked outside of class, making sure each group member knew what the assignment was, and even offered to hold out-of-class study sessions to get work done together. There were a few instances where learners screenshot their FaceTime session, with each group member holding up their math journal, cheesing for the camera. It was absolutely adorable.


From my perspective, learning happens best when it is done with others. Being able to share ideas, critique each other, and work towards a common goal is so much more meaningful than sitting and listening to a lecture. Plus, it is way more fun! But as a teacher, allowing for so much freedom is both a common fear and a big challenge. While there are a number of other facilitation strategies that I use on the regular, the four above happen to be some of my favorites. If you are interested in discussing more, or if you have some that you would like to share, send me a tweet!