The Power of Student-Led Conferences

Each time this image appears in my social media news feed it makes me angry. The image compares and contrasts a parent teacher conference in 1961 with one from 2011. It suggests that fifty years ago, the conference was an opportunity for parents and teachers to “gang up” on students while today, the pendulum has shifted with parents and students “ganging up” on the teachers.  If you believe the 2011 image is an accurate depiction of how things are at your school then you need to take a serious look at how you involve students and their families in the learning process. The flaw with these images is that in both cases, the stakeholders are not all on the same page working towards the same goal. No one should be “ganging up” on anyone during a parent teacher conference. It didn’t work fifty years ago, and it certainly won’t work today. One powerful way to promote a collaborative relationship between parents, teachers, and students is with a student-led conference model, a trend that has grown in popularity in the past few years in schools across the country.

Late in 2014, the staff of Edudemic prepared A Guide to Student-Led Conferences. In it they wrote: “In the student-led conference format, students and teachers prepare together, and then students lead the conference while teachers facilitate. The triad then sits together to review and discuss the work and the student’s progress. The message, once again, is that the students are responsible for their own success. Student-led conference models vary, but the premise is the same: This is the student’s moment to share his or her reflections on achievements and challenges.”

Mind/Shift’s Mia Christopher explained Why Students Should Take the Lead in Parent-Teacher Conferences. Christopher’s article included many excerpts from Deeper Learning How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century, by Monica R. Martinez and Dennis McGrath. The idea of student-led conferences promotes the ideal that students are responsible for their own successes and their own learning. During these conferences, students present their own work while their teachers and their parents listen. The group then reviews the work and the student’s progress collaboratively. The idea is a huge shift from a more traditional model where students would stay at home while parents would attend the meeting and let the teacher present all of the student work. King Middle School teacher Peter Hill, who was highlighted in the article, stated that “As kids learn to advocate for themselves in this way, they discover how to let their parents know more specifically how to support them.” His colleague Gus Goodwin noted that when the model was first introduced, not all parents were on board with the change. He went on to say that parents soon came around to the idea and that “over time, the parents begin to set a higher bar for their students at these conferences.”

In a recent blog for P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning, teachers Doris Malmin and Kevin Armstrong discussed how learning targets and student-led learning conferences have created more pathways to communication at Katherine Smith Elementary School in San Jose, CA. Malmin and Armstrong talked about the process they went through to develop learning targets from standards. They wrote, “Learning Targets have made a huge difference in terms of students understanding what they are learning. Targets have also led to students thinking more about what they need to do to improve, instead of waiting for the teacher to hand them a grade to measure their progress.” Communication of those learning targets to parents was best achieved through a student-led conference model. With it, they wrote, “Students are beginning to take a much more proactive role in their learning.”

If student-led conferences became the norm in your school, perhaps that image from 2011 could be replaced by this image, which appeared recently in a National Education Association article on student-led conferences. Here, it is the student at the center of the conversation, taking responsibility for their learning and involving all of the adults in the process. When students are empowered to do this, the real learning happens.

This article was written originally for MultiBriefs Education.


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