Student-led conferences: Putting the students’ learning first

Jack Little is a PYP teacher at the Lancaster School in Mexico City

This year, our PYP school decided to make the step from traditional teacher-parent reports day to student-led conference from primary grades 1 to 5. According the IB guidelines:

“Student-led conferences involve the student and the parents. The students are responsible for leading the conference, and also take responsibility for their learning by sharing the process with their parents… The conference involves the student discussing and reflecting upon samples of work that they have previously chosen to share with their parents. These samples have been previously selected with guidance and support from the teacher, and could be from the student’s portfolio.” (Making the PYP happen: A curriculum framework for international primary education, 2009)

Specific to the context of the Lancaster School, the student-led conferences (SLCs) have enabled the school community to address a number of different objectives within the wider aspect of the school’s philosophy focussing on:

  • Learning to know: understanding one’s self as a learner and having a better understanding of your own personal strengths and weaknesses;
  • Learning to be: taking personal responsibility for reporting on your own learning and being able to justify and explain yourself to others; and,
  • Learning to do: students taking the initiative and leading the feedback process.

The objective of our SLCs are:

1. To offer a more concrete and meaningful dimension to the concept of assessment for learning in which students, and subsequently their parents, would be more focused on the learning process as opposed to a summative assessment grade.

2. To give further meaning or significance and importance to the IB Learner Profile for the students themselves, i.e. that they are involved in reflecting upon themselves as learners.

3. To move the student to the centre of the report process as opposed to being a passive bystander. Moreover, to shift the focus of attention away from teaching and more on learning with teachers acting more as facilitators in an extension of the learning process.

4. For students to use and demonstrate the transdisciplinary skills that they are learning in a real and significant context.

5. To more directly involve our subject specialist teachers in the report process and give greater significance and importance to their subject areas by helping parents to understand a little more about the learning that takes place in each of these subject areas.

This was the Lancaster School’s first attempt at running SLCs and it has opened some teachers’ eyes in terms of the power and potential that they have to offer as feedback and self evaluation tools. Dave Jones, the school’s director, said that, “in many ways this first attempt was aimed at overcoming the fear of letting go and giving over control and in just taking these first few steps, I feel a great deal was achieved.”

Moving to SLCs marked a radical change from our traditional termly teacher-parent reports day as teachers met on the final day of the term to discuss grades for each curriculum area with a score out of ten, and also touching upon behavioural issues of the students. While this is the way in which feedback is generally shared with parents in Mexico, it was felt that this placed a significant focus on grades and not enough upon each of the students’ own learning and learning processes. Furthermore, specialist subject teachers were often excluded unintentionally from this process as parents tend to focus heavily on the numbers rather than on the process of learning behind them.

The Process

In the build up to the SLCs, each teacher, in collaboration with their students, was able to select how they approached the conference—some selecting to display films of students working, others showing examples of their best inquiry work and another piece of work that needed to be improved. The month building up to the SLCs required several meetings between the teacher and student to assist in the reflection process, selecting work to share with their parents and writing written reflections linked to the IB PYP attitudes and IB Learner Profile.

On the days of the SLCs, parents had selected a 70-minute slot in which they and their child met with their grade teacher as well as each of their specialist subject teachers in each of their classrooms over the school site for 15 minutes each as well as time to collect the students’ report card at the end.

The feedback from the SLCs was overwhelmingly positive from students, parents and teachers and was an extremely positive experience for our school. I would recommend their implementation at other PYP institutions too. These are some of the benefits:

1. The SLCs allow students to reflect deeply on their learning through the IB Learner Profile both on the day of the conferences and in the weeks building up to it.

2. It allows students to share authentic learning with their parents in the form of showing their work and teaching the parents games and activities who were often visibly awed by the reflections of their children. We had note books for each of the grades allowing for parent comments. Some selected quotes from parents included:

“A great opportunity for the students to reflect and share what they have learned”

“The dedication and enthusiasm of the students is obvious.”

“More dynamic with more participation from everyone.”

“It is incredible that the students share their goals with us and all of the things that they have learned.”

“It fits with the schools’ ambient of sharing and community.”

“Very interesting to see what students are learning in their specialist subject areas through the lens of the IB profile.”

“Clearly [my daughter] has thought carefully about her strengths and weaknesses as well as her goals.”

“A refreshing and enriching refocus of evaluation.”

“The students have grown and have lost their fear in sharing what they have learned with us.”

Some of the suggestions for further improvement included: “more time to spend in specialist subject areas” and “more feedback from teachers as well as students.”

3. The students are in control of what work and skills they would like to share which is highly motivational.  It also helps students’ self esteem to grow.

4. Students showed much honesty and integrity related to their learning in the SLCs as they were required to take on a high level of responsibility.

5. SLCs made teachers work together in a more transdisciplinary way as the day was set up to incorporate all aspects of the school. Parents were taught by students how to use water colours in art, the movements of the body in athletic competition in PE and this led to a much deeper appreciation of the specialist subject areas, how they support the units of the inquiry and the learning that takes place there.

6. All participating groups thought that the SLCs were a worthwhile experience.

The school director, Dave Jones, commented that “Future SLCs will allow parents and students to have more time in their grade base rooms to reflect on the wide range and depth of learning that they have been engaged in. We will be exploring ways to extend this initial class based period from 30 minutes to 45 minutes. The initial 15 minute period was established in order to ensure that all conferences were able to start together. I think in the future we will probably use this time more flexibly and once all students and parents are present move directly in to the more formal conference setting giving students more time to cover their full range of learning experiences and then move into the informal ‘show and tell’ type setting to finish.

We will also look at the geographical layout and distribution of specialist subject areas and see if we can facilitate a more smooth and logical movement from one area to another and if possible slightly extend the time periods in each area. I would also like to see us moving towards more clearly illustrating the links between specialist subject areas and the programme of inquiry in order to truly illustrate the transdisciplinary nature of the programme; however this is an area that will require much more work.”

Everyone enjoyed participating in the SLCs however there was a common agreement that fifteen minutes with each subject was not enough. Moreover the school will be working to include the Green Room, our inclusion unit for students with special educational needs, more in the process as parents from all grade areas of the school will be able to find out more about this indispensable department’s work.

I would highly recommend SLCs to other schools as a way of really letting their students shine and for providing opportunities for transdisciplinary development in planning and evaluation across the school.”

Jack received his BA (Hons) from Durham University in Politics in 2009 and he is currently studying for a masters in education through Alliant University. He has taught in the UK, Hungary, Tanzania, Thailand and in Mexico as an ESL specialist, grade teacher and sports coach. In September 2013 he will begin studying for his PGCE qualification through Buckingham University. He also edits the ezine The Ofi Press at www.theofipress.webs.com

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2 Responses to Student-led conferences: Putting the students’ learning first

  1. Gloria Ornelas Hall 4 June 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    Wonderful. Innovative approach to bridge the gap between parents and students!
    Jack Little never ceases to amaze us as he expands his horizons breaking paradigms with proactive creativity!

  2. hector deleon 10 September 2014 at 11:07 pm #

    I enjoyed reading your article. The trend in education has been changing quite rapidly and with a whole bunch of technology. I enjoy the way kids are involved with their parent led conferences….

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