Why Student Led Conferences?

Just Student-Led Conferences
From Regan Galvan, Director of Teaching and Learning

Next week, we will set aside time for Student-led conferences. This is a chance for students to reflect on their learning thus far and for families to establish a connection with teachers. Student-led conferences also elevate student voices and empower students to own a piece of the assessment process. This has me thinking about our essential question for the year: How does a diverse community become a just community? 
This question around justice may not seem relevant to  conferences, but a just school is one that is rooted in student voice. In order for a community to be anchored by justice, the systems we utilize must desire to break down power differences, both in how we share space with students and in how we prepare students to inhabit that space with a critical consciousness. Do we build our students' ability to use evidence to make decisions, consider big ideas, engage in tough conversations, reflect on their ideas, and to take the perspectives of others? And, do we do so with a method that matches the end goal? One can’t simply learn the act of “uncovering truths” embedded in ideologies through a lecture followed by a test. Rather, the method itself must be relational, democratic and dialogic. Be it analyzing a historical document, demonstrating their thinking on vectors, or as in the case of conferences, monitoring one’s learning. The purpose of student-led conferences supports the main purpose of education, which as Paulo Freire offers, is to “help the students to recognize themselves as architects of their own cognition process.” 
Empowering students to own the conference, shifting from what can be a teacher to family discussion, happening among the elders about the student, to a student-led conversation, serves to break down power dynamics and attend to the learning partnership being forged between teacher and student. Student-led conferences are another avenue for elevating and honing student voice. Both conference preparation and conversations serve the construction of a critical consciousness by fostering partnership between teacher and student, making space for metacognition, and piquing the power of intrinsic motivation.  

Collaborative Learning Partnerships 
Student-led conferences grow learning partnerships between students, teachers and families. We help students to own their learning when we elevate their voices and make it clear that we are working together toward a common goal. Moreover, by holding these conversations early in the year, this partnership frames the learning path for the entirety of the year. A learning partnership is reciprocal, relational, and strives to chip away at power differences between the learner and the teacher. In a partnership, the teacher strives to be a learner as well, listening to the students perspectives and ideas about their progress and work habits.

To prepare students for these conversations, teachers facilitate discussions and individual reflections in their classes on essential habits for learning. What sorts of learning strategies and study skills are effective for learning in a given class? What might a path to success in a given class look like? Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, writes that our goal for partnering with our students is to create an alliance that enables our students to “stay on the arduous path toward independent learning.” This alliance is marked by two values: clear expectations for student learning and clearly communicated hope that the student can meet these expectations.  When students create their plan for learning, in partnership with their teacher, hope becomes actionable and empowering.  Additionally, partnering in the process, creates a shared perspective of feedback and forward steps for the student, family and teacher.

Metacognitive Moments
Another feature of student-led conferences is that they promote metacognition. The ultimate goal of school is for students to gain skills they can apply and transfer in new and challenging contexts. In order for this growth to happen, students must strengthen their metacognition, or how they monitor their thinking. Reflecting on learning goals encourages metacognition and contributes to retention and transfer.  In brief, reflection is “being aware of how one is engaging with the process of learning [which] influences how the student interprets the task at hand, and what strategies are selected and employed in the service of achieving learning goals.” 

In preparation for conferences, students are asked to select an artifact of their learning, one bit of evidence that demonstrates their progress in relation to learning goals. Last year when preparing my Math 3 students for conferences, it became clear through our discussions that my thoughts about learning habits mirrored theirs. These conversations illuminated that they were monitoring their thinking and aware of their learning habits. They didn’t need me to direct their learning path, merely to create the space for them to discuss their learning journeys and to define a course of action. When we can authentically empower students to think critically, we are attending to break down power structures toward a just community.

Elicit Intrinsic Motivation
Another impact of a student-led conference is sparking each intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic rewards, like grades, don’t push students to be lifelong learners. Thus the quintessential challenge for educators is to design structures and learning experiences that can catalyze student intrinsic motivation. There are several frameworks that help us to consider motivation. My favorite is from Daniel Pink, author of Drive. His research points to intrinsic motivation living in the intersection between the ideas of mastery, choice and purpose. That is, if a challenge or goal has elements of creativity or autonomy, is in a student’s zone of proximal development (meaning they can manage the task,) and has a clear, meaningful purpose, then students will be more likely to be motivated to take on said challenge. When we allow students to set the tone of the conversation and determine their goals, we capitalize on motivating structures of choice and purpose. Vistamar holds initiative as a value; student-led conferences give students another clear opportunity to demonstrate initiative, fueled by their inner motivation. 

Voice Matters when Students have Real Power
One way we show ourselves to be a just community is in how our program at Vistamar becomes, as Freire wrote, “the practice of freedom, the means by which [students] deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” Conferences might be just ten minute conversations, but in those moments we seek to create space for students to put their thinking in practice in a meaningful and authentic way. Empowering students to lead a reflective, metacognitive conversation about their learning taps intrinsic motivation and elevates the student’s role and power in a learning partnership. These strategies and values aren’t just essential for effective learning, they support a democratic process for building critical thinking in practice. A community that does not look for places to embrace democratic practices can’t truly be just.
Vistamar School is a private independent high school in the South Bay region of Los Angeles.

Vistamar School