Student-led classrooms drive teamwork & collaboration

All educators learn various skills, techniques and practices that their predecessors crafted through experience and hard work.  I took everything I could from my teacher preparation program and a master’s program in learning and technology and tried my best to apply it in all my teaching endeavors.  Some amazing experiences as an entrepreneur also informed my teaching. This work, in my early 20s, included running a million-plus-dollar budget for a small business and pitching an artificial intelligence solution to solve a company’s global supply chain problems.

During my first few years as a teacher, I felt confident that I knew a lot about business and could share great information with students. But I wasn’t feeling the same excitement from students that I felt about entrepreneurship. I quickly realized the students needed more.

Enter project-based learning.

I learned more about project-based learning (PBL) — the concept of using projects and teamwork to drive learning — in the fall of 2019. By Fall 2020, my journey as a teacher shifted. I wanted to create a unique learning environment that my students would brag to their friends about. I adapted the content to fit my vision of what learning entrepreneurship could be. My students began collaborating with peers in other classes and designing advertising campaigns.

And I learned two things that exemplify what it means to be an entrepreneur:

Grit and resilience

Entrepreneurs change the world for the better. They find solutions to problems that can improve life for people everywhere. And they bring products and services to their communities. Entrepreneurship is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks an individual can undertake. No playbook to guarantee success, no boss to guide you through the steps, no marketing machine. Only you and your employees looking to you for guidance. Through this, entrepreneurs either develop grit and resilience, or they fail.

As I redesigned the entrepreneurship courses at California Virtual Academies, I wanted to simulate the real world in a controlled setting; where failure didn’t result in losing everything, and where success could be felt and embraced and replicated.

Creating this environment was easier said than done. I did a ton of research and looked around the industry to find examples of people talking about developing grit and resilience. But I fell short of what I was hoping to find. I looked to my own experiences in life and found inspiration.

In 2015, my first day of class with Dr. David Stevens at Azusa Pacific University is one I will never forget. Dr. Stevens talked about things like neuroscience, teamwork, and childhood trauma. And I related on a personal level. Also, on that day, for the first time ever, I heard the term “student-led classroom.”

Back in 2020, two things became clear:

  1. Students need to learn entrepreneurship.
  2. To do so properly, they need to lead the classes themselves.

The student-led classroom is exactly that: a classroom where students lead their learning experience. Students decide what to work on, when to work on it, how to work on it, who will do what and so forth.

In entrepreneurship education, students learn how to lead.

They learn to take personal responsibility, to be humble and to admit when they are wrong. Entrepreneurs challenge themselves to put a common goal ahead of one’s own personal aspirations. And, collaboratively, they learn the valuable skill of figuring out how to get the job done no matter what. That’s what we did for career and technical education students at California Virtual Academies.

Long lectures? Gone.

PowerPoint presentations? Extinct.

Tests? Decimated.

My new classroom had one purpose: to teach students what it will be like out in the real world.

What does a student-led classroom look like?

Students form teams of four to seven. And then, with limited instructor guidance, they start designing fundraising events and building small businesses. In 2020–21, my students developed bonds unlike any they had experienced in education before — even in an online learning environment. The students learned that they had to be accountable to each other, not to me. And when they had a problem, they figured it out.  My role as a teacher shifted drastically. I just sat back and listened. It’s their responsibility to coordinate and complete the projects on their own, and they developed the critical thinking skills to do it..

The results were astounding. Students engaged 100% in their course projects during the 2020–21 school year. Students learned to accept each other’s differences. They embraced their diverse skills, and they leveraged each other’s strengths to solve a common goal. Students hired peers from other CTE pathways to help with things like marketing, advertising and website design, and they learned how to be effective leaders and communicators. But more importantly, students learned how to be good teammates who care about each other.

I believe a student-led classroom model offers the most effective way to teach our students grit and resilience. While entrepreneurship may be the easiest subject area to teach using the student-led model, I believe all CTE pathways can foster this kind of engagement and learning within the confines of their content.

Student-led classrooms teach grit and resilience.

After facilitating student-led classrooms for a couple semesters, I found Dr. Stevens again. Now he directs a graduate program, Master of Education in Neuroscience and Trauma, at Tabor College. We talked numerous times about student-led classrooms and neuroscience. Eventually, we recorded a podcast and put some ideas on paper. What I learned from him is that how I designed my courses aligns with what neuroscience tells us about learning:

  • When students explore and interact on their own (with minimal adult coaching) they make discoveries that trigger dopamine in the brain. They tend to want more of this feeling, which provokes a risk-taking response — present without fear of making mistakes within a safe, supportive environment.
  • Exploration creates a need within students to discover more and more. Student-led classrooms set up real-life situations in which youth to make mistakes and learn to then succeed on their own. This experience empowers them to take more and more intellectual risks, knowing that that the risks are necessary and worth the reward.

When students work as a team, they engage in such a way that group success becomes the goal. They find fulfillment in finding their place, and in seeing that they have distinct skills that add to the team’s success. So, I’ll encourage you to implement classroom environments that develop resilience and grit. Implement student-led classrooms because they are engaging and fun. And because they engage students in learning beyond the walls of the classroom.

Gregory Keele is the founder and CEO of Virtual Startup Academy. He was a classroom teacher for seven years and taught careers and entrepreneurship before launching his startup. In his spare time, he enjoys boating, wakeboarding, golf, playing with his golden retriever Amber, and being of service to his community.

Learn more from the writer in his recent webinar, Driving Student Ownership in the Classroom Through Entrepreneurship, Teamwork and Cross-curricular Collaboration, hosted as part of ACTE’s innovations series.