Student-led conferences: Is this a fad that will fade, or the next great ed trend?

I have a friend who was looking forward to her first and only parent-teacher conference of the school year. She had some concerns about her son’s academic focus and wanted to talk honestly with her son’s teacher about strategies.

But it was not to be.

Instead it was a parent PLUS student teacher conference. And while she appreciated watching her son take the lead, it was not the perspective she was seeking.

“I really wanted to hear from the teacher. I could have talked to my son about his classes at home.”

This is becoming the next new thing in classrooms, born of the growing embrace of personalized learning. The trend was recently outlined in this recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Some educators are rethinking the parent-teacher conference. More students are attending and sometimes even leading fall conferences, starting even in the youngest grades.

The shift is gradual, accelerating in the past few years. It reflects a growing emphasis on what educators call personalized learning—tailoring students’ work to their individual needs and interests, and pressing them to take responsibility for mastering agreed-upon skills. The aim is to spawn lifelong learners who can adapt nimbly to change.

On its face, the practice seems like a slam dunk–especially that part about the students taking more responsibility for their learning. And there is some great research about why student-led conferences are especially effective during IEP meetings for students with disabilities  But I can see why the change would feel a little jarring to parents, especially if their face time with teachers is limited. It strikes me that this should be done consistently across grades, and not  just because this approach is a lot easier on teachers.

 It’s hardly a secret that many teachers dread these conferences–even while schools like to count parent presence as an important measure of family engagement. As the article points out:

Many teachers see traditional conferences with parents as stressful, tiring and time-consuming, research shows. Anxious parents closely monitor every word the teacher says and try to show they’re good parents by criticizing their child before the teacher does, says Danielle Pillet-Shore, an associate professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire, who has analyzed videos of the conversations.

A student’s presence “changes the dynamic tremendously,” Dr. Pillet-Shore says, shifting the focus away from the parent.

Parents can help by focusing on what the student is learning, rather than grades, and praising the student’s effort. Most important, experts say, is for parents to ask, “What can I do to help you meet your goals?”

So parents, what do you think? Have you had one of these parent-student-teacher conferences? Was the time well spent? Did you also get a chance to talk to the teacher solo? I love many aspects of personalized learning, but I wonder if this is a trend that’s going to stick or become the next passing fad.


Cartoon courtesy of the NEA

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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