Can Learner-Led Conferences Lead to College and Career Skills?

Letting students lead conferences helps them become college and career ready

By Kathy Dyer

Since the early 2000s, student-led conferences have been making inroads into the traditional parent/teacher conference scene. The Hechinger Report focused on this very topic in a four-part series about reform efforts in high schools. Even though I facilitated professional learning that supported teachers in implementing this practice in their classrooms, neither of my growing grassdaughters had an opportunity to do this. Pretty ironic, don’t you think? That said, I now realize I could have asked their teachers to let them lead or be a part of our conference conversations. Let me give you some ideas about why it might be useful, just in case you are in a school where these conferences don’t occur.

Why Students Should Lead Conferences

When a student leads a conference, he or she is using (and developing) a multitude of metacognitive skills, all necessary for success in either this field of work or learning more in school. Imagine yourself with this challenge, having to shift through your work for the past quarter and identify both successes and challenges. You know that you are engaging in this activity so you can communicate with a specific audience, in a defined context, clearly and concisely about what you are sharing and why you have chosen to share. Your reflections through this process will lead you to communicating about where you are and how you will get to the next level in your endeavors.

Providing students (learners) the opportunity to engage in student-led conferences gives them an authentic purpose for developing many skills necessary for success in college and careers. Let’s start with some obvious ones. Good organizational and communication skills are necessary to convey these personal strengths and challenges, and also necessary for the next steps in learning. Because time will be limited, knowing how to organize and present information to convey an accurate picture of progress will be important.

Through the preparation process, students are reflecting on themselves and their journey as learners. They build a sense of accountability and responsibility for learning. To identify which of their work they will present, students develop a deeper understanding of what it means to meet success criteria. They also must establish taking notesa process to make decisions regarding what work to present and what to say about the work -- a way to justify their conclusions about their own learning. They become a self-advocate when it comes to learning.

Now consider what you may have heard or read when it comes to 21st century skills, or the skills that employers are frequently requesting new workers have when entering the work force. The list usually includes skills such as critical thinking, social skills, productivity, initiative, oral and written communication, leadership, and self-directed learners capable of ownership and accountability. See any similarities?

Flipping conferences to be student-led also empowers the student. It facilitates a partnership between the teacher and family members focused on supporting what the student identifies as her strengths and challenges in learning. It offers an opportunity to enhance family engagement in learning.

What do you think? What if the conversation became more about student learning, student strengths and needs, and less about explaining or defending grades? What if we, as family members, worked in conjunction with the teachers to help our students build themselves into self-directed learners?

cloudscapeThis means that we are working to help our learners set goals, take charge of their learning and assignments, do some self-assessment and reflection, and ask questions that take them deeper in their learning. It means that we are allowing our students the time and forum to activate themselves as owners of their learning.

Consider the fact that if our learners are reflecting on what they want to share with us about themselves as learners, they will be strengthening their communication skills and their organizational skills. This reflection, self-assessment, and organization will be leading them to develop complex thinking skills and work on their metacognition, which are skills that help children learn, as well as contribute to life outside the K-12 environment.

Getting Started with Learner-Led Conferences

What is learner agency? It is learners having the power to act. Learner-led conferences empower students to reflect on their learning, where they are in relationship to their goals, make plans about how to get where they need or want to be, and to be able to talk it through with caring adults.

For those who find this concept new, here are four ideas you might consider.

  1. Help learners organize their work to present. Provide guidelines about how many pieces and why a piece might be shared.
    1. What story are you trying to tell about your learning?
    2. What would your family like to see?
  2. Preparation and practice will be important for a student’s presentation to be successful.  Provide a script or talking points to support learners. This is something that might even be modeled in class.
    1. Pick a subject/subjects to focus on during your conference.
      1. Explain what you have been doing in that subject – strengths/challenges.
      2. Explain why you chose the work to share.
      3. State your goal in this subject.
    2. Talk about what you enjoyed this quarter.
    3. Share what you were most successful with and why.
    4. Explain what you need to work on and why.
  3. Plan to debrief the experience with learners. Have them talk about the pluses and deltas.
    1. What did you like about your learner-led conference?
    2. How did you feel during the conference?
    3. What didn't you like about the conference?
    4. If you could change the conference to make it better, what would you do?

high school studentsWhat if one of the potential after-effects includes an increase in learner-family communication with an extra benefit that the conversations are focused on academics, rather than how the day went? What if learners had a clearer understanding of the learning targets that are the focus of what happens in the classroom? What if students talk more about what and how they are learning? What if the skills necessary for a successful learner-led conference transferred outside the school walls?

If you are an educator and have tried this before, what was the outcome? We’d love to hear your story.

Learner-led conference roles

Learner Family members Teacher
  • Prepare for the conference
  • Make decisions about what to share and why
  • Lead the conference
  • Tell a story about his or her learning – strengths, challenges, next steps in sufficient detail to garner support
  • Attend and pay close attention
  • Follow guidelines for participation
  • Ask questions related to what is shared
  • Use formative instructional practices such as learning targets and feedback that support students in being successful with conferences
  • Co-create expectation and guidelines for learner-led conferences
  • Make time and provide structure
  • Provide potential question prompts for family members
  • Communicate with families
  • Debrief process with learners
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