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Fulfilling the needs of students, and teachers in the classroom

4 min read


As part of my work this year, I’m trying to unpack and illustrate the idea of the needs-fulfilling classroom.

The needs-fulfilling classroom is a place in which both the teacher and students feel empowered to learn together and from one another. It is an inquiry-driven place. Students follow their own curiosities into content, and teachers follow their students into learning. Insomuch as the teacher “teaches,” she does so by observing students at mental play. By doing so, she learns how her students self-organize intellectually as well as socially.

How students behave — and what they create — when given the freedom to learn provides much more useful information to the teacher about her students and their learning than any set of monocultural, text-based assessments ever can.

Because the teacher in the needs-fulfilling classroom doesn’t deny students the opportunity to play with, remix, and/or — at times — ignore class content, she is better able to meet students other needs than a teacher in a traditional, needs-denying classroom can.

  • By understanding what her students find fun, she can scaffold content in fun — or fulfilling — ways.
  • By understanding how her students use power, she can scaffold instruction to give students opportunities for meaningful, positive agency, collaboration and division of labor.
  • By understanding what her students find scary in self-directed work, she can scaffold self-directed learning for students with diverse understandings and expectations of what it means to learn — as well as for students who need different kinds of freedom to learn.
  • By understanding how students relate to others, including themselves, she can scaffold work to build trust within and between students who hold different expectations of themselves and their peers.

Very little of this is possible in the traditional, needs-denying classroom. I call such a place “the needs-denying classroom” because it privileges the desires of the system above the needs of both its teacher and students. Teachers in such places are subordinate to the system — they are expected to do what is right by their scores rather than what is right by their students. Students in such places are subordinate to the teacher who is making instructional decisions based on personal finance. There is little belonging, freedom, fun, power, or safety to be had in that classroom as the teacher competes for a job shaped by economic and political, not pedagogical, forces and students compete for the teacher’s attention by being mediocre enough to receive the most preparation for the end-of-course standardized test.

The needs-fulfilling classroom, on the other hand, is full of joy and purpose. It is a writable classroom, programmable by the teacher and students working together in tandem to move everyone’s learning forward bit by bit. It is an open classroom that prefers student production to student consumption — a classroom in which the teacher believes that the less she delivers, the more capable students will become of uncovering, documenting and publishing their own work in place of the textbooks (electronic and otherwise), consumable and licensed materials boxing them into inherently limited, standardized curricula and life experiences. The open and writable needs-fulfilling classroom supports student learning inside and outside school, before during, and after the school day. It is a connected classroom.

It is a place more concerned with design and iteration than with memorization and summative assessment. It is a place more concerned with publishing work than reporting scores.

It is a place in which the teacher works tirelessly to make learning work for all students without undue regard for tradition, hierarchy or herself. It is a place where students discover that their teacher is a learner, that the world is ready to accept the gifts they bring to their communities, and that they are ready to make something of their learning more lasting than a grade.

The decision to work in a needs-fulfilling classroom will never be one handed down by policy or reserved exclusively for this school or that. The decision to work in a needs-fulfilling classroom can be made by each of us, every day, as a principled response to the infantilization, narrowing, and punishment of our profession and our students’ lives.

If you work in such a place, or would like to, join us in the comments below, as well as through #openschools on Twitter and beyond.

Chad Sansing teaches humanities and project-based learning at the Community Public Charter School in Albemarle County, Va. He is a co-founder and moderator of Cooperative Catalyst and also blogs on the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.