When I asked this after a lesson or lab and saw no hands in the air, I would congratulate myself on a job well done. I had explained things so clearly that every single student understood the concept as well as I did! Yay me! Then, when half the kids in class would bomb the test, it was easy to place the blame on them. “Oh, they didn’t remember to study.” I never really stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, a middle schooler might not want to raise her hand in the middle of class and say, “Umm… I have no idea what you're talking about.”
Shifting to a self-paced classroom changed everything. But the biggest immediate impact I witnessed was a huge jump in student questions. All of a sudden, kids who never spoke in class were talking to me about each lesson, asking questions and actually learning. I spent each class period talking with individuals or small groups about concepts we were learning and when I sat back and listened to student conversations, they were talking about science too!
During my Human Population Impacts mini-unit, eighth graders were designing a menu based on local ingredients. I smiled as three kids spent 25 minutes trying to figure out how to find salt that was not shipped from China. They were extremely motivated and engaged in their learning because they wanted to find an answer to their question - not my question. When we turn the responsibility of learning over to kids, they will put the work in as long as the work is meaningful to them.