I have been playing around with this idea lately, both in general classroom management and in creating assignments.
It started with trying some activities that demanded a lot of student input. Of course, I had my own ideas about how I wanted these activities to go (or how I thought they should go) but tried to keep my leading questions and selective listening to a minimum. Not always easy! I’ll admit to having said I’m having a student-led, open-ended discussion when I’m really leading my students to what I want them to get to almost as directly as if I’d just told them myself. Does it make a difference to their learning that they got there somewhat on their own? Maybe.
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
Creative, independent thinking is a learned skill, at least as it applies to classroom assignments and discussions. I know we’ve all heard how preschoolers are geniuses when it comes to lateral, creative thinking, but by the time we’re 8 or 9 years old it has been programmed out of most of us.
Don’t be discouraged if the first few times you expect your students to think for themselves all you get are blank stares. They expect you to have an answer that you are either going to give them or expect them to guess correctly and give you. This is okay. This is the reason you’re reading this blog and thinking about this kind of teaching. With practice they will start thinking again.
My own daughter’s class is reading Charlotte’s Web. My daughter loves Charlotte’s Web. We’ve read the book. We have the movie. Her teacher had given them some very thought provoking questions to answer before they read the book. Questions like, “Can you think of a situation you’ve seen or heard about where animals have been treated unfairly?” or “How would you feel if you told the truth about something and no one believed you because it seemed very unlikely? Have you ever been in this situation?” I was excited that she was being asked to do more than flip through the book to answer questions like “What was the farmer’s wife’s name?” I asked her what she thought of the questions, assuming she would be enthusiastic about being asked for her thoughts and opinions. Her answer, “I hate it. You have to have ideas.”
Hmmm, she’s a “good” student. Is this what our education system is aiming for? More on that momentarily…
Start within your comfort zones.
By this I mean yours and your students’. As you go through these ideas try one at a time. Try them in subjects or types of assignments where you feel confident. For example, if making up new games in PE is something you’ve already tried successfully, expand from there. If your students are confident with their art skills have them be more self-directed in art. As both you and your students become more experienced at you handing over the power to them, expand outward to other areas of your learning environment.
Don’t be discouraged if you falter a bit. We all know what it’s like when you come back from a conference full of new ideas and try them all out in your classroom. None of them really work or they work for awhile and then don’t really work and you get back into your same old rut. This happens when you do too much at once and can’t assimilate it into what is already working with your class. It’s kind of like introducing a new food to a baby. At first they might hate it, but you keep giving it to them, maybe mixed in with foods you know they love. After 3 or 4 tries they stop spitting it out, by the 25th try it’s their favourite food. Baby steps. Trust me.
Focus on learning outcomes rather than information to be disseminated
What do you want them to be able to do at the end of the assignment? What do they need to understand? Focus on that and decide as a group how they are going to get there. You and/or they can fill in the gaps as they go. You won’t always be able to depend on your lesson plan to tell you how they’ll get from Point A to Point B, but if you’re clear about Point B, they will find a way to get there.
Be more transparent. You will not lose respect or your place as the “expert”.
It’s okay to tell your students, “We need to understand how a plant absorbs nutrients from the soil and uses water and sunlight to survive. How do you want to find this out? How do you want to show that you understand it?”
Involve your students in the whole process from creating the assignment, to the timeline, to the assessment.
Brainstorm what should be assessed in the assignment: writing style, artistic ability, scientific understanding, neatness, etc. How much weight should be given to the different criteria? You may get some silly answers at first, but if the students have to reach a consensus they will be applying critical thinking strategies to weed out the answers that are unrealistic.
I also began applying some of these processes to the rules and routines I had set up in the classroom. I let the students do more things their way. Sometimes their way didn’t work, but then they understood why I had set up a specific routine. E.g. We don’t all sit or lie wherever we want to on the floor because if someone needs to get some supplies they step on people’s hair, fingers, papers. Sometimes their way did work and they were much happier because of the changes we’d made. They felt respected.
As I work my way through this process – and I’m still working through it – I have had a minor epiphany: demanding compliance is just a way of faking engagement. Isn’t that why students are expected to sit quietly, face the teacher, etc. etc.?…because that’s what they would be doing if they were actually interested!!
So…when do you find yourself focussing on the power instead of the learning?
What can you change tomorrow that will make a difference to the power struggle in the room?
What are you willing to “give up” or risk for some amazing rewards?
Please share some examples of how “giving up control” has gained “buy in” in your classroom.