Friday, September 23, 2011


The tug of war of control between federal and local governments over education, union and school board, parents and school districts, teachers and administrators, are ever-present in any discussion of education reform or transformation.  But the control issue that seems to come up most often in my discussions on both #edchat and #langchat is the issue of student control.

It is evident that in order for students to have more control of their learning, teachers must give up some of their control.  For many teachers, this is a very scary prospect.  The idea that good classroom management equals a quiet classroom filled with obedient students is a traditional view that has been reinforced in teacher education programs for decades.  Then again, I have also seen tweeted and retweeted, even by educators I greatly respect, the sentiment that noisy classrooms are where the most learning is taking place. Judging from my own three-ring circus (read:  classroom), depending on what activities are taking place and how many activities are going on at any given moment, the volume can range from a dull roar to almost pin-drop quiet (which I find almost unnerving) but in either case, students are engaged.

I have students who choose to work alone when they have the opportunity.  I have students who choose the low-tech options when they are available.  With guidance, this is how they learn which learning methods work best for them.  Do they have completely free rein?  Of course not.  Am I endorsing classroom anarchy?  Never.  But students respond positively when allowed to make choices within a system of structure.

I was prompted to post on this topic by an experience I had with my students last week.  I had just introduced them to their electronic portfolios in wikispaces.  They were setting up accounts, embedding their first speaking pieces, when the buzz began among them that there was a chatroom in the wiki.  Now, I had planned to introduce this in the future, so having them discover it on their own, saved me quite a bit of direct instruction.  Of course, my little angels thought they were putting one over on me, but because I let them be in control, I have some found time with this group.

The day after I drafted this post, (but before I had a chance to type it), I had another experience with students that made an even bigger impact on me.  In a class of novice French students, one group was working on being able to count out loud up to 20.  I had selected two different counting songs (here and here) for them to use to model their pronunciation, and use for memory aids.  I was working with other groups for a few minutes, and when I went to check on the counting group, they were watching a youtube video I had never seen before (here).  They knew from a previous class that my teacher account (which was logged in on the computer they were using) did not have youtube blocked, and they took it upon themselves to try to find a better alternative to what I had offered.  They were successful.  I subsequently used the video they found with other classes, who also enjoyed it.  Here was a group of students who were allowed some control of their learning, realized there were better alternatives out there, found them, used them, and LEARNED.  I couldn't have planned it as well myself.

Giving students choice will not bring the world to an end.  In fact, it just might make your classroom manageable.  You might even find your students teaching YOU a thing or two.

My challenge to you:  Find one area in which you are willing to give up some control to your students -- homework, seating, practice method, assessment method.  Let them surprise you.

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