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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Balancing the Classroom: Strategies for Sharing Responsibility

A teacher in our local school district recently posted a question on one of our discussion boards: "I'm having a difficult time coming up with ideas on how to give my students more responsibility and freedom in my classroom. I am very structured and organized -- how can I give my eighth graders a little freedom in the classroom and retain structure and organization?"

This is an excellent question. Responsibility and freedom are clearly two concepts we must embrace if we are to teach young people to participate in our democracy. It's easy for teachers to be so organized and structured that students lose freedom, which in turn lowers the level of student responsibility and increases the teacher's responsibility. Is this the way we want it to happen?

To answer this teacher's question, two instructional strategies come to mind.

1. Project-based, cooperative-, or service-learning methods. These place the responsibility for learning on the student by encouraging him/her to find the answer to a problem rather than memorizing a teacher-given solution.

2. Student-generated and tested hypotheses. Students write down what they know about a concept and then conduct research and experiments to either verify their knowledge or correct their misconceptions. This strategy is most often associated with scientific methods but can be applied to many areas.

How would you answer this teacher's question? Do you have specific examples to share? Please write and let me know!

Comments (65)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ashley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sharing control and responsibility in the classroom is imperative for creating a learning environment that respects the teacher's right to educate, while embracing the adolescent's right to participate in the educational process. I teach middle school reading remediation, and use a democratic approach to my classroom. I have students provide input on interesting topics or books they want to read, while sharing with them the goals we need to accomplish during the course. We set a code of conduct and consequences, and keep one another on task. I believe in asking students what they want to learn, and about the challenges they face as young adults. We reference these challenges and responsibilities when trying to make self to text connections. Involving my students in their learning is powerful because it is not my classroom, but our learning community, as I learn from them and they learn from each other. I suggest implementing bits and pieces of a democratic classroom (research Alfie Kohn to start) and using student input to start driving your instruction. It is intimidating to give up control, but the students take on a share of the work load, and they feel empowered in their education.

Shawn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is imperative that students feel a sense of control and responsibility in the classroom, producing opportunities that create a democratic environment that is stimulating and rewarding for all students. I have taught third, fifth, and sixth grade. Each year, one thing continually goes well for my students and I. Once school has started we immediately go into a mindset of establishing a social contract for our classroom. A social contract that is created, modified, and instituted by my students. Each part of the social contract is discussed and brought to life by implementing a Socratic and or democratic style seminar, where students have the chance to share their thoughts, concerns, questions, and rebuttal over certain expected behaviors and appropriate consequences in the classroom environment.

This year teaching sixth grade has been especially great for me. Since my students have had five years of prior experience in the general education classroom setting, they come to the "table" with far more complexities, stories, expectations, and so on. I have found that once you allow your students to fully establish themselves in a classroom environment bound by their expectations and consequences, the other classroom related issues, procedures, and schedules will unravel in an appropriate and meaningful matter to the students.

Johanna Hubbard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We have to keep in my when teaching that we are rearing future adults. It can be a frightening thought to look at the see of faces staring at you from you class, but it is the reality. We are looking at our accountants, nurses, politicians, food servers, etc. If we do not give them opportunities to think for themselves and become problem solvers, our golden years are in trouble. Critical thinking skills and responsibility have been lost in direct instruction. Though direct instruction is needed, the opportunity to have the freedom to figure things out independently is the key to raising up a responsible adult.
I do agree that firm ground rules must be set. No classroom can run efficiently in chaos! This is where I need the help. In a classs of 25 students all talking (discussing) at once- How do you maintain a low noise level? Or do you just accept the higher level of noise?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In order to teach responsibility, I suggest that your colleague tries pairing up with a lower grade class, for example for a reading hour. In my school, we have Reading Buddies. An upper grade class pairs up with a lower grade class and they meet once a week for a language period. It is a wonderful concept because the older students are acting as the teachers for the younger students. It helps build their confidence and teaches them responsibility.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with many other teachers in that there needs to be rules and consequences set early within the school year. Being organized and structured does not mean that you cannot give your students freedom. I feel that freedom is not free, and the students must earn freedom with appropriate behavior.

D'Ann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel that building respect in the classroom is a major step to building in sharing in a classroom. If respect is not in place in your classroom then students will have a difficult time sharing responsiblity. I teach high school students and as many of you have stated I may have just a couple of classes that can really be "trusted" with group activities. I know that those classes will work on the group activities and stay on task. In my other classes I have to consistently get my students back on task, and remind them what their jobs are.

Angela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the discussion about the 8th graders and responsibility. I have been trying really hard this year to put more responsibility on the students so they will take more ownership in their own class. I agree that some classes simply work better together than others and that it can be frustrating. I don't accept a question if it begins with "I Can't" and I usually reply to their question with another question that will guide them in the right direction. It is always important to review class guidelines, and I've set up different guidelines for independent, partner, and group work. After the guidelines have been established and students know what is expected, the classroom ends up running itself. I will continue to devise more tiered lessons with clearly defined rubrics, where students have a choice in assignments which seems to be a motivating factor. It is a live and learn experience and just like the children, we will get better with practice!

Kathy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To be willingly responsible in the class room is one of the toughest aspects to teach. I am a new teacher for a 6th grade middle school, and the amount of apathy of the students towards everything was very disapointing. I created a list of Jobs that gave the students responsibility for he class such as botonist, communication liason, courier, librarian, teaching assistant and web master. The students really took to it and has worked well so far and it has created a since of responsiblity. The second area in which I was very surprised was that students did not know how to disagree without yelling, which usually led to fighting. My attempts in teaching them how to constructivley critize has been weak at best. Suggestions on how to get them to participate without yelling would be greatly appreciated. New in New Jersey

Kristene ThomasDerr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work with mostly middle school students. I am trying to instill a sense of responsibility in them. At times I find it difficult to do so. Middle school students are still trying to find out who they are and are struggling between being a child and a young adult. I try instilling a sense of responsibility by making them in charge of their learning meaning I give them the info and then they have to decide how they are going to use it in their daily lives. We communicate about this through journals.

Jennifer K's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that students should be involved in all the steps of an assignment. The teacher can decide the objective but the students can plan on which way they will display that they have reached that objective. They should also have a part in creating the rubric for the project or assignment. You would be amazed at how detailed they are when you ask the question, "So what should a teacher expect?" Sometimes they are even tougher on themselves than the actual teacher would be. Finally, they should be involved in the assessment and grading portion of the assignment. They should have input on how they feel their group mates or partners did as well as themselves. I have seen amazing creativity from my students when given the opportunity. They all enjoy rising to the occasion because it doesn't seem like work to them!

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