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Letting Go in the Classroom

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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When we consider constructivist teaching, or a constructivist approach to learning, what comes to mind? For me, I see Socrates standing not in the center, but to the side of his students.

I imagine him pondering their comments and questions, and carefully crafting questions of his own, which he contributes -- selectively. Most importantly, he doesn't lead, but follows the line of questioning of the students.

That's really what it's all about: being an questioner, an investigator side-by-side with your students. That doesn't mean we shouldn't have a solid lesson plan ready to go each day, but we should be ready -- and willing -- for the students to take the class into unchartered waters.

Let me give you an example from my own teaching experience. In an American Literature class I taught a while back, we had made our way through transcendentalism, stopping off at Henry Thoreau. Here, I had a few lessons on civil disobedience planned.

Day one, we watched a video excerpt on Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, and read a passage from the play, "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail." We created a class definition for civil disobedience and then we began to brainstorm times in history when people had defied a law -- or should have -- for the sake of what was right and fair. My plan was for all this to lead to group projects and individual papers on specific historical acts of civil disobedience in the U.S.

Then, the students began talking about racial profiling and wouldn't move on. I asked questions to clarify. I asked more questions. At this point, I abandoned the list I had assumed students would brainstorm (the right answers), and jumped on board with the direction they were heading.

Mostly African-American and Latino, my students began sharing stories of racial profiling from their own lives, and the lives of their families and friends. My eleventh grade class, the one right before lunch, made it very clear that day that they wanted to learn more about their rights and protecting themselves the next time the police pulled them over for questioning for no clear reason.

Constructivist teaching relies on the learners bringing prior knowledge, or schema, to the table. I could have stopped the conversation and said, "Let's move on," (code for, "Let's keep going where I think we should go") but then I would have lost them. Every time I have white-knuckled it and pushed my agenda, the students respond like this: a heavy, collective sigh, and slumping of the shoulders. In essence, they give up and give in. Can you relate?

Teaching students in urban schools has an added challenge. Many students from families struggling economically have few college grads in their neighborhoods and families to represent the benefits of education. So, they often are hungry to know why exactly they are learning something and how it is relevant to their own lives.

Let's go back to that class before lunch. After we cleared away all the misnomers around what the police can and cannot do, we read, analyzed, and discussed the Fourth Amendment and habeas corpus, looked at national statistics on racial profiling, and turned to the ACLU for their expertise.

We ended those couple of weeks with a culminating project where students grouped themselves according to interest. One group made a brochure titled, "How to Protect Yourself When DWB (Driving While Black/Brown)." Another group created a presentation poster on the history and statistics of racial profiling. My favorite project was an instructional video for police officers on how to build trust with the community.

Need I say it? I was a learner along with my students during those weeks. The students schooled me. When was time when you let go and let the students guide the learning? Please teach us!

Comments (53)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Shelley Dukat's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Shelley Dukat. I have been teaching first grade for five years. I am participating in blogging for my first time as a requirement for my Master's program. I definitely agree that it is very important and beneficial to student learning when teachers are willing to just 'let go' and have the students' insight, background knowledge, and interests guide a lesson or instruction. Yes, I think lesson plans are very important, but a teacher most be able to adapt from them based on the needs of the students. I find that when students have a chance to connect to what they are learning, they develop ownership and pride in their learning.

Rebecca's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You should look into modeling for Chemistry. It is constructivism with a twist. It is happening all over the country with great results, it started in Arizona, check out the website http://modeling.asu.edu/

Luke kahlich's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What dismays me is that there are still teachers (as well as principals and superintendents) who do not know about constructivist pedagogy. No wonder we seem to keep spinning our wheels and develop standards and curriculula that are straight from the 19th century! BOTH for K-12, and higher education.

David Christensen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I cannot believe that you all think that lower grade children can successfully learn from constructivist methods. This teaching has ruined our school district's math program. We have to teach our kids an entire math curriculum at home because they never learn any real facts from their constructivist curriculum. But, hey, I see they get to talk with each other about adding single digit numbers. And, they love drawing pictures and graphing.

Just keep letting go of your students. They can spend a bunch of time talking about things they have no fundamental basis or knowledge in. My kids will succeed because I am supplementing their education myself. Then, your constructivist curriculum will be praised for what a great job it did in preparing my kids for college.

I feel sorry for the kids who aren't getting a real education at home. How are they ever going to learn enough to get into college?

This constructivism is ruining our public education.

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Thanks for taking a moment to share the challenging experience you have had with your child's school. In no way does the inquiry model, or the constructivist learning model, ever, and I mean, ever, replace teaching the fundamentals (which often calls for teacher-directed instruction, especially in the lower grades.)

Notice that my students were required to read, analyze and synthesize primary documents important in U.S. history and government (the Fourth Amendment, for example.) Teachers have also shared in their comments here some outstanding models of inquiry learning -- and academic rigor -- in their own classrooms.

I'm very sorry to hear about this experience you have had with this specific school site.

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

That's such a key term: active role. Yes! When we hold students accountable for their own learning, that is when the magic happens! Thanks for sharing!

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

I can't tell you how many times I have had to "check myself" while teaching to make sure I wasn't wearing the "sage on the stage" hat for too long. Sure, direct-teaching is necessary and crucial at times, but then educators need to know when it's time to step off and to the side and let the students take the lead. Thank you for sharing with us.

Dana Gubitosa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a teacher at a school that implements the Project Based Learning method - where the students actively work on projects throughout the semester and learn the concepts by DOING with lessons on skills needed throughout. At first, many of my fellow teachers were skeptical, but all it took was seeing the students' faces as they embraced their own learning to quickly change their minds. The students we serve are under-credited, over-aged urban teenagers and they come alive when the material is relevant and given to them to work through. We are building their 21st century skills which are crucial for our population, given that not all of them will continue on to higher education.

When you see these kids who were never students to begin with light up because they are finally understanding material the traditional methods failed to communicate, it is priceless. They enjoy school, themselves and their successes in ways that make every day on the job a pure blessing.

Is it the best way? Maybe. Maybe not. But when I see them actively engaged in their own education and hear them talking about things they've learned three, four, five months later, I really don't care. It works for the population I serve, so in this instance, success is our most important piece of empirical data.

Kirsten Olson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Rebecca, This is a great post and like one of your commenters, I too worry that some of our teachers have not heard of constructivism...As a teacher deeply steeped in belief about the importance of constructivism, I just want to add to what you have already said: teachers still have to do some direct instruction, and know their students background knowledge, experiences with constructivist learning, and existing schemas for this to be successful. I have seen a lot of really horrid constructivist instruction (and done some myself, goodness knows!)--teachers MUST know their students intellectually and spiritually, and develop capacity around activist learning over time, for constructivism to reach its fullest potential!

Thank you!

Kirsten Olson
(author of Wounded By School)

Carol Steele's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One of the best teaching/learning experiences I ever had with students began when my sociology students came to class furious because a lunch period had been cancelled leading to overcrowding in the two remaining periods. They wanted to picket the office! I asked whether they had any proof that crowding was harmful, as opposed to merely inconvenient. Immediately, they wanted to find out. I put aside my plans and we spent several weeks researcing and then creating a video that summarized their findings. Years later, former students I meet still label it their best class project ever.

Taught high school for 28 years. Writer of The Insprired Teacher: How to Know One, Grow One or Be One, published by ASCD. Currently an Instructional Coach from Grand Rapids MI.

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