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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!

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Emmanuelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

constructivism = turning any lesson into a teachable moment :)

Have you seen "The class", winner of the last Festival de Cannes ? ("Entre les murs", en francais). At one point, the class is asked by the teacher to write their self-portrait. A big guy from Guadeloupe starts reading his text : "I am French...". One of the "second generation French" interrupts : "You're not French, you're from Guadeloupe !" "So what ? Guadeloupe IS French". "Well, says the girl, I'm not Fench... at least, i'm not proud to be French."
At which point the teacher interrupts : "This has nothing to do with our subject. Let's move on !".

This had everything to do with the subject, which was, basically, "who are you ?". The fact that this girl was defining herself by who she is NOT, or what she doesn't want to be seen as, was more than relevant -not only to the subject, but to the ultimate goal of school, which is to create a communal culture and a sense of belonging.

Had this teacher been a constructivist...

Caitlin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently a month into my 2nd year of teaching. I am a 6th grade mathematics teacher in New York State. After reading this article I have to say that I am quite inspired. Based on the NYS standards, I have a set curriculum that I must follow in order to get through all the material necessary for my students to take their state exam at the end of the year. A lot of times I find myself "trucking" through material to keep the class moving forward. However, I need to stop and remember that as a teaching professional, it is important that I am not only my students leader but learning with them as well. During many discussions my students inquire about a topic beyond what I have planned for the day. Previously, I would be quick to answer their question and move on. This article was a good reminder to myself that the learning that takes place in the classroom needs to guided by the students enthusiasm and interest of the material. Of course I still have standards to be met, but I will make it a goal for myself to allow the children to contribute to the direction of the lesson as well.

Rachel McMaster's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree!! I feel that authentic learning/teaching is important here. I recently graduated from college and am currently substituting at a variety of school districts in the surrounding area. During student teaching, in a 6th grade classroom, I allowed my students to role-play different scenarios. During that time I sat back and facilitated and allowed the students to figure out how they can be change agents in the situations. I feel that they got the best out of this situation. They were allowed to use their "voice" and be change agents in their own lives. I think at times during teaching that students should be allowed to challenge each other and reflect upon the world. Sometimes students take a lesson down a different path than you intended, sometimes it's ok to let that happen at other times you may have to bring them back on track.

Katie Blower's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Oh how hard it is to let go of that control, but I think my students have learned the most in those times when I have been able to let them guide me. This year I am teaching kindergarten, which does not lend itself as well as other grade levels to following the students where they "need" to take their learning, but there still are times. Similar to other teachers' stories, I had a discussion the other day where we were talking about firefighters because a kindergartner in our building had pulled the fire alarm. After I found out who had pulled it, I realized that our students did not really know what that little lever was that they see all throughout the building, and they didn't yet know that it was not to be touched. I had planned to read a quick story about firefighters and then talk about not touching the fire alarm because the firefighters need to help other people if we do not really have an emergency. Our quick little lesson ended up lasting almost a half an hour (a long time for 5 year olds!). We ended up getting into a discussion on having a fire escape route in our homes, checking fire detector batteries, and how firefighters are helpers even though they may look scary with all of their gear on. We ended up packing in a lot of learning in that time. I hadn't anticipated their responses and enthusiasm, but I am glad we had the discussion while the topic was pertinent and important to them.

Thanks for posting this topic. It really is a good reminder that I seem to need often.

Megan Nickerson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can definitely relate to this topic of "Letting Go." I teach Pre-K children and on a daily basis I find myself letting go of what I had planned and going where the children take me. It is a wonderful ride that take me on, and we really do learn a lot. I, like yourself, have a rigid curriculum to keep up with, so I do have to find a place to come full circle with the lesson I am trying to get across. Children at this age are so curious, and they often see things that adults miss because we are so wrapped up in the outcome of the lesson. Just yesterday I was asking the children to remember what the story I had read them the day before was about. There were bears on the cover and at first they predicted that the book was going to be about bears but then found out that it was about all animals. So, yesterday I was looking for them to give me the "right" answer, which was animals. Instead one child told me it was about mommies. At first I thought of it as a wrong answer, but then took a second to ask him why he thought that. He told me it was because all the pictures in the book had a baby animal and it's mom. We then took our story time in another direction and talked about how animals have moms too and what the mommy animals do for their baby. I understand the importance of letting the children decide on how lesson goes. Children are more eager to learn when they feel they have a say in what is being taught. Younger children, epecially, learn more quickly when they are interested in what is being presented. I think it's important for educators to remember that even though what they are teaching children might be off topic, the children are still walking away with new knowledge.

Lisa Archer  's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I heard a teacher friend of mine say years ago that she was not a teacher but a facilitator of learning. Her words have stuck with me. We should be just that. Sometimes the best plans can be interrupted into something even better. I find that many times a student may ask a question that I had not anticipated. I thank them for asking such thought provoking questions. I have done math for so many years; sometimes it is hard to see through my students' eyes. It is surprising to see what they can come up with. Many times, their questions lead into a greater learning experience for all. I often find myself thinking, "wow, what a great insight this child has," or "I never thought of it that way." Monitor and adjust was drilled into me in college. Isn't that what letting go is all about: allowing students to lead the way into a greater understanding for students and teachers alike.

Lisa Archer
Math Teacher
Walden Graduate Student

Clark Simons's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Someone once said, "It is better to be guide on the side than a sage on the stage." That has become my philosophy as a teacher. It has seemed to enhance my teaching experience. I agree that we need to be prepared with a meaningful lesson each day,but we also need to be able to let go when our students take a discussion in another direction.I teach high school health and have found that my best classes are the ones when the students take over the discussion.It cause them to dig deeper into the subject and it brings relevance to their learning. We just had a discussion yesterday on humor and its effects on the human mind. The discussion led them to conducting several different experiments of their creation on the subject. They are in the process of conducting those experiments now. It was not the direction I had planned on, but it has created in my students a desire to learn. Each day I go into class my first thought is what do they really need to know. Then I plan accordingly. Learning to stay on the side and direct their learning has been a great teaching tool for me.

Richard Lee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm currently an 8th year AP Chemistry Teacher and have very much tried to take the constructivist approach in my classroom. However, I've found it quite difficult because students have very little prior knowledge with respect to chemistry and matter. Constructivism, I believe, may only be practical with particular subject matter. Though I'm sure there is some recall with respect to the subject, chemistry is so microscopic that very few students come into the class with any basic understanding of the science. However this is not the case with biology or even physics. All students have some understanding of cars crashing and balls falling, as well as organs functioning in the body. Nonetheless I continue to try and raise questions that help to guide my students in their road to discovery.

Nobina Foley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I think of constructivism, I envision a room of students collaborating, discussing, questioning, etc. Where's the teacher? Well, sitting with or beside the students listening, discussing, questioning, etc., along with the students. This is the true "Democratic classroom".

This type of classroom is alive with learning, where students are collectively "constructing an understanding". The students are challenging themselves through a process of discovery with an intrinsic motivation in their quest for knowledge.

A constructivist classroom includes the student, as they take an active role in their education. Unlike, the "schooling" classroom where students remain in their seats and are not central to their education.

The moments where an educator can let go and let the students guide the learing is liberating. These personal experiences are learning experiences, for all - the students and the teacher.

Thanks for sharing and reminding me of those moments!

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.

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