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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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Christine Wagner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I'm new to blogging. My name is Christine Wagner, and I have just started my Masters in Literacy at Walden University, an on-line program. Looking at blogs is one of my current assignments.

I enjoyed your image of Socrates standing aside, watching and encouraging the banter as opposed to orchestrating it. I love it when my own classroom takes on a fire of its own, though I haven't been as brave as you to follow completely. I would like to learn how to let go more than I do. When students make meaning learning really occurs. I do learn from my students as well.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Stephanie Grayson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Activating prior knowledge and relating subject matter to life experiences is perhaps the best teacher. More teachers need to "let go" in the classroom to let students know that he or she can relate to the teacher. When the student knows this, he or she will respect the teacher because of the mutual relation. Students gain a sense of belonging when they teach themselves through discussion and apply the lesson to life experiences. I teach seniors and have learned that by letting go, students will learn more and will enjoy the class even more when they know that what they think is important to the teacher and is a valuable asset to the lesson.

Crissy Lawrence's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jeremiah Gray - Edison Elementary School
Indianapolis, IN
General Education - 5th grade
I love this post! Thank you so much for bringing attention to the importance of student interest in lessons. A topic that connects to students' personal interests and the challenges they face daily only increase student learning and engagement. Realistically, as adults, if we attend a conference or class that does not connect to our own personal interests, whether they be personal or professional, it can be difficult to gain sufficient learning from the experience.
I truly enjoy lessons that allow students to "go off the beaten track." In fifth grade, students are very willing to share their opinions and viewpoints, and I encourage them to share these. I use the Socratic method more than I even realize, challenging them to think beyond the viewpoints of others or society as a whole and to form their own opinions.
It can be hard, as a teacher faced with deadlines and student data expectations, to allow students to guide their own learning. However, it is important to keep in mind, that student learning is so much stronger and more meaningful if the students choose and guide their own learning.

Michelle Dinkins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 3rd grade which is very different from high school, but I found myself having similiar experiences in my classroom. A few days ago, we were talking about what communities are and how we are contribute to our communities. My plan was for us to breeze quickly through this lesson but my students had another plan. We began our discussion with what jobs make up a community and they said the typical answers like police officers, firemen etc. One student talked about how they went to the food bank over the weekend because their mom and dad were laid off and they had to get groceries but had no money. I thought the conversation would have ended after his comment in silence but then my little third graders had a discussion fit for a high school classroom. They began talking about concepts like the injustice of how people can work more than one job but still not have enough money to pay bills and how some people can not go to the doctor because they had no insurance. I stood back and let them discuss these issues that are very real in their lives. I have to admit I learned a whole lot from those kids. They continued the discussion for 45 minutes, which in 3rd grade time is like a whole day! They never lost interest and when the bell rang for the end of the day most of the students went home and did research that they brought back. We continued talking about our community and all the resources available to the people in our community. I even invited some members of the community to come in and talk to the students. This short little lesson of 25 minutes turned out to be the best lesson of the year so far. The students reminded me of why I came into education in the first place. I loved seeing the spark in their eyes and their enthusiasm for learning more.

Thelma Hayes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Through personal and social experiences I feel that students are actively involved in constructing their own learning. Which is what your students did for their projects, they had to gather their information, formulate opinions and solutions, and present the end product, in this way they were actively engaged in their own learning.

Students are not viewed as blank tapes to be filled up with the knowledge from a lecturing teacher, but they need to participate in their learning. Students are engaged in the active process of building on what they already know and can do.

The stories we learn to tell about ourselves and our world point to the true meaning of constructivism.

Thelma Hayes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Capitalize on students' existing needs.

Research says that, "students learn best when incentives for learning in a classroom satisfy their own motives for taking the class. Some of the needs students bring to the classroom are the need to learn something in order to complete a particular task or activity, the need to seek new experiences, the need to perfect skills, the need to overcome challenges, the need to become competent, the need to succeed and do well, the need to feel involved and to interact with other people. Satisfying such needs is rewarding in itself, and such rewards sustain learning more effectively than do grades. Design assignments, in-class activities, and discussion questions to address these kinds of needs. (McMillan and Forsyth, 1991)

These authors and their research findings are right to the point of the value learning has for students who are actively engaged. I completely agree with you, because from working in my 5th grade classroom daily I see this everyday.

By finding a way to challenge students that is relevant and interesting, you will hook them. By allowing them to have input in the lesson, by giving them a choice of projects, classroom assignments, and homework so they can have a stake in their learning outcomes.

Aaron Radcliff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my Honors English 11 class, we were nearly finished with 'The Scarlet Letter'. As we drew to a close it became apparent that the students were dissatisfied with the ending. I attributed this to what I call the "Happy Ending Syndrome" that has been perpetuated by modern storytelling. What interested me though is that through their own experiences, likes, and dislikes, they informed me of what they wanted their final project to be. Through a classroom discussion (completely unplanned and very compelling) they presented to me their ideas of how the book should end, and what they would do if they were responsible for the ending. One thing turned into another and as a group we decided that the final project would be for the students to write, direct, film, and present their version of a good ending for the novel. The results were amazing.

These students pulled together and created some very compelling endings. Some bordered on the ludicrous, but when this occurred it was a good mirror of the students, and their groups. They brought themselves to the project, and presented it for all to see. This project could not have happened if I weren't able to alter my lesson plans, and if they weren't comfortable enough with each other, and me, to deviate from the norm. This quickly became the most rewarding project that I had with this group, and I hope that they can say the same.

Tiffany Harrell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a student at Walden University, I read an article which discussed the six knowledge areas that teachers should accumulate as they become expert teachers. As a current novice teacher, I have learned that I need to work on cognitive processes of instruction. There is such a focus on having lesson plans ready for instruction, that we often forget to allow students to bring their prior knowledge into discussions. Although your students got off of the topic you were focused on, they were still engaged and were able to learn from each other. I liked how you allowed your assessments to change along with the change of your instruction. As I work towards becoming an expert teacher, I am trying to become more flexible. Since I teach 3rd grade, I have to keep a little bit more structure in my classroom to keep it under control, but your blog has taught me that I need to allow the students to do more of the teaching so I can listen to what they have to say. Students are not only in school to learn the concepts written out in standards, but also to gain experiences and learn new ideas that they may not be exposed to in the real world. As educators, we need to give students more of these opportunities to express how they feel and allow other students to learn from them.

Val Allyse's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently a graduate student, and have gone back to work in the education system after having homeschooled for many many years. I believe that it is this "letting go" that I enjoyed most about homeschooling and what I enjoyed in teaching. I always was amazed at other homeschooling parents who purchased a curriculum and them proceeded to follow a set schedule and read a scripted lesson. When teaching 25 students who require a certain amount of material to be covered by a certain date there are times when we do have to keep moving in spite of the desire to follow a line of learning that has captured our students' attention. As a homeschool mother we (me and my kids) could do this to our hearts content, both because we had endless times and days to learn the basics, but also because our classroom was as big as we desired it to be. I want to be able to bring that to my students when I return to being a regular classroom teacher. I want to be able to guide the learning, yet allow them the freedom to love what they are learning.

hipteacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Some of the best experiences I have had teaching came when I abandoned the lesson plans and followed the lead of my kids, so I often allow one unit or text a year to be completely unscripted by me. It makes many teachers nervous and uncomfortable because they may not always have the *right* answers--say if you weren't an expert on racial profiling--to what comes up. But students adore and respect a teacher who reads, thinks and learns by their side. Valuable standards-based stuff ends up getting taught "by accident", and your classroom mirrors real-life learning processes, with all the stops, starts and light bulb moments included. You are teaching them how to have curious minds.

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