George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Letting Go in the Classroom

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting 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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Hillary Oliver's picture
Hillary Oliver
Elementary Teacher, Georgia

This is an area I deffinitely need to work on in my classroom. I agree with the first post in that I feel that I do not have a single minute to spare. I must not get off subject (any subject), especially a subject that does not adhere to the "standards". By letting go, you gained the students' attention and respect. They enjoyed what was turn they will be paying attention for their opportunity to have input in future class discussion. Great job turning their discussion into projects that were able to show their voice to others. Risk-taking is key to gaining the respect and attention of your students.

Hollie Gebhardt's picture

I agree that when students can take ownership in the conversation and what they are learning, more interest will be generated. It will also lead to more learning because it pertains to their world. Expert teachers are aware of their students and how they best learn. They are also flexible and adaptive. When a teacher takes that leap into constructivist teaching, it is amazing what results can be seen. When it gets difficult is when a district gives you certain materials, certain tests, and time tables. It seems we are always racing to get certain "units" done. To remember what expert teachers know is critical.

L.A.H's picture

Thank you for this wonderful blog! Unfortunately, as a fairly new teacher I have not had a teaching moment like this, yet. Reading this, I know it must have been hard to let go of the scheduled lesson plans and knowing that you had a curriculum to stick with, but I know this "real life" experience will have lasting memories for your students.

Jessica Torok's picture

My name is Jessica Torok and I am currently a graduate student and Walden University. I am earning my Master's degree in adolescent literacy and technology and I'm assigned to explore educational blogs. I have been teaching mathematics for two years and this is my first blogging experience.
The foundation of critical thinking is how students construct knowledge, during the process of learning. (Quian, 2007) The intellectual foundation of teaching critical thinking was discovered 2,500 years ago by Socrates. He was the first in history to recognize the importance of asking deeper level questions that force humans to justify their claims. Socrates created the idea that "one cannot depend upon those in "authority" to have sound knowledge and insight" (The Critical Thinking Community, 2007). He became an influential role model by demonstrating that we each have the power and control of knowledge, rather than adopting ideas as worthy of belief. His best known strategy called Socratic Questioning, initiated "the importance of seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, analyzing basic concepts, and tracing out implications not only of what is said but of what is done as well." (The Critical Thinking Community, 2007) Socrates highlights the need for clarity and logical consistency of thinking in classroom instruction.
It is important that teachers set high expectations for their students. Educators should be modeling higher order thinking such as, predicting, reciprocal teaching, summarizing, and utilizing graphic organizer to help map the connections of new content with their prior knowledge. Students that construct their own learning will own a deeper understanding of the material. "We should be teaching students how to think. Instead, we are teaching them what to think." (Schaferson, 1991) The most effective educators are those who conquered to ability to enter into a student's mind and bring their mind to life by teaching students how to think. Cronin (1991, 1992) discovered successful teachers bring life to the process of reading and writing by making those ideas meaningful.
I know one of my challenges is giving up my control and allowing students to learn on their own. However, I understand the importance that my students become activist in the classroom. According to Kottler, Zehm, & Kottler (2005), "Students are not viewed as blank tapes to be filled with the knowledge from a lecturing teacher. Rather, students are engaged in the active process of building on that they already know and can do" (p. 31).
My mission of specifically teaching critical thinking is supported by science with the fact that higher level thinking skills prepare students to succeed, not only in school but in life. The quote above identifies the gap that haunts our education system. Teachers spend most their time and effort implementing the subject matter and modeling the correct way of understanding the content, which deemphasizes the importance of teaching students how to properly understand and evaluate the material. (Schaferson, 1991)

Thank you for your thoughts, insights, and attention,
Jessica Torok
7-12 Mathematics Teacher's picture
first grade teacher

I love Rebecca's post! Lighting a fire in our students promotes the best things we want from our students: independence, self-reliance, powerful, confident, citizenship, and global conscientiousness. I believe as Maria Montessori believed in following the child's lead. I have been teaching for twenty one years preschool-first grade, and we as educators need to be the breath to initiate the yest, yearning, and desire to learn more. When I taught first grade at an inner city school in Chicago, my eyes were opened wide to the daunting tasks I had ahead of me: teaching students who were ESL, communicating with their parents who spoke little English, and knowing I didn't know any Spanish, or little about Mexico. I had to find the fire in myself to not only help my students learn but thrive. I took this challenge on excitedly, and anticipatory. I was fortunate to land in a school that realized how important it is to respect the students in different ways: their community values, their schema, their culture and heritage. Our school respected, embraced and acknowledged the rich heritage we were blessed with. We had various celebrations to honor the Mexican culture: Cinco DeMayo celebrations, with flags, parades, speeches, reports, and a taste of Mexico, where children brought delicious foods from their country. We had Mexican dancers, music and folktales told by people in our community. Our priest held special Masses throughout the year, commemorating important times/ feasts in Mexico. Our Hispanic students felt proud, and we all felt apart of this beautiful culture. We learned to respect people who were/ looked different than us, and moreover appreciated their past and presence. This wasn't a tourism trip to Mexico, instead it was palpable, and authentic. Our principal had the foresight to honor the people who made up this community with dignity and realism. We also celebrated other ethnic groups in this fashion. We wanted all our magnificent students to appreciate where their roots are and also appreciate where their roots are planted now. We didn't have problems with racism, bullies, and other things you might associate with urban schools, we did our best to help everyone feel a belonging and a sense of smaller community in a big community. I followed the lead constantly of my first graders, when we learned about the first Thanksgiving, they wanted to know what it would be like to eat the foods of the first Thanksgiving and what their clothes would be like. I did my best to introduce real things into the classroom and we had our own Thanksgiving feast. We created foods in the classroom, making our own butter, making our own clothing, making our own parts of the meal. We discussed what foods we traditionally eat now on Thanksgiving, and some of these students never ate turkey, and all the fixings, so we had a traditional meal, complete with side dishes we made in our class. Later on in the year, we wanted to learn about other cultures, we had an International Day, where students make flags of their countries, prepared mini-reports, learned how to count, or simple words and finalized this with a feast at the end of the year. For St. Patrick's Day, we had a bagpiper come in from a popular Chicago group and played music as we danced to the Lord of the Dance. He told us about his trips to Ireland, and we also had penpals in Ireland that would engage us in their own stories. I wanted my students to taste, smell, see, and feel all things with all their senses. Every year, my students would experience education as an adventure and life would never be the same. We have to follow the child, and listen to what they're interested in, and do all we can do light the fire in them, to make them want to learn more, do more, and be more. Sonia Nieto, author of What Keeps Teachers Going?, writes about how we can't follow best practices, it won't keep teachers engaged or committed, instead lead to burnout or student underachievement. Instead, we must focus on treating teachers professionally, and focus on the students (Nieto, 2003). Thank You for all the great teachers who wrote in, you've inspired me to keep on going, being myself, and forging ahead, and most importantly, following the child.
Sharon Weldon

Cassia Kite's picture
Cassia Kite
K-5 Elementary Art Teacher, Museum Educator, Florida

I have been studying inquiry based education that involve the TAB (Teaching for Artistic Behavior) Choice-based, Art center-based educational theories and teaching methods. What I found through my instructional experiences is to have a number of GREAT open-ended questions that will evoke the engagement of students on a deeper thinking level. I have also studied the Visual Thinking Strategies developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine that are based on museum education and the process that student's go through in being engaged with visual images and processing what they see. I had the great opportunity to listen to Laurel Schmidt talk about how the brain processes new information, which can be read about in her book Classroom Confidential: The 12 Secrets of Great Teachers, I suggest you look over the book, it's very much in tune with this blog topic. If you have anymore questions as to how an art educator involves this type of method of questioning in classroom inquiries and instruction, feel free to ask! I have ALOT of info!

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

I have consistently found that when I get out of my students' way, that is when they are the most likely to do great work. On any kind of project that's overly managed, students can do at best good work, but they can never do really great work. Great work takes the kind of passion and fearlessness that comes with knowing that you have the freedom to explore and do things in the way that you feel is best, not the way somebody else does.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

The best advice I ever got as a teacher was "eat a Bit O Honey." I was working with some outdoor educators at the American Youth Foundation and trying to get the hang of when to let go and when to step in. The basic gist of the advice was to pose the problem to the group, and then put a piece of candy in my mouth so I couldn't talk for at least the first few minutes. It really helped me to listen and watch in the moments when I most wanted to intervene. I think letting go is about trusting our students to figure it out while also being really present with our students as they struggle.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

The best classroom magic happens when you follow students and realize that sometimes what may seem off track is actually a pathway to a new and even better learning experience that the kids really care about. It requires teachers to trust the kids and to b willing to explore and see here something is going- and there's magic there. The core to seeing more of this is to maintain that trusting atmosphere where teachers and students feel free to ask questions without being shut down as off topic. I think this works at every level, but I certainly know teachers who are more skeptical of this approach with younger students. What age groups do you think this approach works best with?

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