How One Teacher Let Go of Control To Focus On Student-Centered Approaches

Unordered school chairs (iStock/ajfilgud )

When Kristine Riley looks back on how she used to teach her students, she sees order and control. Her third, fourth and fifth grade gifted-and-talented classes had been structured and orderly, and students sat in designated seats. She had assigned the same tasks to every student and had hoped for roughly the same answers from all of them. She used to believe that it was her responsibility as a teacher to impart information to her students. Riley had decided what was important and students were expected to learn what they were taught.

Riley is also a conscientious teacher and regularly looks for ways to better herself on behalf of her students in Edison, New Jersey public schools. So after a colleague she admired and teachers she followed on social media began extolling the learning advantages of letting go of control in the classroom, Riley decided to give it a try. “I started out small,” she said. It took about a year, maybe a year and a half, to abandon her top-down approach to teaching and replace it with what she calls “structured chaos.” She shared her findings at a recent EdCamp gathering in New Jersey.

“In the beginning, it was uncomfortable,” Riley said. She had to let go of her micro-managing mentality and embrace the notion that the students needed to drive their learning—which meant less of her standing at the front of the classroom.  But over time, she came up with a range of classroom strategies that put students squarely in charge.

GIVING STUDENTS CHOICE

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Student choice is central to her methods. When she assigns projects, Riley now offers options for students to choose from. Some assignments will include “menus” of questions, for example, that ask students to pick what intrigues them from the “breakfast,” “lunch” and “dinner” selections—with a “dessert” choice for those hungry to learn more. In a third grade science unit on oil spills, to name another, Riley proposed different ways to explore the problem, including researching the Keystone XL pipeline and studying cruise ship pollution. Students could then pick an assignment that suited their personal inclination: they could write a song, create a commercial or build a website to share what they learned. Along with choice of subjects, students also have freedom to move at their own pace. And with their teacher’s input, students set their own goals, reflect on their work and assess themselves. What’s not allowed in class? Students are prohibited from declaring “I’m done.” Instead, Riley invites students to ask themselves new questions, like “How can I make this better?” or “What else can I add?”

Rather than have Riley assign seats, students now choose their own work place: a standing desk, an overturned crate or a spot next to the windowsill. Students are free to move around within the room, from one station to another; they’re not expected to sit still for the duration of class. Riley encourages them to find a place and get comfortable—ideally, where they will feel engaged and productive.

And as a way to underscore the confidence she places on the students to direct their own learning, the children are free to select their work partners. “This was the most scary for me,” Riley said. To prevent children from picking their best friends or ostracizing anyone, she guided the children in creating norms on how to select a work partner. The model they devised was simple: work together, not against each other; compromise; split tasks fairly. Again, Riley encourages the kids to think of their partner as someone with whom they could work successfully—not just a friend, or someone with identical skills, but a fellow student who would contribute to the project.

TOO MUCH FREEDOM?

Does such freedom of choice deter young students from pursuing unfamiliar subjects? Will inviting children to present their work in the way that best suits their interests discourage them from taking risks? Riley says no. “I encourage them to try something different,” she said. She is clear about letting students know that she doesn’t want the same old thing, just repurposed, every time they turn in an assignment. “I tell them, ’show me that you’re challenging yourself to try something new.’”

And to counterbalance the self-directed nature of students’ learning, Riley also emphasizes the need for community within the classroom. All students are responsible for clean up and each week Riley picks one empowering quote from the many that students have submitted for consideration. Riley posts the quote at the front of the class and students then strive to live by the saying—for example, “Be yourself, because everybody else is already taken.” At the end of the week, students decide who best embodied the quote, and that student then gets to “keep” the quote.

Riley’s students prefer the new classroom environment, she said. “They enjoy what’s going on in the class so much more,” she said. Academically, the kids dive deeper when they determine where they’re headed. When Riley introduced programmable robots to the students, for example, each work group sought to develop a different robot capability. And while some groups followed Riley’s instructions on programming, others turned to online tutorials to learn more. “They’re embracing it and running with it,” Riley said about her spirited classroom.

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Parents seem to love what’s happening in her classroom, Riley said, in part because their excited children tinker with school projects at home. School officials also support her new approach. “My supervisor encourages me to try different things, and is very supportive of all that’s going on,” she said—so much so that he is trying to push the rest of the school to adopt this mindset. Riley is convinced that these student-centered methods can apply as well in general education classes as in gifted and talented programs. What has changed for her, as she has let go of control in her classes? “Every day, they continue to surprise me,” Riley said. “They blow my mind.”

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