It is interesting that today’s topic is about building a more powerful classroom by letting go as I was just having this conversation with my teammate at lunch today. We are finishing our first year as a fully PBL school. However, I teach in a program that has been PBL since the school opened five years ago. For us, stepping back and letting go is second nature, but for many teachers it is a scary proposition.
If you let go of full control of your classroom and let students have autonomy, what will happen to your classroom management and discipline? How will you make sure that students are on task 100% of the time? Can students really learn if you are not feeding them information at the front of the room day in and day out? It sounds like chaos. Chaos can’t be good, can it?
As a science teacher, I have always lived by the rule that science is loud and messy. I am sure that helped set the stage for me moving more and more to full PBL over the past few years. I also don’t like giving answers. It is so much more beautiful when students discover concepts on their own. To me, it is the only way to teach science. Inquiry and discovery is the nature of science.
Stepping back and letting students take control of the their learning does not mean that all of your classroom procedures go out the window. It just means you develop a new set of procedures for the environment. Organized chaos can be a really good thing because it really isn’t chaotic. I think sometimes in education we have been fed the lie that noise equals chaos. That’s simply not true. However, as students work and learn together, your classroom will not be completely silent, and that is completely okay!
I have been talking about our upcoming STEM Maker Fest in several of my recent posts. I want to tell you the story of one of our groups . Three of my freshmen boys weren’t initially sure what they wanted to do for their project, so they were brainstorming with one of my teammates for ideas. They decided to make a Power Wheels style car initially, and over time it has morphed into a robot. At first, they wanted it to be a tank, but I suggested it did something more positive. Our robotics team already has a t-shirt cannon, so they are integrating the t-shirt canon into the robot design. They also called local businesses to donate t-shirts to be shot out of the canon during the event. The robot is almost finished, and on the day of the Maker Fest, they will be driving it via remote control around the event space and shooting t-shirts to the crowds.
What does this have to do with letting go in the classroom? A whole lot. (That’s a completely scientific term.) These three students are in my chemistry class. What does this project have to do with chemistry? Not much – especially not the concepts we are currently studying. It’s really more of an engineering/robotics project. Do you know how much robot building experience these kids had prior to the project? Basically none. By stepping back and allowing these students to discover on their own, they have created something way beyond what I could have taught them in my chemistry classroom. They have been working on the build during our project time, at lunch, and after school almost every day. They were there this afternoon working for a couple of hours. Do you want students to have powerful learning experiences in your classroom that revolve around things they really want to know?
See what happens.
Oh – you’re worried about the students performing on the tests they have to take and the standards that you cover? Don’t be! Our students routinely outperform the other students in our school. Why? They are motivated to get the required work done in an efficient manner (and we are consistently checking for mastery via formative assessments) so that they can work on what interests them.
Do you know what happens when you allow students to follow their passions? They have time to do amazing things. Two years ago, a small group of sophomore students pitched their 3D animation modeling skills to a local firm to create something to be part of a PBS documentary. They ended up creating a 90-second segment for the documentary and won a student level Emmy award. Here is an article about the project if you would like to know more. You can also watch the documentary, or just their animation, on Hulu. The animation is just after the 7:55 minute mark. This project took the majority of the year, so while other students were working on more traditional projects, they took advantage of the efficiency model to get their needed assignments done and then work on the animation. (I can’t take credit for any of this, as this year is my first year with CDAT.) This is another example of what happens when you step back and let kids do what they love.
So are you ready to let go – even just a little? Trust me; it’s worth it, and the results will be beyond amazing!