Giving Learners the Right Amount of Power and Autonomy; the beginning

A student in my introduction to World History class, circa 2013.

I recently had a conversation about manipulating versus enabling people and I realized that I have a lot of opinions on the topic.  I’m itching to share my ideas and I hope you can draw something from them.  Here I’m addressing this in the context of education, but many of these ideas relate to other contexts as well.

I firmly, deeply, forever believe that you cannot control people- though bribes, through words, through coercion, through pop-up ads, etc.  You can try to trick people, you can take advantage of people, and you can certainly influence people, but you can’t actually control people.  My worst teaching moments have come when I have forgotten this; it’s easy to forget.

Fortunately, the human brain is naturally inclined to learn and improve itself and because of this, a teacher always has opportunities to guide and enable his or her students.

Enabling a student, by my definition, means giving him or her the right amount of control in the right moment.  Sometimes this means giving a student immense autonomy, sometimes this means doing a little bit of hand-holding, and sometimes this means giving some redirection or constructive criticism. You do your part to give guidance throughout the process, but you also step back and watch success, failure, or some combination of the two unfold.  Then you remember to not take it personally, whatever the outcome.  Ultimately, students control their own learning.

Here I’ll talk about three components that are important to enabling students in the beginning of a learning process.

They are:


-A clear outline of the freedom and structures that they have, and what the boundaries are

-A set of tools to accomplish the given task

Inspiration. At the beginning of a project,  students have a significant amount of power and choices, but they often don’t know where to start or what it could lead to. When you’ve got their full attention, give your students ideas, be they youtube links, stories, guest speakers,  meaningful problems to solve, inspirational movie clips etc.  Articulate exactly what this learning opportunity is worth and what influence they could have with it.  Share your utmost positivity and enthusiasm. This could be incredible.

This is also a great moment to remind students, especially teenagers, that although you’re the teacher, they are ultimately their own teachers, and they are responsible for what they do with their time and what they learn.  They can waste their time or they can work hard and use it to solve problems, gain knowledge, become an expert.  Most importantly, they can use it to enjoy learning, and to help other people learn.

Remind your students that they can accomplish anything, as long as they do the required studying and work. If their goals are worthwhile, they will likely take more time than expected (I am being reminded of that in my own projects right now).

Define their freedom and structure and provide clear boundaries.  People love choices in their learning, but not so much freedom that they don’t know how to figure out what to do.   Give your students enough structure, feedback, and check-in points  so that they can figure out their next steps and ask questions to get unstuck. This is very nuanced and I could write a novel about  how to pick up on what sort of structure students want and need, but generally, give students enough freedom to choose a project they love and just enough structure so that they can figure out what to do.  You don’t always have to give them a clear idea of what is expected of them (because that steals their creative juices), although sometimes it’s helpful.  Again, go by what you are seeing your students doing and needing.

So for example, you could tell your class, “Make a project that shows the math we’ve learned this unit.” And then show them architecture, actuary, and engineering projects that require those skills. Then outline your expectations, maybe an illustrated diagram and presentation of the steps you used to solve this problem, and a short essay on the value that your solution adds. Or you could say,  “Your project is to create an ethical business plan for this company that could make you money.” Then offer your rubric with the five categories of what you’re expecting, check-in dates, and the due date.

Give your students the freedom to choose to learn what they want to and enough structure so that they can figure out what to do.

Next they might come to you with a question– Is this project idea a good one? or not?  

Can I do my research project on a drug lord? 

Can I eat nine chocolate chip cookies for breakfast? 

Think through what you need to to have a logical reasonable conversation with your students about their choices.  Your discussion should be mostly questions.

For example, if a teenage student asks you to do a research project about a notorious drug lord, ask them questions about why it might or might not be appropriate.  What are the health benefits of doing drugs?  Did this drug lord influence people for good or for bad or both?  In what ways?  How? Why?

Or, ask your sweet-tooth student, what do you think would happen if you eat nine chocolate chip cookies for breakfast?  Good things?  Might you fart more than normal?

For every no you give, guide your students to your thinking with questions.  Know that even after you tell a student he or she cannot do an assignment (maybe about violence or something else that is gruesome/inappropriate), he or she may still do it.

Lastly demonstrate the tools at their disposal and how to use them.  I’ve had the chance to work at both public and private schools and I cannot tell you the difference in terms of the power of educational resources.  Computers, microscopes, books, pet rats (versus unwelcome rodents), hammers, power tools, yoga mats, food, field trips.  I struggle to think how these tools could be equally distributed, but until then, if you’ve got them, USE them.  And if you don’t have them, have your students do as much as they can to get them.  Also YOU do as much as you can to get them, but make it clear to students how much these tools are worth.  These expenses add up, and students of all socioeconomic backgrounds can take classroom resources for granted sometimes.

Give your students the vision, purpose and rules of these learning tools. Resources can be used to accomplish learning, or they can be used to waste time.  Only acquire resources that relate to the specific learning goals of your students because resources you don’t need can actually be a huge distraction.  Eliminate the extra and provide students with clear boundaries and agreements on how to appropriately use what you have. Students can come up with rules to guide this process. See what tweaks need to be made so that students can be successful in using tools productively.  Again, be ready to witness that fun part where I said you can’t control other people– students can be reckless and tools break.

If and when your students seem to need a discussion about social media/texting, have that discussion and guide it with questions.  What is the purpose of our time together? What is the purpose of the technology in our classroom?  How can we stay on topic and accomplish our goals?   Social media is a tough distraction in the classroom and a very real threat to learning.

These three pieces–inspiration, defined freedom and boundaries, and tools– are vital to giving students power in the beginning of a project.

Speaking abstractly, most of the learning process could be considered a beginning in some form.  If you need to step back from what you’re doing to give instruction and re-harness these pieces, do it, even if it’s not technically the beginning of the project.

At Bowman school, we learned one analogy for this is lighting a match.  In the beginning, with the right amount of pressure and control, your students often choose to light this match and start a fire that keeps them learning.

Missed opportunities

There are a million ways to miss the mark on this. Here are a few.

Not giving students inspiration or creative opportunities.  If your expectations are flimsy and one-dimensional, your students’ work will also very likely be flimsy and one-dimensional.  This looks like worksheets, standardized tests, lectures, and bookwork.  Sometimes this looks like students just going through the motions, giving up, or even dropping out.

Not giving students freedom and structure or explanations for your boundaries. If you’re ready to say no to most of your students’ ideas, be ready for your students to say no to learning.  The beginning is not the time for criticism or threats (although there’s never a time for threats).  Find ways to say yes.  When you do have to say no, which happens sometimes, be ready to ask questions and talk about why.  Important sidenote: you don’t have to be a pushover.  If a student chooses to break an agreement that you’ve created, you don’t have to accept their work or give them any attention.  But know that they might choose to do it anyway.

This missed opportunity looks like students who are confused, wasting time, or don’t know what to do.

Going along with this, I sincerely believe that most wasted time and failure in the classroom come from a student’s lack of understanding of how to solve the task at hand.  When students don’t use their time wisely, it’s usually not because they don’t care, it’s because they don’t know how.  Ask questions, provide support, and do what you need to do to help get your students unstuck.

Not providing the right tools at the right moment with the right use. This is the tough part, where students with money find success faster than ones without.  There are creative ways to come up with these resources and sometimes not having certain tools can be a good thing.  More often though, schools without the  books, computers, or items their students need to accomplish their learning goals are at a huge disadvantage.

It’s interesting to note, however, that this failure can also look like schools with millions of dollars of brand new computers.  T.C. Williams, down the street from the high school I taught at, received enormous amounts of funding for personal computers for each student and their test scores fell off a cliff. This pattern, unfortunately is incredibly common–schools with bucketloads of donations end up with bigger problems than the ones they started with.

Why?  Because computers and resources are often supplied without that vision of what they would accomplish or the defined freedom and boundaries that come with a privilege.  Teachers harness that vision and structure in order for resources to be successful.  With the right guidance, resources can give students the power to increase their productivity and learning exponentially.  Conversely, without that guidance, tools can  give students the power to decrease their productivity and learning exponentially.

So, as they say in Spanish, cuidado.

I hope this is helpful to teachers and moms and dads out there. Happy July and happy learning!

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