I was listening to NPR last month when they did a story on free range parenting. The story covered the debate about the pros and cons of this approach, which values self-reliance and independence. The free range movement is a response to “helicopter” parents who are overly involved in their children’s lives, thus stifling their ability to cultivate the qualities valued by free range parents.
As I listened to this debate, I immediately thought of it in the context of the classroom. There is an interesting shift happening in education right now that touches on a similar tension between control and compliance versus freedom and self-reliance. Many traditional teachers are reluctant to transition from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom. They fear that the classroom will plunge into chaos if students are given the autonomy to make decisions and drive learning.
In a teacher-centered classroom, the focus is on the teacher. The teacher is in control of the classroom environment and the activities taking place there. By contrast, the student-centered approach places the focus on the students. Students are at the center of the learning happening in the classroom, which requires that they make decisions and work together. One values control and compliance while the other values freedom and self-reliance.
As I approached our final unit of the year, I decided to embrace a free range approach to teaching. I wanted to see what would happen if students were given complete autonomy and freedom to design and execute a 5-week unit.
This is a dramatic departure from the traditional approach to literature circles, which requires members of the group to complete specific jobs. I’ve always been torn about assigning students specific roles. I worry that roles are limiting because students are myopically focused on one task (collecting vocabulary, identify a theme, analyzing a character) and, as a result, miss out on deeper learning. I’ve never been entirely happy with this more controlled approach to literature circles, which inspired me to embrace a free range approach to this unit.
I told students this was their unit. I gave them a list of skills taken from the Common Core Standards that they needed to demonstrate over the course of the unit, but they had complete autonomy over how they demonstrated those skills. I encourage them to design performance tasks that reflected their talents and interests.
When given time to plan their units, this is what happened…
Instead of crumbling into a state of chaos as many teachers might fear would occur when students are given complete freedom, the level of focus and engagement was remarkable.
As they began to design performance tasks to demonstrate their skills, I was impressed by the wide range of assignments and tasks they came up with. I initially presented them with a list of 9 Common Core reading and writing standards that I wanted them to demonstrate mastery of over the course of the unit. They brainstormed ideas and groups worked at their own pace to complete their various performance tasks.
In a single class, I had groups designing everything from RSA animation videos to creative board games based on their novels to multimedia vocabulary videos. Watching their creative minds a work was a reminder that sometimes students do their best work when they are able to approach learning through a lens that interests them.
This experiment into free range teaching was really positive. It was a perfect end to the year because it allowed students to take everything they had learned in my class and put it into practice. After this “free range” approach to literature circles, I realize that the more I let go of the control in the class the more my students impress me.
After this “free range” approach to literature circles, I realize that the more control I give up in the classroom the more my students impress me. If I want to cultivate students who are confident, independent, creative, and self-reliant, then I need to give them the freedom to make decisions, collaborate with peers, and decide what learning looks like for them.