Free Range Teaching

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.

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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.

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16 Responses to Free Range Teaching

  1. Gregg says:

    Great commentary about allowing student centered instruction! I think the most important aspect of the article is how you set them up for success prior to “releasing the hounds”. I did this same approach with students when they were able to created their own DBQ. I like the addition of totally allowing them to choose their own forms of assessment!

    Keep up the good work!

    • Thank you, Gregg! I agree that my students were so successful because they had been practicing communicating, collaborating, and creating all year long leading up to this final unit. I loved watching them move past their fear and anxiety about “being in charge” to really embrace the freedom I was giving them.

      Catlin

  2. Rose says:

    Caitlin, I’ve had a similar experience with my kids. Great to hear!

  3. Lauralee says:

    Really interesting take on ‘free range’! Looking back, I’ve done similar ideas, only not to this extent.

    I’m curious if you had any students not understand the objectives that they were to meet. Did anyone create an activity that you needed to tweak? Did you need to encourage elaboration on a project? I could see myself implementing this type of activity!

    • Yes and yes! I definitely had students who completed performance tasks of their own design that did not meet the objective they were aiming for. The awesome part of this unit is that students were working collaboratively in groups, so I had time to conference with individual groups about the work they were doing. I was able to offer feedback throughout the process and many groups had to tweak their work AND elaborate. It was interesting to watch them rework aspects of their performance task based on my feedback and their conversations.

      Catlin

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  5. Tracy says:

    I really want to do this with my seniors, but I have a few questions. First, what was the timeline? Did they simply design and complete the final assessment or were they responsible for the activities they learned each day in class? What did class time center on over the 5 weeks? Were there other discussion and activities you facilitated in class or did you allow them to work each day in their groups while you monitored their progress? Lots of questions, but I love this idea. My school has a rotating 2 hour block schedule so I see my students every other day. I’m more curious what was happening in class over the 5 weeks?

    • Hi Tracy,

      Timeline: 6-week unit

      Design: Students outlined a reading schedule and shared it with me via Google Docs. Each week they generated discussion questions. They had to demonstrate proficiency in relation to 10 skills. They designed a series of tasks (4-6 typically) to work on in class to show proficiency.

      Class Time: SSR (15 min) and annotation check, group-led discussions (10 min) and group-led activities, tasks, and reading (60 min). I spent class observing and providing formative feedback.

      My classes are 90 minutes and I see them every other day. I completely turned over the class to them during the bulk of the block. It was the last unit of the year, so they knew how to design discussion questions and modeled many of their performance tasks after activities we had done previously.

      I know it’s scary to turn a class over to the students, but it was by far one of my favorite units last year!

      Catlin

      • Brenda says:

        I love this idea! As I am currently in a student engagement course, I feel like this would be a way to intrinsically motivate my students to learn. I have seen a lack of effort among student increasing as the year progresses. I am trying to figure out what this would look like in my 7th grade Math class. I feel like there isn’t a lot of choice in regards to how students could demonstrate proficency in the standards in a unit. I would love your feedback!

  6. Marc Wodotinsky says:

    I teach 3rd and I am always interested in these teaching models. My one major concern is could it be effective in the younger grades? I feel my students don’t have enough background knowlegde to make it successful. Do you know of any books geared toward elementary school students on this subject? Thank you!

    • Hi Marc,

      I do think a free range approach with younger children can work and teaches them to be more independent learners, but it would probably need to take a smaller scope than the unit planning and execution that I described in this blog post. Perhaps, it is giving 3rd graders the opportunity to design a creative assignment or work together to identify a project topic they want to work on. The more we can give learners of all ages opportunities to drive the learning in the classroom, the more engaged they will be.

      Catlin

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  9. Darci Sosa says:

    Catlin, your blog is always an inspiring read. I teach 8th grade science and wonder if you’ve come in contact with any science folks trying g a free-range approach. I would LOVE to collaborate!

  10. Parke Trann says:

    Catlin;

    First, another very good blog, keep them coming. Free-Range teaching is definitely a scary concept and takes patience. I have been doing it for a number of years now and see that it has benefits. In teaching this way we are putting the focus on the process and providing students with the opportunity to practice those all important self-regulation skills in their learning.

    In creating these free-range environments I have found it important t hat students realize it is OK to struggle as the work through things, in fact these struggles are where the real learning takes place. i also like how you assess in this format focusing on single elements of performance over the traditional product based assessment. You spoke about looking for mastery, is this because it is a end of the year project? Do you plan on using this practice in your classroom more often? How might this change your assessment practice overall?

    I look forward to hearing your responses.

    Thanks for sharing

    • I absolutely agree that the value of free-range teaching is allowing students to struggle. It can be challenging to articulate the path of their learning, make key decisions, hold themselves to timelines of their own creation, think critically about their work/progress.

      I work up to the student-designed units at the end of the year, but the process of turning the learning over to students begins the first week of school. It starts by allowing them to make key decisions about how they approach assignments…generating their own research project proposals, writing their own essay prompts and deciding how they want to show mastery of specific skills. My hope is that by slowly turning the class over to the students that they will be capable of this large-scale unit design task at the end of the year.

      Catlin

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