Pencils on Desks, Ownership and Learner Control

One of the best pieces of advice that I have ever been given as a classroom teacher was to leave the pen/pencil on my desk when helping students. I used to be “that” teacher…the one who would work the problem out for kids, while oddly thinking that somehow I was helping them. I was not helping them at all. As a matter of fact, I’ll even admit to engaging in such practice because it helped me to get to the next kid faster. When we do the work that our students should be doing, we are benefitting no one but ourselves. I would even go on to categorize this terrible practice as an “adult decision” in lieu of a “student decision”. Any time that we engage in practices that are self-serving, we have to take a hard look at the realities of who we should be serving instead.

Leaving the pencil out of the equation opened doors for me to push my students to dig deeper in the learning and find their own way. I was no longer in control and they needed that desperately. When students gain control and responsibility of interpreting information, they are well on their way to owning their learning, which should be the ultimate goal in every classroom.

The Trainer Hat

As a teacher trainer, I am often thinking about ways to improve and methods to use to help teachers take ownership of their own instructional design. How many times have we defined tasks for them? How many times have we provided the means to the end…the application? How many times have we walked them through each step because “that’s how they learn best”?

Standing at the front of a room to walk teachers through every single step is a matter of control. It’s not what is best for teachers. It’s what is more convenient for the trainer. I would not do this in my classroom. Why would I do this in a classroom where I should be modeling best practices?

For me, the right way to conduct training is no different than the best way to work with students. We have to ask more questions, tell less information and place the questions of mastery on the teachers. In other words, plan to be less structured and more flexible.

That Moment When You Remember What Teaching is About

This particular reflection did not pop into my head from thin air. It was born, like many of my thoughts, from playing with my nephew. He worked all weekend creating his new puppet and I watched as he planned, changed his plans, sewed, un-sewed and finally settled on his finished product. Every mistake that he made led to a new discovery. I watched and said nothing…choosing to observe and learn instead.

I found myself wondering what would happen if someone interjected and told him what to do at each step. Would he work with the same level of intensity or care? How would it benefit him if I took the needle and thread from him to complete the sewing? What if I corrected his patterns for size? Would he remember to think about “child size puppets” and “adult size” puppets”?

I watched and smiled because in this moment I was taken aback to what learning is about.

The lesson is this…

I leave the pencil on my desk because I want my students to wonder, question and think of their own way. I want students to make their mistakes and work themselves from them. The moment that we relinquish control is the moment that students can begin being autonomous learners.

This also applies to adults.

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