One question I get asked a lot when I talk about removing myself from the front of the room is how I can guarantee that all students are working all the time. To be blunt, I can’t. And while I am always thinking about ways to make my classes so engaging that all students want to be 100% engaged 100% of the time, I also allow myself to know that this can be unrealistic, so I spend some of my planning thinking about how to structure my classes so that there is flexibility around time.
In his book Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn, Mike Anderson describes a failed choice where he designed three practice options, one of which was drawing fractions. “The problem was that drawing pictures of fractions takes a while. Students who chose to work in the workbook or create their own problems got a lot of repetition. The students who chose to draw only had time for a few and didn’t get much practice–that choice matched the content goal but not the process one” (pg. 80).
I think is a struggle we face daily, usually with our Standard (grade-level) math classes. Typically–historically–we know that these classes are made up of students who struggle to learn math and who often benefit from significant amounts of repetition. This is not a teacher assumption so much as a teacher observation.
But we also know that our students are headed out into a work environment that values innovation and deep understanding, so we want to challenge ourselves to find ways for students to engage in more project-based learning. As Anderson says, “[w]hen students leave school they will enter a world where self-motivation, creativity, autonomy, and perseverance are all critically important, and these are characteristics that are hard to practice in an environment centered on standardization and compliance” (pg. 3). But that sort of work takes time. And it takes time for students to create and engage with one or two deeper problems rather than doing lots of repetition. We default, repeatedly, to repetition and our schedule and standards and content seem to drive us back there again and again.
I believe one solution to this tension is to build class routines and practices that give us time to allow our students to experiment and to fail. If we build routines and expectations for students to work on their own, we gain opportunities to directly coach students, which allows us to build in authentic checkpoints, places to talk with students, conversations in which they will have to face the reality that their teacher cares and has been watching them. We can coach them, as Mike Anderson describes, during the “times when students will make poor choices. They will choose options that are too hard or too easy. They will pick things that they actually don’t find interesting. They will make mistakes. This is good” (pg. 106).
But how do we know if allowing students to fail will be a disaster? Anderson makes the following distinction:
When the assignment is short, and the long-term impact of a poor choice is minimal, it’s probably best to do nothing. Let students try their choices and learn from experience. After sitting with a book then can’t read or a math exercise that’s too easy, they’ll likely realize they’ve made a mistake and self-correct….When an assignment is long or complex, making a poor choice can have a bigger negative impact on learning. (pp. 106-107)
When I think about the daily choices my students are making, I worry less about 100% engagement 100% of the time and more about those long-term implications. For example, our “By the End of” documents represent a cultural shift in planning. If I am talking to students about their work over a multi-day period of work time, I can let go of the years of training that tell me I have to have my kids in lock-step every minute of every class. If students have time to learn and digest this material, time to try it out and fail and walk away and come back to it, then we have time, as teacher and student, to have times when not every student is doing exactly what we which them to do. For me, this realization has allowed me to be far more deeply engaged in conversations with students while also learning to better trust that students are making good choices for themselves, even when it doesn’t exactly look like that to me.
If I over-plan (always!) and have more work than students could “finish” in a given time period, then I am giving all students permission to work based on time, not completion. I might want to identify priorities, perhaps on By the End of documents or through my actions by calling all students to work with me on an identified sample problem or topic, but I also need to value that students will get different amounts of work done in the same period of time and to know that I have planned to have that be okay.