“Let Go” to Foster Student Autonomy



I was recently invited to support a kindergarten teacher with delivering a lesson to her students using iPads. The teacher began the lesson by  guiding  her students step-by-step through the process of using the iPad. At specific times, students were prompted to press certain buttons and were told what those buttons did. They were not allowed to press any buttons on the iPad unless instructed to do so and did not engage in any dialogue or inquiry about the device or the program they were using.

As I sat with the students to support them with their digital stories, I began by asking them questions. What do you think a digital story is? Has anyone used this program before? What do you think that button does? How do you know your story is finished? These questions, combined with active exploration, allowed students to work at their own pace, make mistakes, problem-solve, find their own solutions, make revisions, and use prior knowledge to create beautiful stories. By self-monitoring and self-directing their own learning, students were able to have a more meaningful learning experience in which they were empowered to lead.  I did not need to interject if they were about to make a mistake. I was simply there to facilitate, ask questions, challenge them, and foster the experiences they were leading.

After co-teaching the lesson, the teacher and I reflected on the learning experience. Her initial reflection was how much more valuable the learning experiences were for the students when they were allowed to explore for themselves. She did not realize how much they were able to accomplish on their own without her direct instruction. She admitted that it is difficult for her to “let go” but acknowledged that this process would give students more autonomy and ownership for their learning.

Why it is hard for teachers to let go? Some would say that teachers want to be in control and are worried about the possible chaos that would ensue if there was not control. However, I don’t think it is because teachers want to be in control; rather, teachers want to help their students be successful. In order for that to happen, teachers are told to create all the components in their lesson to ensure success: rules, guidelines, instructions, structure, objectives, assessments–the list goes on and on. Although all these components can lead to a cohesive lesson, in order for that lesson to be successful, teachers need to think deeply about the types of environments in which those lessons are delivered.

If the conditions of a lesson do not allow for deeper learning and autonomy, then the lesson will not be meaningful for students. I believe teachers are the designers of the learning environment. In order to design meaningful learning experiences, teachers need to create the appropriate conditions in the lesson that let kids explore, ask questions, engage in dialogue, problem-solve and formulate their own solutions. Lastly, they need to “let go” to become an effective facilitator. In this way, students engage in richer experiences where they can truly own their learning rather than have learning be delivered to them.

Kimberly Cawkwell
Professional Learning Specialist, MTLC
Follow me on Twitter: @mskimcawkwell

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