Thursday, June 9, 2011

Giving Up Control

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that as a high school principal, I still teach - one class of Law 12 (and really enjoy it). Over the past several months, I have been doing a fair bit of reading on Personalized Learning and Problem Based Learning. Increasingly, I have been intrigued by the practical application of these strategies. 

An Experiment
Armed with some theory and a few practical ideas, I decided to try something new with my class - an exit assignment entitled “I want to know more about……”

The concept behind the assignment was basic: give students complete ownership over a topic/ research question which they wanted to learn more about. 

I didn’t provide a list of “approved” topics or recommended list of questions. From start to finish student were given complete choice.

To assist the students, we brainstormed some of the big themes of the course and discussed some “current & controversial events” that linked to those themes.

To provide further focus to their research I asked them to think about a question they want to answer and understand deeply.

I also gave the students complete choice as to how they would share their findings with the class. The only directive I gave them was that they couldn’t “bore” the audience.

I purposely chose to not discuss grades for the assignment. Instead, we focused on “discovering an answer to their question”.

The Results
The students chose some of the most interesting and engaging topics that I have ever heard in my class, including:

  • Why I want to join the United Nations Police force and how I can best do that? 
  • How to take care of your personal safety in Vancouver? 
  • Was the assassination of Osama Bin Laden legal under international law? 
  • Should marijuana be legalized in Canada? 
  • What is the correlation between mental health and criminal behavior? 
  • Are Young Offender given too much leeway in crimes they commit? 
Students were diligent in their research, seeking out multiple sources - including the use of surveys.  The students also leveraged the use of technology to explore and present their findings.

Despite the fact that no “grades” were awarded, students were genuinely interested in their work and took great pride in sharing their findings.   Not one student (to this day) has ask me: “how much is this worth” or “do we have to do it?” 

I learned an important lesson in the power of student choice and how to intrinsically motivate them and their learning.

Other Lessons Learned

  • As a teacher I found myself working on a more “one on one” basis with students. 
  • The very nature of the assignment shifted the focus from teaching to learning.
  • Grades don't always motivate students. (Late today, the one student who had not presented their findings, searched me out and made an appointment to show me his Prezi.  He was so excited when I offered him "the Principal's desk top computer and office" to share his presentation!)   
  • For this to be most effective I had to give up control! 

I have seen a glimpse of what Personalized Learning can look like.  Next year I plan to give away more control of the learning in my class and place it firmly on the shoulders of my students.

Paradoxically, it appears that the more control  I "give away" the more student engagement I get in return!


  1. Sometimes, we just need to get out of the way, don't we?

    Without taking away from the awesome learning that happened, how did you report student "progress"? :-)

  2. Johnny, I have been trying the same thing this year with similar results. The more control I give up, the more the kids learn and the more time I can spend one on one with kids. It has been awesome. I am working on a post about my experiences this year. I will share it soon.


  3. Johnny, nice post. We need to apply the same principal of "letting go" with respect to provincial exams which simply hamper good teaching.

  4. Brilliant, buddy, brilliant. Autonomy is so key in learning. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Johnny, I got a job one summer many, many years ago and bought a Toyota Celica. I could have used my parent's car at any time, but although it was a far superior car, the Celica felt better. "My" Celica, in all its "glory", was all mine. As you have noted in your blog, perhaps its time we jumped into the students "Celica's" and enjoyed the ride, rather than continuing to drive them around in our vehicles.

  6. Good posting. I moved from 3rd to 5th grade and I found out how difficult it is to give up contol. Once I accepted the fact that I was holding students back allowing them to take control was the logical and effective thig to do.

  7. Love this! Any suggestions on how to do this with the younger grades?