Learning to Let Go as a Teacher

After spending nearly two decades in classrooms as a student, educators enter the profession with a well established vision for their role and responsibility. We are to ensure every student succeeds. More specifically, we are to move through the course curriculum and standards, engage students as much as possible, then assess their learning. This is a serious responsibility. We’re preparing our students for careers, citizenship, and life.

At some point along the way, many teachers begin to doubt this framing for our work. While some students “succeed,” others don’t. It isn’t because they can’t learn. In fact, those who don’t succeed show signs of brilliance. There’s the student who never completes assignments but mumbles correct answers in class. There’s the student who is constantly disruptive but does so in ways that reflect a keen intellect and humor. Then there are the moments when students successfully display a “mastery” of content on a test but fail to leverage that learning into deeper insights about themselves and the world. Each example provides a glimpse of the fallacy that learning is something teachers do to students.

Seeing these problems and accepting them as reality is not the hardest part of the awakening of great teachers. The hardest part is letting go of the notion that teachers can control student learning.

Principle of Learning and Teaching #7:

Learning and teaching are neither linear nor immediate — it can only start where you’re at.

Learning is the process through which we acquire knowledge or skills. Meaningful learning pushes toward true understanding of concepts and how they relate to the world and ourselves. It develops the capacities needed to engage productively and intentionally with the world.

Jean Piaget’s research illuminated the dynamic process of developing true understanding of concepts. Learners need to engage with concepts dynamically: see them from multiple perspectives, examine the various parts to understand their unique qualities, and explore how they relate to one another. As learners engage in this way, their brains build connections, creating frameworks to explain the concept or system. As they take in new observations, they evolve their existing understanding to incorporate new perspectives. Notice, I have yet to mention a teacher in this process of learning.

Learning is centered in the learner. No matter how much educators want to structure and control it, no matter how great the curriculum and standards, learning cannot be given to or imposed upon students. They have to do it themselves.

With class sizes sometimes in excess of 30 students and a progression of learning standards that spans thirteen years of schooling, it makes sense that teachers try to centrally control learning. If we can just move students through a linear path, the thinking goes, they can all move ahead toward college.

There are so many barriers to letting go of this notion of teacher centered learning. Even when we see students struggle, sense their frustration with the performative nature of school, and bristle at their pushback against the dehumanizing nature of this system, we still have good reasons to accept the fallacy that great teachers can control it all. The fallacy is well-supported by a mythology that these symptoms are signs of the weaknesses of these particular students or educators. There are the racist, classist, and misogynistic assumptions about who can and can’t learn. There’s the unending stream of “best practices” and research that suggests teachers who aren’t effectively controlling learning are simply incompetent. It’s worth noting that these myths tie in nicely to another myth that shapes American culture — meritocracy. Those who succeed deserve it. Those who don’t simply weren’t good enough or didn’t try hard enough. Until educators interrogate each of these myths, letting go of attempts to control learning will remain incredibly difficult.

Becoming the Teacher Researcher

When educators assume they aren’t at the center of student learning, the above principle serves as a strong guide post for pedagogy and curriculum. Eleanor Duckworth defines such educators as “teacher researchers” whose work is guided by questions like:

  • What does the student understand?
  • What do they need to learn?
  • How can I support them in their learning process to get to true understanding?

This pedagogical approach makes the learner and their process the central focus of teaching. It assumes that the student can learn, and that the teacher’s role is to support their process. Notice that it incorporates learning standards, so this isn’t a “follow the learner wherever they may wander” kind of approach.

While it’s easy to see that this approach serves individualized learning, it also serves for group or whole class work. For example, as a class engages in discussions about a text or concept, the teacher can listen for common themes and questions among the students. The teacher can then offer new frameworks or data that challenge the students to evolve their individual understanding.

This approach fundamentally changes the shape of teaching. It positions the teacher as a supporter of student learning rather than a driver. It requires teachers to learn about the student, what they know, and how they think. It assumes the student can and will learn, even without the teacher. The teacher’s role is to learn how to effectively support that process.

The Need for Faith

Letting go of control requires faith. Learning is messy. Each student will have a unique path to understanding. Arriving at understanding will occur in the students’ timeframe. While there are patterns of how learners develop understanding, there is significant unpredictability in the process. For teachers to effectively support students, they must have faith that the students can achieve understanding if they are supported.

Acknowledging the core tensions in the work and how you apply your values to those tensions is helpful in finding faith. For example, a core tension that shapes education revolves around whether each student has the same capacity to learn. I wrestle with this tension in reflecting on principles like #3 — “There is no right way to learn”, and #9 — “Aim for greatness and believe in everyone’s capacity to achieve it.” While these principles don’t resolve the tension, they do frame approaches to addressing the tension as it plays out in the work.

Faith is also needed because, as teachers, we plant seeds that we often don’t get to see grow. Because learning is neither immediate nor linear, the connections that result in understanding and transformational learning often come long after students leave their time with us. Sometimes, these transformations require students to transition to a new time of life or a new learning environment to allow themselves to incorporate the learning you supported. As teachers, we’re often fueled by those rare “a ha” moments that we witness in our students. It takes faith to believe that we help to create far more of those moments than we’ll ever witness.

Teacher Researchers in Action

There are some great starting places for teachers to step into the role of teacher researcher:

  • Initial Research — Learn about your students and how they learn. Start a unit or new concept by asking students to share what they already know about the topic.
  • Ongoing Research — Whenever possible, create classroom learning activities that allow the students to work while the educator observes. Listen, ask questions, and observe not just what the students produce, but how they are getting there.
  • Support Student Ownership — Push students to improve their ability to identify and articulate where they are in their learning process and understanding. The more they practice this skill, the better they will be at helping the teacher support and challenge their learning.

Letting go of control is hard as a teacher. Frankly, it can be hard for the students to have the teacher let go, too. But, on the other side is a student centered approach to learning that is actually aligned with the reality of how students learn.