Letting Go in the Classroom

let go

An interesting article caught my attention recently; it discusses how teachers have to “let go” to enable project based learning to thrive in their classrooms. The author of the article states, “Teachers and program leaders can feel great risk in transferring some of the authority and power to carry forth the learning to the students themselves.” In essence, transferring this authority and power requires turning some of the dependence in the student/teacher relationship (student depending on teacher) into a more interdependent dynamic.

Of course, there is a tension here, and it starts with the first day of school. One of the biggest challenges of the first day is establishing the foundation for the rest of the year. We as educators want to set the tone. We want our students to know that they can trust us to lead them to intellectual and possibly social and emotional growth. Traditionally, the students are looking for such guidance from us as their instructors, mentors, and leaders. The relationship between teacher and student normally begins with a sense of the student depending on the teacher. So of course there will be challenges for some educators in changing the relationship from this level of dependence to a much more interdependent one, where the authority and power in the classroom is more distributed.

How can we ease this tension? How can it be a little easier for us to let go so that PBL can thrive in our classrooms?

There are two things I think are necessary: trust in the learner, and further familiarity with the potential of PBL.

Trusting the learner is absolutely key. We as educators have to believe in the brilliance of our students. An example is a film camp recently hosted by New School High in Plymouth, MI.  The film camp was based on the project-based learning approach that this school, opening in the Fall, will employ. Robert Rayher, a University of Michigan lecturer who teaches film production and helps run the camp, states, “It’s about [the students] learning to take charge of a big team project. Everybody has to contribute.” As a result, the students are able to put what they know about media production to good use, and learn more about the film-making process by doing as well. All of this starts with the camp leaders trusting the learners – trusting that they have the capability of providing great contributions that can lead to outstanding learning and results. New School High is “all in” with this mindset as they prepare to open their doors.

Trusting the learner is key, but becoming more familiar with the potential of PBL can help educators “let go” as well. Educators need to be informed of what exactly PBL can foster in their students. For instance, “engagement” is a key word often used in PBL case examples.  We see it used in this article about the Union County Public Schools in Charlotte (NC) and their new “Classrooms of Tomorrow.” In these spaces, students  practice project-based learning in more immersive learning environments with touch screens, laptops, and a ‘share wall’ where they can share their work. Elementary school teacher Amanda Jackson discusses how engaged the students are in these spaces, and a student interviewed in the article talks about how this space helps prevent boredom! Indeed, PBL presents a way to get students more engaged and maybe even liven up the daily routine. These are only a couple of the many potential benefits of this learning method.

These are two of many ways that educators may find it easier to “let go” and let PBL run its course in the classroom. It’s certainly not an easy feat, but as we get ready for a new school year, this is as good a time as any to decide if the rewards of letting go are well worth the risk.


Image is “Sage Advice” by Randy Heinitz under Creative Commons 2.0 License.