Posted by: crudbasher | February 22, 2011

What If Teachers Aren’t In Control?

(cc) tibchris

Yesterday I asked a thought experiment question about what would you do if you had to teach a class, but didn’t know much about the topic.

I got some really good ideas. They involved working in groups, blogs, Internet research and asking good questions. I completely agree with the commenters!

While those are all great ideas, the actual purpose of the post was to get people to reflect on loss of control.

I was in the classroom for 11 years teaching 3d graphics at my college. At first I thought I was going to be nervous but I realized that as long as I was the expert in the room, I had control. If students start questioning a teacher’s knowledge, we have many clubs in the bag to beat them down with right? I exaggerate but only slightly.

I found a great blog post on Growing Good Schools this weekend. Here’s a quote:

Because we don’t really trust that students want to engage in our classrooms, we make sure any questions, answers or ideas are vetted through us; the instructors. The beautiful struggle that occurs when students are challenged with a new idea, or hear something from a peer they hadn’t ever considered, rarely occurs because of the implicit need to be in charge. Ultimately, almost every lesson is actually about power and control, rather than student learning, and the result is the teacher is in charge and the students are disengaged.

Think about the stereotypical snooty college teacher. You know, tweed jacket, glasses, usually British for some reason. 🙂 They look down their nose at everyone and make you feel like you should be grateful they decided to teach you anything. Most notably in that stereotype is the concept of control. They speak, you listen.

Well times are changing aren’t they?  When every student has an Internet connection, it’s pretty easy to find facts the teacher doesn’t know. Several years ago, many Duke University law school professors banned laptops from their classroom because the students kept coming up with cases the teacher hadn’t heard of. The teachers said that was too disruptive. That certainly isn’t the only school to do that either.

Being a teacher is never easy, but the biggest challenge in this new age of learning will be letting go of control and let the learning go where it will.



  1. Oh, so you set me up with your last post. Just kidding. I stand by answer and it was a great way to get people thinking.

    How do you balance power and control with the need to teach? I work in a K-8 school. The kindergartners would simply play all day if the teacher wasn’t in control. The 8th graders, given the right guidance, could take control and learn.

    I think my point is that there is so much that the students don’t know. How do we lead them to the right content and knowledge while letting them be in control of their learning?

    I do this in my classroom but giving them a bit of direct instruction and then giving them choices. For example, we are working on writing summaries. We did one together as a class for the reading and understanding. I then gave them a sample summary and they then wrote their own.

    For the next one, I gave them 4 article choices and let them walk through the process on their. The second summaries were better than the first. I didn’t do much teaching in the whole process, first summary included. That said, most students were able to correctly write a summary.

    I take this a step farther by letting them grade each other according to a check list.

    How do you balance these two issues: power/control and getting them to learn?

    • Lol thanks for being a good sport Ben! Your suggestions in the last post were spot on anyway! 🙂

      I agree that in the early years it’s really hard to let them do what they want. In the early years there is a lot of structure and only a little choice. As the kids get older, gradually the structure gets removed bit by bit. In fact I think a good way to do it would be to remove the structure as the student demonstrates they can handle it.

      I love the peer grading idea. So many students we get in college have trouble accepting and giving peer critiques. This is probably because they have never gotten it from their peers before.

      Really great ideas Ben and, as always, thanks so much for sharing your ideas!

      • Okay, you are a college professor? Undergrad?

        I teach AVID, which gets the students, starting in middle school, to be prepared for college with study skills, organization and college/career readiness.

        What recommendations do you have middle school students who are getting ready for college? It’s early academically but there are definitely things they should be doing. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

  2. Great comments! I have implemented peer critiqued assignments successfully in my higher ed campus classes, and I found that they definitely motivated and engaged students to achieve better results.

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