Monday, November 24, 2008

Are You A Control Freak Too? Or Why It Can Be Hard Shifting To Being The Guide On The Side

Today I learned a few new things, some interesting, and one disturbing.

New Thing Number One

Mosses reproduce by fragmentation (I know, some of you are gasping "you must be joking" and others are saying "well, duh!", while still others are saying "that's interesting... why?")

New Thing Number Two

Some mosses have found ways to survive in the desert. (Ditto parentheses above).


Photo by ecstaticist Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

So What?

I have been teaching grade 11 students about mosses for about 10 years now and I didn't know about this fragmentation stuff. I mean I knew about fragmentation, but not that mosses did it. I found out today because one of my students highlighted fragmentation as a key way that mosses reproduce. He was also the one who mentioned that mosses can live in the desert.

So here's the disturbing thing: these revelations about mosses lead me to realize that for too many years I have mercilessly controlled the information that my students receive. My students would only learn about a narrowly defined (by me) version of mosses, or arthropods, or the excretory system etc. The official curriculum document says the students have to learn X,Y, and Z so I made sure I served X, Y, and Z up in easy to digest morsels. I injected humour and stories, I used a variety of instructional strategies and provided activities that uncovered prior knowledge, but for the most part I controlled the information.

Despite my strangle hold on the information, the assignments that I've always enjoyed assessing the most are the ones where students have to research a topic. That's where I get to be the learner and they get to truly explore. (One very useful piece of information that I learned from a student research project is that we get the urge to urinate when our bladder is only a third full. I find that comforting when I am on a long car trip or hiking in the woods--it's only a third full, it's only a third full...)

For the past few years though, I have been teaching at a distributed learning school where, so far, I don't own the courses. By that I mean that the courses students take are not designed by me. I am their guide, tutor, cheerleader, and assessor, but I am not their course designer (not yet anyway). Often times there is a poor fit with the text and the course a student is taking, so the student has to look to other sources to answer their questions. That's how my student found out about fragmentation and about desert mosses. It was not from his textbook, it did not come from me. He found it 'out there'. And I'm so glad he did. It reminded me that it was never my job to own the information. And now, more than ever before, it is not necessary for me to own the information.

I know, bit of a slow learner ;-)

Some Questions

Do you ever feel that you have to own the information? For me I think this came about because I needed to be sure that they learned what they were supposed to. And, how else would we make it through the curriculum? If you have relinquished control over the information, or perhaps never felt like you needed to have control in the first place, how would you counter these concerns?

As always, thanks for taking the time to read this!


  1. Kia ora Claire

    I have related this tale on the blogosphere sometime before - I forget where.

    In 1980, when I accepted the post as HOD Science in a Wellington secondary school, I was given the job on condition that I also taught a 5th form Biology class.

    I'd never taught 5th form Biology before, but I wasn't scared to learn all I needed to know.

    On the first day, when I had 36 shining girly faces looking up at me, I came clean and told them that I'd never taught Biology before, at least, not to the 5th form.

    I also explained that they had a wonderful text book (and it was). I explained that I promised to tell them, a day beforehand, what the next lesson was going to be about.

    I'd tell them what part of the text we were studying the next day, and that they should read it over as part of their preparatory homework. This meant that they would be able to keep me right when I gave the lesson - and many of them did.

    I had a great year's teaching. I learnt a lot. But so did my students. We found a collaborative niche, as it were, that permitted us to learn together. Many times a student would come to the lesson with extra knowledge about the subject that I had no idea about.

    It was a very successful year from the point of view of student success. But I was always quick to remind my students that it was their effort as much as mine that permitted us all to succeed.

    I also learnt that the respect a teacher earns from students is not necessarily associated with the erudite knowledge possessed by the teacher.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  2. Interesting post (I learned something new too - not just about the moss but also how to go a little further in this week's car ride!)

    I have learned to give up control of the information - my problem is others that don't get it from admin to other teachers to parents...

    I would rather give up control and guide where we go. they are so much better for it.

  3. @Ken, that's a great story. I think a lot of wonderful things can happen when you 'come clean' with the kids. It sends the messages that you are a learner too, that you respect them, that you aren't going to pull one over on them, and that learning is a collaborative venture. Besides, most students can smell a poser miles away ;-)

    @Louise, you said "I have learned to give up control of the information - my problem is others that don’t get it from admin to other teachers to parents…" I notice that you didn't include students in your list. Do you find that most of them are comfortable with you being the guide instead of the sage?

  4. Claire,
    It is most interesting that I checked your bog today. I have just finished my action research and got myself in that "funk". To get out of it I popped over to Dan Meyer's blog - had to get my weekly fix. He is talking about the same thing. Check him out if you haven't already.

    I am just beginning a research project with a small group of gr 5's. We will be studying lung diseases. I now am re-thinking my instructional design. One where I relinquish teacher power and look at the Rule of Least Power. In-other-words I'm not going to control the info!

    Great post and perfect timing for me. Thx!

  5. @blogjunkie (hi Cindy!)
    Glad my post was timely for you! I've enjoyed reading Dan Meyer's blog too. I've got to learn more about the Rule of Least Power. I'd love to hear how your lung disease project goes. Maybe you'll blog about it?

  6. It's funny how you often write about things I am thinking about. I too have been thinking about this issue with my midwifery students - how can I let them off the leash but at the same time make sure they have learned everything they need to know. Am still pondering that one.

  7. @Sarah, I think that when the students are "off the leash" they take more ownership of the learning, but it is challenging because they may go in unexpected directions or enter areas that are not within our expertise. Any ideas on strategies to ensure that they learn the crucial material?


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