The Obstacle of Control

I encourage you to read the article, How Can Teachers Prepare Kids for a Connected World? by Katrina Schwartz.

The article explicates the importance of what Henry Jenkins calls PLAY, which stands for “participatory learning and you.” This is meant to capture a sense of exploratory learning and an experimental approach to teaching and learning that helps students make connections to the broader world, and to a collaborative future world.

One of the things that stuck out to me was the obstacle to this approach that Schwartz named.

“One of the biggest challenges for teachers attempting to implement PLAY’s pedagogy is letting go of some of the control that teachers are taught to maintain over their classrooms. A teacher-centered approach can stifle the creative, experimental, and sometimes accidental learning that can be transformative.

‘What we hear a lot is teachers describing our approaches as messy, as getting out of control,’ Jenkins said. ‘But the teachers who let it get a little messy are finding something very powerful.’ Students might not be learning exactly the same thing, but they involve themselves and their passions in the learning, instilling a sense of ownership. But an apparently uncontrolled classroom can be hard to explain to an administrator who drops in, making it feel risky to teachers who are often alone in the fight to change public education.”

Allowing students to make choices, allowing them to “involve themselves and their passions in the learning,” necessitates teachers letting go of the process. But it also involves others seeing this teaching/learning process differently. Administrators need to be looking for things other than, for instance, tightly “managed” student behavior on their classroom visits. Just as importantly, we all need to recognize how the testing culture feeds this desire for control, and thus deadens the learning experience of students. After all, underlying testing is the assumption that we have a clear understanding of what should be learned, i.e. teacher ‘control’ of content. And what about the issue of “accountability?” Right now, teachers are “accountable” to administrators, who are “accountable” to the public as measured through test scores. This accountability at its core is an attempt at control.

We all need to move beyond the system of rewards and punishment (the system used to maintain control, elicit compliance, manage results…) that Alfie Kohn so eloquently eviscerates. Can we begin to encourage teachers to let go of control for the sake of student learning without recognizing that the system they operate within asks for more and more control?

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3 responses to “The Obstacle of Control

  1. I used to tell my student teachers they never really have “control” over students and classroom interactions. They should shoot, instead, for influence, the ability to create a climate where learning together is possible. This is, of course, much harder than laying down rules and imposing punishments. As educators, we’re so used to the phrase “control over the classroom,” we don’t hear it any more.

    Great post.

  2. Distinction between control and influence. Critical.

  3. Yes, control is an illusion. Teachers really cannot “control” the actions of others and should not try to do so utilizing the influence given by their title, rules and punishments. Teachers depend on their power and control by making students powerful, by creating a climate of mutual respect for learning. Do we really respect learners when we limit curriculum and choice by “assigning” learning that is the same for all?

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