Some of the common things I hear when I tell someone I teach middle school include: “Oh, I’m sorry,” “Why?” and my personal favorite, “Let me buy you a drink.”
I’m not saying that I don’t relate to all these comments at some point in the school year, but I also am continually amazed at what middle school kids can do when given guidance and freedom. Now, you’re thinking this lady is crazy; how do you give someone both guidance and freedom? And how do you tie that into a learning experience? I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy. It’s actually a lot of work, but the end products are worth the effort.
Let’s start with guidance, such as giving students the background knowledge necessary for them to complete an assignment. While I always want students to discover and extrapolate new things throughout a project, I can’t expect them to start at A and end at Z all by themselves. They need some guidance along the way. Dumbledore doesn’t tell Harry Potter he’s a horcrux. Instead, he guides him to that answer by giving hints and allowing Harry to work it out for himself. Would it have been much easier for him just to tell Harry what he needed to do? Of course, but then Harry wouldn’t have had the confidence or conviction to take on Voldemort at the end. By giving guidance, we allow our students to come to conclusions on their own and really own their learning, which builds their confidence with the material and turns them into true lovers of learning.
As we guide, we also have to give students freedom to explore, to create and to fail. Being a guide can be hard but giving students freedom can be even harder. But freedom doesn’t mean a lack of control or chaos, even though sometimes it may look like that in a classroom. Giving students freedom to explore on their own with a HyperDoc, giving them a table of lab equipment with instructions to design an experiment to show how friction works, or asking them to create a video about the theme of a book all can be controlled and monitored and still produce a high level of learning.
If you think giving students freedom is hard on teachers, it’s terrifying for students. Our education system has conditioned kids to expect teachers to give them the right answers or to tell them exactly what and how to do something. In my department, we spend the first few months of sixth grade science “breaking the kids.” We aren’t physically breaking them; rather, we are breaking them of the habits that have been ingrained in them since elementary school. We want them to be free thinkers; we want them not to be afraid to fail; we want them to create and develop their own understanding of the world—to accomplish that we need to break down what they have learned and show them how to be explorers and risk takers and scientists.
My students currently are making cardboard boats, and although I desperately want to help one group, I have to refrain because failure is how they learn. If we want our students truly to embrace and internalize the learning and to be active learners, we need to change how we do things. We, as teachers, need to be their guides and give them freedom. Freedom to try and fail and guidance to learn from failure is what makes a lasting learning experience.
Kim Calderon is a middle school science and STEM teacher in Fowler, California. She went to Cal Poly, SLO and has fully embraced their “Learn by Doing” approach in her teaching.
She is in charge of all things NERD at her school: Science Olympiad, Lego Robotics, Science Fair and the STEM Program.