Giving Up Control In Favor of Collaboration

Tonight in my Philosophy of the Quality in Education class, I had the honor to hear from one of New Hampshire’s most accomplished school leaders, Dr. Richard LaSalle. Richard has worked as an educational leader for over 30 years and currently serves as my Capstone Project Mentor at Rivier University. Tonight Richard shared with my colleagues and I his thoughts on school leadership and how it has evolved since 1975. His summary: not much.

At the elementary and middle school levels, Richard has seen education change quite a bit, and for the better. However, at the high school level, Richard said that education really hasn’t changed all that much over the past 35 years or so. The reason? High school culture, for the most part, is still based on a control model. The environment is highly structured and based on the “traditional” model of education; the one that worked for most teachers and community members and is therefore typically supported and endorsed.

During his talk about the evolution (or lack there of) of education, Richard made reference to the scantron sheet; a common tool used for assessment in 2013 that was actually devised in 1913. Does this assessment tool from 1913 accurately assess the skills and knowledge our students need for the 21st century? What should a school culture look like in 2013 and how can a school go from “good” to “great?” Richard thinks, and I happen to agree with him on this, that it means learning to give up control in favor of collaboration.

In a collaborative school environment students are self-engaged, willing workers who have teachers dedicated to preparing them to be independent thinkers and learners. Students in a great school are “charged,” as Richard put it, because they are learning in a highly personalized environment.

How can a teacher create this kind of culture in the classroom? This goes back to control.

Teachers have to be willing to give up some of the control and take a risk. This is a major paradigm shift for some educators, but for me personally, I thrive on change. Every year I look back on what I did well, but more importantly, what I need to do better for the following year. Why is this a part of my practice? I owe it to the students whom I’m responsible for teaching to be better every year.

The students I’m responsible for educating in 2013 are very different than the students who were in my classroom in 2001. The world is very different than it was in 2001 and it is my job to prepare students to be successful for today’s world. What has remained constant, is that the world is continuing to change. And the world isn’t going to slow down. Our students need to have the skills to adapt to a rapidly changing world. They need the ability to transfer their skills and knowledge to a variety of careers, since they are projected to have many throughout their lives, and they need to learn how to learn for the rest of their lives if they are to be successful, overcome challenges, and reach their goals.

I think I am preaching to the choir because we all know this as educators. So if we all know that our students need to have the ability to adapt to changes, then what is standing in the way of schools changing?

For me, change is exciting and rewarding. Everything that I’m learning as teacher and future school leader and then integrating into the classroom is having a positive impact on my students’ learning. They are thinking at higher levels, they are being challenged, they are solving problems, they are making decisions, they are demonstrating creativity, they are being self-directed learners. So what have I changed this year in particular? Giving up control in favor of choice. This year, for students’ Business Plan Project, they were able to choose how to demonstrate their skill and knowledge of developing a plan for business. Students were able to choose from:

1. Writing a report (the required format when I first started this project back in 2008)

2. Creating a video, “infomercial,” or Animoto

3. Making a PowerPoint or Prezi or any other type of presentation

4. Designing a website or blog

5. Drawing a poster or any other type of artistic work

6. Developing an app or any other type of gadget they could find

7. Creating a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.

8. Creating a Voice Thread, Tellagami, Xtranormal, etc.

Virtually any format a student wanted to pursue for this project they could.

The project has become differentiated in two ways:

1. Interest-students could create any type of business they wanted and

2. Form-students choose how they wanted to demonstrate mastery of the competencies.

Many students choose to create a website using Wix and they have determined they “don’t like” Wix.

Why is that? Because it has proven to be very challenging for many students. And challenge is good!

However despite how challenging the Wix is, to create for many students, they are rising to the challenge and are creating amazing pieces of work and are thinking at high levels. They have to decide where to put the content and how to present the required content in a creative way to the audience they are targeting.

What I’ve seen is students selecting more than one tool to demonstrate their knowledge of the content as well as a deep desire to create something they are proud of and that can be published and shared. In other words, students are working to exceed my expectations! 

I am not dealing with “techie” students here at all either. I have students who don’t use any technology in school, except for in my class, and they are building a website, or an app, or making a podcast. And they chose to do this!

It is truly incredible to see the level my students are pushing themselves to achieve. This has all happened because I have allowed students to make their own decisions. I am amazed at what can happen simply by taking a risk and giving up some control. Students are still required to synthesize a variety of primary and secondary sources to support their business plan ideas and marketing strategies, but where and how they showcase their ability to conduct this level of research is up to them.

Some students are really struggling with this approach because they are so accustomed to a controlled environment with rigid requirements, but over the last few days, I have seen their level of commitment to producing something that is high quality go through the roof and that was my goal all along; to help students develop pride in their work. This is especially tough with third quarter seniors!

It might be scary at first to give up some of that control, but I have focused deeply on what thinking skills I want my students to develop as a result of this project. In the process of taking this risk and giving up the control, not only have I become a better teacher, but my students have become better thinkers. And as always, this is what is most important. Doing what is best for the students.

So, as future educational leader, I would encourage teachers to do the same; give up some of the control, and take a risk. It is true that the bigger risk you take (just like in business) the bigger the reward. Perhaps when I become a school leader, Richard will visit me and my fellow educational leadership team members and be pleased with the progress that has been made since 1975.


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