Structure v. Freedom

I have been thinking a lot about how we implement student-centered learning. It seems to me that a crucial part of the discussion needs to be about how much direction to give students as we ask them to take on more responsibility in the classroom. On the one hand, we do not necessarily want to provide an exact check-list of steps students need to take for each project. On the other hand, we cannot expect students to get the most out of a project if they do not know how to approach the task, or what the requirements are. In the “real” world, there may be instances where total autonomy is the case, but there will be many other times where people work within parameters and have some guidelines.

At ASCD in San Francisco, I was at a session where the presenter lamented the fact that Lego kits come with step by step instructions today, more than the big bucket of parts that was the norm for Lego kits in the past. The new kits specify what to make whereas the bucket allows for imagination. While there is definitely something to be said for creativity and imagination, isn’t there a place for the more sophisticated project that requires instruction? I wonder what the balance should be.

In my own teaching and in conversations with my colleagues we are often engaged in discussion about how much structure to provide students in assignments and projects. We want them to take ownership, but at the same time we recognize that they are not and should not be asked to be mind readers. We seem to be aiming simultaneously for greater responsibility on the part of the students and greater transparency on our part. While those are not necessarily mutually exclusive, there is a tension.

The other aspect I struggle with is a developmental one. Is there a need for more structure and direction for younger learners? How do we know what 9th graders can do, unless we give them freedom? At the same time, how do we know we are not setting them up for total frustration? A little struggle can be good, but too much can cause students to check out and give up.

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