Knowing When to Let Go in the Classroom

I’ve been spending some time with my 6 year old daughter and her bike. She’s learning how to ride without training wheels. Maybe you’ve enjoyed the exuberance and terror that comes with this endeavor. The last thing I want is to (literally) push her too hard too soon, resulting in a crash accompanied by tears (mostly hers), scraped knees/elbows, and hurt feelings. My position sees me holding firmly to the back of her seat, running along beside her, steadying her before I let go, sending her down the fence line of our backyard. All the while, telling her to “keep pedaling” and “keep your eyes looking ahead” and “make sure you’re steering straight” (talk about your cognitive overload). Knowing when to let go in this situation is crucial. If I release too early, she may immediately fall down for a myriad of reasons (why wasn’t she listening to my numerous suggestions? :)) If I never let go, she’s not going to learn how to ride a bike without assistance. It’s tough, as a parent, to know when to let go in this, and many other, situations while navigating the gauntlet that is parenting. 

And so it is with teaching and learning the classroom.

In many instances, our students are like the novice cyclist, just learning how to ride. They may not have the prior knowledge to pedal on their own or the requisite habits to steer their studying. Novice learners need the steadying hand of an instructor to remain upright. Without this assistance, students may crash, resulting in bruised feelings and scraped egos. However, if teachers never let go of the metaphorical bike seat, students will not experience the satisfaction that comes with learning to use the subject matter and study habits gained. It is a delicate balance for both the teacher and the student. When done correctly, both experience a jubilation that is hard to beat in the classroom. As a teacher, when I hear or read of one of my students taking the knowledge they’ve gained in my classroom to either score well on an assessment or transfer that knowledge to another situation…it’s just tough to match that feeling. As a learner, the feeling of applying the information you’ve gained to engage in a scholarly discussion or solve a larger problem is so empowering and motivating. 

When I think of instructors who have mastered knowing when to let go, memories of Dr. Jim Day’s classes immediately rise to the surface. In addition to his wonderful ability to weave different threads of history together into amazing lectures and discussions, he knew when to steer the class and when to let us pedal on our own. At the time, while an undergraduate at the University of Montevallo, I certainly did not understand this. I distinctly remember, during discussions in Dr. Day’s class, how he could gently steer the discussion. He knew exactly where he wanted us to end up, but would allow the class to believe they were in control. Whenever we went awry, Dr. Day could gently nudge us in the right direction with a question or comment. He was the dad slowly letting go of the back of the bike seat as we were learning how to have a scholarly discussion. Add to this was his ability to make us believe we were doing it all on our own. I can still remember leaving his class with two somewhat contradicting feelings: We were all learning in the class (including Dr. Day) and this dude is so freaking intelligent…so far ‘above’ us from the standpoint of knowledge, I don’t even know how to process how we covered so much material through lecture and discussion. To this day, I am still in awe of Dr. Day; to be in the presence of someone who has a firm grasp of his content and the ability to lead a class.

I’m certainly not a master educator and I have a lot to learn, but I’m learning to understand when and how to let go in the classroom. In my opinion, two major goals of education are to (1) teach students information and (2) teach students how/when to use that information in other situations to improve themselves and others. Knowing when to let go in the classroom certainly encourages the development of both goals. As our students learn to ride the intellectual bicycle in our classes, be sure to provide enough structure to steady the bike, but let go when they’re ready to have a go on their own. Allow students to use you when needed so they don’t crash, but also know when to release control so they can experience the motivating exhilaration of riding on their own and steering their own learning.

How do you let go in your classroom?

How do you know when to let go with your students?

*If you’d like to add a rebuttal to this post, please go here.

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