Why not leave it up to them

IMG_4127-2Yesterday was the start of the 3rd high school semester here in Japan.  That means all the students came to school for a one and a half hour “School Opening Ceremony.”  There were speeches about how important it is to study and prepare for university entrance examinations, why learning Japanese history is a key component to finding your place in the international community, and a final speech on how Japanese culture has a tradition of the ‘fresh start’ so this semester was everyone’s chance to change and become a better student.  And once all of these very serious (and very long) speeches about change and the importance of studying were finished, we had 20 minutes scheduled for homeroom, were supposed to say ‘sayonara’, and send the students back home…without holding classes.  Which got me thinking about how cavalier schools are about students’ time.  We tell them when to come, how long to be there, if they can stay late or not.  And especially high school teachers (and certainly I am accusing myself of this as well) are constantly trying to impress on students the importance of using their time effectively.  And yet, in a traditional school environment, students are actually given very little control over how they spend their time aside from whether they pay attention to the teacher or not.

After the School Opening Ceremony yesterday, as I was about to start my 20 minute homeroom, I stood up at the front of the classroom with a folder of flyers, standard test result reports, study abroad applications, and even an advertisement for a lecture by the architect Ando Tadao sponsored by my school.  I looked at the students.  Most were happily talking about what they did during winter vacation.  They were animated and smiling and listening intently to one another.  One student had a book, Key Words to Mastering English, open on his lap and seemed to be having a wonderful time studying vocabulary.  And not a few students were busily trying to finish their winter homework assignments.  I looked at them and decided that all of the things I had to say, pass out, or return to them could probably be done on a one-to-one basis.  I walked from table to table and gave the students the flyers and chatted a bit about some of the buildings Ando Tadao had designed and why it would be an interesting lecture to attend.  I laid standard test results upside down on the desk in front of students without interrupting their conversations (they new what they were and how to read them).  I handed each student a study abroad application and spent a bit of time with students who had expressed an interest in going to Australia in the second semester.  And 30 minutes later everything was passed out.  It took 10 more minutes than usually.  But when I stood up in front of the class  and made eye contact with a few students, saying, “I missed you,” to each one in turn, it got quiet pretty quickly.  And then I told the entire class, “I really missed you all,” and ended the homeroom.

Which got me thinking.  How often do I demand an entire classes’ attention?  Does everyone really have to be listening to me when I talk about what is going to happen next in class?  When I talk about the average score of a test?  When I introduce a group work assignment?  There are plenty of students in my school who can figure out an activity by themselves after a few seconds of watching without any directions from me at all.  And if those students can be using that time more effectively (and want to use it to do something else), what kind of message does it send when I demand they stop whatever their doing to do whatever it is I want them to do?  When we talk about a student-centered classroom, shouldn’t some control of how students use their time in the classroom be at the heart of that idea?  So here’s a few other ways teachers can allow students a bit more choice in how they use their classroom time:

Don’t give oral instructions for written work:  Give simple written instructions of how to do a written assignment and then walk around class and check in with students who seem to be having difficulty.  Students who read and understand the instructions can start the assignment when they are ready.  Or if they want, they can help explain it to students who are a little lost.

Don’t start with the class, start with a student:  teach what you want to teach to 1 or 2 or 3 students who are ready to learn.  Take a small white board to class, sit down next to the students and start teaching,  If another student shows interest, invite them over to join you.  Show the students that when you start teaching, it is actually worth listening.  If the students really believe this, they will be much more willing to stop what they are doing to listen to you.

Don’t collect homework:  I’m not a huge fan of homework on the very best of days.  But I do give it to students.  Often times I just want them to have a bit more practice working with the language we used in class.  If my main purpose is (forcing) providing students with practice time out of class, why would I collect and mark the homework?  And why would I stop the entire class and use everyone’s time to collect homework whose main purpose was to provide individual practice and review time?  Instead, let students know that if they want feedback on homework, they can turn it in to you and you’ll be happy to let them know their areas of strength or weakness.

Don’t assign classwide listening tasks: while listening, we often give students a task such as ‘write down every verb you hear,’  or ‘while listening circle the stressed/key words on the transcript.’   But this both ends up using time for instructions and assumes students need similar listening practice.  Instead, give students a weekly (or bi-weekly, or even monthly) task which is more suited to their individual needs.  So if you like to start of your lesson with a listening activity, everyone in the class is primed, ready to go, and knows why they are doing what they are doing. After the activity, what should you do with the stuff they have just written down on looseleaf paper or in their notebook?  See: don’t collect homework.

Don’t collect tests:  See don’t collect homework.

Don’t collect anything: see homework and tests (caveat: you need to explain the system of how you give feedback at the beginning of the year.  And you need to hope and pray that there are at least a few students are going to give you something so that when they get the most excellent feedback you have to give them, other students realise that it is a pretty groovy thing to voluntarily hand in assignments, tests, etc.)

Don’t wait for activities to end: If students are doing individual work and 1 student  seems to be finishing up, then grab her or him and start the next activity with that student, alone.  And when another student finishes, well the first student already knows how to do it, so just pair them up and let them go.

Don’t officially end your class:  If you follow most (or even some) of these ideas, there’s a very good chance that when class time is winding down there will be a lot of students doing a lot of different things.  What’s the point in stopping them all and making them look at you?  Really, what’s the point of officially ending class in general? Instead, with a minute left in class, just walk around to the students and let them know you are leaving the class to get ready for your next lesson.  And let the the students keep doing what they want to do.  Trust that they will leave the class in time for the next class of students to come on in.  And you know what, they might just keep learning right up to the very last second. I’ve even had pairs or small groups of students head off to a nearby cafe to continue their lesson sans teacher.

There’s this term, ‘classroom management.’  Whenever I hear it, I kind of get itchy all over. Why would I want to manage my classroom?  I think I’d rather spend my time creating an environment where students can, as much as possible, manage their own learning.   Luckily, as a teacher, how I spend my time during a lesson is mostly up to me. I wonder how classrooms might look if students, whenever possible, were provided with that same opportunity.


25 thoughts on “Why not leave it up to them

  1. Hi Kevin,

    This is a truly thought-provoking post and a million ideas sprang to mind when I was reading your words. First of all, I realized that I have similar concerns regarding classroom management. One part of my personality craves discipline but the other half feels guilty when demanding unconditional attention from the whole class. I often experience the following situation: I’m giving instructions to a class of, say, 22 students, where at some point some students are listening and some are not. As soon as I stop talking, I can see that those who paid attention are passing on the instructions to those who weren’t listening – unfortunately in their L1. Not that it’s a big deal but 1) TTT is supposed to be language input after all and 2) is it fair if some students (the same ones usually) are robbed of their own time because they have to explain to others what to do?

    Also, it sometimes happens that some students revise for a math test, for example, when they should be doing pair work in my English lesson. This 1) is annoying (yes, I confess I take it personally), 2) violates the school rules (it is officially forbidden), and 3) it happens because the students didn’t revise the previous day and now they’re making up for the lost time. I understand that they have priorities; part of my personality would like to respect this but the other half knows that in a math lesson they will probably revise for their English test. This is obviously a lack of time-management skills on their part and I’m not sure I wouldn’t do them a disservice if I let it be. The question is: what am I supposed to teach my students? Is it just English or some life skills too?

    I love all your suggestions, although deep inside I know that I’m not ready to apply them in my teaching context. Not yet. My favourite tip is the one about not waiting for activities to end. Fast finishers are a real challenge (sometimes a nightmare). I’m still working on methods or approaches which would be suitable for all parties. Anyway, thanks for all the inspiration. You made me think again.


    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana,

      Thank you for a comment which is helping me think about and hopefully clarify my ideas.

      When giving instructions (which I rarely do anymore), that TTT can only be seen as input if students actually listen. But since students have been trained–in all their subjects–that they don’t actually have to listen to instructions (because the instructions will be written on the handout as well, because just watching other students they can figure it out, because the instructions will be given again if they don’t listen), I’m not sure we, as language teachers, can expect to change such ingrained behaviour. When I do give instructions, it is a task in and of itself (I write the instructions in a jumbled fashion on the board and students have to put them in order as they listen). And I guess my take on the students explaining to students who didn’t listen is that process of listening and translating to another student is pretty useful language work. So no real lost time (except for the student who didn’t listen…and they might have been doing something that was also valuable, at least to themselves).

      About the students who revise for a mathematics test when they are supposed to be doing pair work in your class, I always make them put away their work and focus on the class at hand. Although I do have a coworker who sometimes doesn’t just say anything at the time, marks them absent for the class, and tells them once the class is over. Which has it’s own kind of appeal. And certainly helps show students that they are consequences for their behaviour. But in general, my believe and experience is that once a students starts a task or activity, if it is interesting, they will do the activity to the end. So I would like to give them the chance to at least start the activity.

      To be honest, I don’t do everything on this list. I collect and grade tests. I sometimes (but not always) collect homework when I feel I can honestly use it as a way to judge students’ progress. And I do, more often than not, end my classes. I still feel as if my final word is worth something before the chime rings. But who knows, maybe I’m just deluded about my self worth.

      Thanks again for the comment,


      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Hana,

      I’ve dealt with both of these problems: use of L1 and math revision in English class, and, like you, I felt that I should do something about it when it happened. Both were uphill struggles that cost me a lot.

      I’ve always been suspicious of the “L2 policy”. I teach in Saudi Arabia and most teachers do not speak Arabic. Forcing them to speak English keeps them under surveillance and assures teachers that students aren’t talking about them behind their backs.

      There are no studies that I know of that demonstrate any pedagogical advantage in L2 only classrooms. Like many foreign language teachers, I have studied many foreign languages myself, in both the US and UK, and have never, in any of those classes, been under an L2 only policy. To my knowledge, this only happens in immersion programs, where it is clearly an important part of the pedagogy.

      Studying for other subjects in English class is more troubling. This typically happens before a test. In the end, I decided not to permit students to do this. I asked them to go anywhere else to study for their test and told them that this was only because seeing them do this in class made me feel like I was not doing my job correctly. Whether or not they stayed was their own decision and I did not penalize them for leaving.

      By doing this I respect their decision on how to use their own while asking them to respect that our shared space is for English and not a study hall. Sometimes they stop and sometimes they leave. When they leave, they no longer feel that they are in English class – that they are ditching class, even if it is with my consent; even if I count them present anyway.

      Sometimes, I will also sit and discuss their math or chemistry with them – in English – and try to draw this into what they are doing in English. This works when they are not revising for an exam. Their course books are in English so it’s easy to “count” this as English work.


  2. What a great post.At last someone is talking about my classroom.
    Here’s the thing. The time management part as you described it usually works. Even works well. The kids that slack off at first see that they are falling behind (I have charts for some of the things and there are dates where grades have to be handed in and they won’t have a grade) and start focusing on getting the job done. The industrious kids who actually come to school to learn race ahead and feel in control. The kids who freak out over deadlines are less stressed. The fact that I sometimes let them study for a test in another subject or do nothing on a day they feel in a bad mood makes them overall more motivated on other days.
    The problem arises when you have students who can’t / won’t understand most of what-they-are-working-on themselves. “Won’t” as in studens who, no matter WHAT material/worksheet you give them, (even though it was tailored exactly to their level and I’m positive they can do it) say they don’t understand. Default mode. They need attention to start the activity and need a lot of reassurance. They don’t deal wll with frustration. The dynamics become very difficult if there are more than five students in class. Stronger kids need your guidance too and suddenly everyone is complaining that you aren’t giving them enough attention at the same time…
    Love your posts!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Naomi,

      I love how you allow students the chance to be responsible for their own grades, their own learning. And this sentence will be ringing in my head for a long, long time:

      “The fact that I sometimes let them study for a test in another subject or do nothing on a day they feel in a bad mood makes them overall more motivated on other days.”

      When students feel responsible for and in control of their learning, they do more learning.

      Then again, like you said, to use these kind of techniques, there can only be so many students in the room. But if the more industrious students start feeling a certain level of responsibility for others’ learning as well as their own, that can help keep things moving along. If such a student does give suggestions for how to learn or helping out with a worksheet which came with no directions, they are certainly learning something very valuable as well. Still, sometimes what a student needs is some of the teacher’s attention.

      I really wish I had a chance to observe your classroom, Naomi. I hope if I make it to Israel soon, you’ll let me visit.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Kevin,
    This post is troubling me 🙂 i like it, yes I do. And I want to believe that this kind of approach is possible. But reading your don’ts made me visualize my students / our school students in the situations you described and I felt uneasy. Or more bluntly, I was scared. Because what I have experienced till now makes me seriuosly question whether I can trust them to do all of the above. i mean writing this might make me look and sound like some old school control freak, but what I can see on daily basis in my school isn’t motivated students in charge of their learning (there are some, luckily) but rather young people who rely on and at the same time hate being guided and pushed and threatened through the programme. Why? Well, because we, parents and teachers alike tend to do assist and pamper them way too much from early on and then wonder why they won’t take more initative, why they seem so passive, where’s the responsibility… Am I painting too grim a picture?

    I am a parent and I know I have this tendency to be in control. Fortunately, I am aware and I am doing my best and doing it consciously to let go, to let them screw up if needed, to let them pay their library late fees from their piggy banks if needed, to let them suffer a little at school because they forgot something important and I ‘forgot’ to remind them, to get an awful mark becaus they failed to listen to their teacher ….
    So I know where to start, I have to start in my own family (they are still young so not all hope’s gone) and then I will try and move slowly into the classroom environment and start gently 😉 maybe one thing at a time. Because if I go on Monday and introduce all the above then it will first crash … It’d be too drastic, too blame-the-teacher, too innovative.
    But, and I absolutely want to finish with this positive outlook – I really want to help them become more indipendent, more in control of their own life and learning and i really wish they started to refelct on the why they are where they are and where they want to go …
    Thanks for this post.
    Teaching professions is amazing – you never stop learning and wondering and hopefully improving 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Sirja,

      I’m with you on the whole feeling scared thing. Actually, I have pretty motivated students, and I’ve been nudging them towards autonomy by letting lessons fracture in a half dozen directions for the past 6 months or so. And honestly, there are times when students just use that extra space, and the fact I can’t notice what they might be doing, to do nothing. But there are students who, with no prompting now, will take an activity or worksheet to the next level by on their own. For example, I had one student who decided to transform a series of sentences he and his partner had generated into tag questions. If I had a bit more time and a bit more ambition, I would probably run a series of lessons in a lock-step pattern at the same time as I run these kind of lessons and then try and really compare and contrast them. That way I would have a better idea if there is more learning going on or not. But my feeling (and I know that’s no replacement for real data) is that students spend a significantly greater amount of time on task in this type of multi-class-in-one-class style than when I take firmer control of each step in the process.

      You say, “parents and teachers alike tend to do assist and pamper them way too much from early on and then wonder why they won’t take more initative,” and I find that to be the case with my students. With almost all the students I have taught. 2 months ago I wouldn’t have been able to write this post. I wouldn’t have believed that what I was doing was worth sharing because I wasn’t necessarily seeing results. And honestly, part of the reason (maybe the main reason) it ended up working is I get to teach my students this 4 skills class six hours a week and I see them daily. But if I met the students for less time per week, I’m not sure I would be willing to do this kind of teaching. Or I would certainly tone down my expectations. Like you suggested, maybe just implement one small part of it at a time, like vocabulary focused homework is not collected, but you can receive feedback on it.

      Like you said, as parents (I’m one of those, too) we need to let our children mess up, so they learn how to clean up, or better yet avoid messes in the first place. And as teachers we need to do the same. I remember someone (how vague is that) saying that education is simply providing students with a safe place to try things out. But no matter how safe we try and make that space, the very act of ‘trying something out’, doing something new, is going to entail some risk.

      Thank you for your comment, questions, and sharing your feelings about this post. It has gotten me thinking much more deeply about it.


      Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi Kevin,

    Amazing post and comments here. Thanks so much. What you describe is almost exactly what I have been doing for the past four years or so, in another context and on another continent. I doubt that you began doing this because of a theory your encountered, or a technique you read about. In my case, this unfolded gradually, over several years, as I struggled to shift the focus what happens in my classroom away from myself and my needs and towards students and their needs. I found that my most troubling need, was a compulsion to remain in control.

    Many commentators here raise problems that I also saw: students speaking L2 extensively; revising for other subjects; doing nothing at all; some needing extensive direction; some depending heavily on other students. Each time I saw this, I felt that I something was WRONG and that I should do something about it. This was frustrating to me.

    My context is a little different than yours. My students are post-Secondary (17 to 21 years old) in an academic bridge program in Saudi Arabia. They are almost all male, highly motivated, and were successful in Secondary School. Because of this context, I am able to do something you did not describe – I can let students leave when they finish their work. My classes periods can also be up to three hours long, with breaks, so I can let them come and go as they please during class time. Also, because I can legitimately claim that my students are “adults”, I can speak to them frankly about my feelings about what is happening in class.

    Looking at these techniques: I divide them into time management and learning management issues. I regard issues in both categories that arise from students’ behavior as things that I need to deal with emotionally first. Once I have done this, I can consider what response – if any – I need to make in the classroom. I often involve students in this discussion of options.

    My advise to anyone who is considering doing something like this in their class is to begin by getting some control over how much you talk in class while addressing everyone at once. Kevin, you’re written assignment instructions relieved you of much of this responsibility. I did the same thing. We use a learning management system called Moodle so all of my assignments and instructions are online. Writing clear and concise instructions for ESL is something of an art that takes considerable time to develop. I wrote and watched students trying to understand what I’d written. This took several years. I found it best to keep instructions short; use numbered lists for processes, bullets for tasks that do not need to be followed in any particular order; write in clauses, not in “complete sentences”. Begin each instruction with an “action verb”. Finally, include some indication of assessment criteria or standard.

    Like you, I found that I did not need to explain to many students. Those who did not understand well, asked those who did. I encouraged them to do this. Arabs have a collaborative, co-operative culture and do not regard helping others as an imposition. Explaining something usually helps the person who explains more than the person needing explanation anyway.

    In the end, I believe students enjoyed my class – and they often say so. They feel genuine respect and trust from me and this and this helps them achieve their goals.

    You ask whether students learn more in such a class or in a traditional, teacher-centered classroom. I will claim that students learn much more in an open classroom because they are free to explore their own interests, and because they are able to develop valuable life-skills which would be impossible to experience in a teacher-centered classroom. They also learn valuable critical thinking skills by being required to make actual, substantive decisions that affect their future evaluation and development.

    Most importantly, while controlled and open classrooms each aim to cover the same content and skills, the hidden curriculum is substantially different: one might say that the hidden curriculum in the controlled classroom is obedience, homogeneity, and conformity to standards while that of the open classroom is independence, respect for diversity, and recognition of self-worth. Teachers who ascribe to the values of the controlled classroom should best leave these techniques alone, while those who ascribe to the values of the open classroom may find their work more fulfilling were they to move toward more open classroom practice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mark,

      It’s a pleasure to meet you and thank you very much for the comment. The way you’ve organised your classroom sounds like the kind of ideal I would like to shoot for. Of course I can’t let students just not come to class (as you note), but I do believe that giving even that option to students is the ultimate sign of trust and would end up having a positive impact.

      And I love the idea of the ‘hidden curriculum.’ Certainly the way we teach is in large part determined by our ideas of what teaching and learning is all about. There are times when lock-step teaching and rigid expectations might be required in a particular classroom, but such times should have been thought through by the teacher and should be communicated to the students in such a way that they understand, if not outright agree, with the way the class is structured.

      Thanks again for your comments and helping to keep the dialogue moving along.



      • Hi Kevin,

        Institutional barriers to giving students control are very common, and one of the most common is the requirement for “seat time”. I have Japanese colleagues who report that even in HE they are not allowed to let students out “before the bell”.

        One alternative is to let students go to a quiet corner of the room and do whatever they like. If this is still “not allowed” then setting a range of “special projects” from which students can choose is another alternative – we could even design an “open project” here…

        Whenever we find rules, there are creative ways of circumventing them. When we get stuck with this, we can always ask students for help. They are the real experts at this type of thing : )

        Liked by 1 person

  5. A really interesting post, Kevin, which brought me back to my teaching time in an inner-city school in the US. So many of these aspects were important to my learners – I worked with those who wanted to learn and did my best to encourage a feeling of autonomy in the classroom. Although I was ‘just’ the music teacher, I felt it was important to make the material relevant to my students and help them to learn and enjoy what we were doing as well as to find ways to express themselves that were often not allowed in other classes. It was so important for these kids to have a place where someone encouraged them and gave them the chance to discover hidden talents. And this was an amazing learning experience for me.

    Since that time, I have tried to remember the lessons I learned while teaching here at university. We are required to give grades, of course, and I find that homework is a valuable tool for students to get individualised instruction from me in a class over over 20. They appreciate the time I take writing comments and this hopefully helps them to improve their skills. These are elective courses which they pay for (in a system where university is free of charge) so there are certainly differences to a subject kids have to take at school. But allowing as much personalisation of tasks and freedom to choose how they are done is still vital.

    Thanks for the post, as Sandy said, you always make me think.


    • Hi Marjorie,

      Sometimes being just the music teacher, just the art teacher, or just the PE teacher provides advantages that teachers in core-tested subjects do not have. It is often easier to innovate and experiment in creative and skill based subjects than in those that are more content driven, and since these subjects do not often impact standardized testing, those teaching them may be under less close scrutiny from administrators and department heads.

      ESL teachers may also be in this category. That depends on country and curriculum.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Very true Mark. I was mostly left alone in my basement room except for the school system music inspector whose only comment was ‘The children are singing too loud.’ Hearing a comment like that leaves one speechless and I figured that if that was the only thing wrong with my lesson in a school known for losing teachers regularly, well, then I was on the right track.


    • Marjorie and Mark,

      I think (and keep thinking) that the more students can be left alone to learn (and the more teachers can be left alone to figure out the best way to believe in and leave students alone) the better things would work out around. Today I had a study hall period and a bunch of students just showed up. Some studied for standardised testing, one wanted to practice some sentence patterns with me, another was working away at his writing. As I worked with the student who wanted guidance, the other students just naturally joined in the conversation (which was about ‘your town’) when they wanted to take a break from individual studying. The whole vibe was so nice, I wondered why we have school bells and lesson plans at all. Of course, these were students who showed up to learn. But I guess that’s kind of the point.



      • Hi Kevin,

        Self direction can work with some kids but it’s usually too radical for the main stream. Earlier this year I looked at schools in New Haven for my teenaged son, who’s been home schooled since 6th grade. I found Beacon School, an “un-school” in the New Haven area.


        The missing piece in this style of education is evaluation and assessment. New methods of assessment are emerging from he MOOC and Online learning sector in Higher Education. This may eventually trickle down to K-12 but don’t hold your breath.

        Beacon is one step away from non-schooling. They have space and teachers and allow students to use these resources as they please. It’s a very attractive model that could teach us a lot about education and how to do it better.



    • Chewie!

      Are you really going to be here? I’m in Osaka. I would love to meet you. And if you’re interested in my school (or private schools in general), I invite you to spend a day checking out what goes on at the place I work. If you want more information, just let me know and I’ll send you my email.



      • Kevin, I’ll be there! I visited Osaka last year and enjoyed the city a great deal. Checking out your school sounds great as well. Let’s email and sort out the details. I can get over to Osaka at the end of February.


  7. Wow! Kevin! Such a great post! Your post has made me realize that there is so much more to teaching than just giving instructions and teaching contents. I’ve got a long way to go as a teacher, but I’m glad that I am learning so much from you. Thank you!


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Tesal,

      I feel the same way my friend. Thank you for the amazing poems from India. I’m looking forward to finding ways to link our classrooms in 2015. Thanks for taking the time to find, read, and comment on my blog.


      Liked by 1 person

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