Monday, July 26, 2010

Ask yourself one question: Is it Important?

Freedom (choices) is one of our basic needs. Changing from a teacher controlled classroom to one where students are given more freedom is difficult for many teachers. In fact, I think it is in our “teacher DNA” to control everything in our class. Why? For many, that’s how we experienced school. My teachers controlled everything and I assumed that is how I was supposed to teach. Indeed, the biggest obstacle to school change is our memories.

When I learned about William Glasser's Control Theory about basic needs three years ago from Diane Gossen and Joel Shimoji, I discovered that a classroom could look and feel different. I learned that if I could meet the basic needs of students, I would have a happier class. Indeed, a happier class leads to more learning.

Meeting the basic needs of students, however, meant I would have to abandon the “total control” mindset. One of the things I would have to do was meet the freedom need of my students. It was not as easy as I thought. So, how did I begin the transition to a more student centred class? Diane Gossen recommended I ask myself one simple question: Is it important?

What does “Is it important” mean? If a student asked me a question, for example, if he or she can sit on the floor to complete a project, the old me would have said, "no." I used to think that the only place for students was in his or her chair. Now I ask, "Is it important if the student does not sit at his or her chair?" Of course not. Another student may ask, "May I listen to my ipod?" My immediate reply before would have been, "No!" Now I just say, "yes, if you are working alone and we can't hear your music.

There are instances, however, when it IS important to you. For example, if not eating in class is important to you, then you will say no if a student asks to eat. Moreover, listening to ipods in class may be something that you just won’t accept. I think about it this way: If a request is made that interferes with the learning of others, that student has to think of a different way to meet the freedom need.

A teacher receives many requests from students. Each time you get a question ask yourself, is it important? This simple question is the first step to transition from a teacher controlled environment to one with more freedom for students. Indeed, challenge your memories all the way to a happy class where students can flourish.


  1. Great post on a very thoughtful topic. I had to ask myself that question last year and was thrilled at the result I got. It is almost like taking a deep breathe and just relaxing the whole year. Often, when I did get upset over something, I realized it was irrelevant to the lesson or the goal of the day. This post served as a great reminder to continue this way of teaching, thanks!

  2. Thank you for your comments, Mrs. Ripp. Taking the deep breathe does matter. We do not have to control everything.It is easier to let it go if it is irrelevant.

  3. Thanks for the post. Teaching effectively does mean that you choose your battles. What does it matter if we win the battle but lose the war? Great Post!

  4. Agree! If a students is hungry, I let them have something to eat :) I've found that the more I relinquish control, the more I respect students as individual human beings, the more I let go of the stuff that's not important described above, the more they take responsibility for their own learning.

  5. Whatedsaid, I could not have said it better.Thanks for the comment.

  6. It took me a long time to think along the lines of this blog because I kept reacting to questions rather than thinking about the requests- and the reactions usually came out of fear that I would not be "in control" of my classroom. What ended up happening was that I got an evironment where the work was exactly what I expected and everything was beige.

    When I decided to let the kids have a little more freedom, I found that some abused the privilege but not many- and a brief discussion with the "offender" cleared things up. The unexpected thing was I had to loosen up my rubrics, because as the kids got more freedom in class, they got more thinking freedom as well. I started getting more creative work that was actually off the narrow chart that my rubrics described. This blog post describes one such experience with my 6th graders:

  7. rsu2teachertech, thank you so much for sharing your experience with me. I really enjoyed reading the link that you posted to your blog.

    It is so difficult to get away from the mindset that teaching should be the way we were taught. Moreover, students have a difficult job thinking creatively because they were never given the opportunity. When they are finally given the chance to be creative it is something they must learn to do. Thanks again for the comment.

  8. I think the relinquishing of "control" is something that challenges some teachers, but how many things do we impose on our kids just because we can? Does it matter where they're sitting if they're working? I'm not bothered about that unless their choice is interfering with the learning, and Ii do have a few that are just nor great sitting together. But they acknowledge that themselves and usually make their own decisions about that.

    Why would you stop a child from getting a drink or going to the toilet?

    I think you've hit the nail in the head - we should ask ourselves why more and see what liberation that may give us.