I teach in a small room.
It’s full of dangerous equipment.
My students are 11-14 year olds.
What could go wrong?
After a long stint in the Museum Ed field, I returned to the classroom and the challenges of Middle School science. One of my early commitments was a daily lab. I’d seen the value of hands-on education in the museum and wanted to bring that to the classroom. To some that seemed monumental, but I was undaunted. The economy of scale would pay off, I reasoned. We’ll get into the groove.
Wrong, on both counts.
While my classroom was never out of control, it was designed for exhaustion. I spent dozens of hours setting up fascinating demonstrations and no-fail labs. The students did them happily; they asked for more, and learned a great deal. But the brunt of the work fell on my shoulders.
Then I began to wonder: what if I turned the reins over to them? What if they decided when and how to work through a course of study? I could see potential in this approach. The students who were always done first would be able to continue along deeper or broader paths. And the ones who liked being methodical would have that option.
This approach meant I had to rethink sequence (I couldn’t assume that they’d do the labs in a given order) and scope (I needed to ensure that they mastered key content needed in future studies and didn’t just spend their time on the fun or easier elements within a unit). My lab designs would need a core of study that everyone engaged in, as well as a plethora of extension studies. The kind and amount of instruction would change, too. I would have to stop explaining how to do labs altogether. Students would need to initiate, execute, observe, and complete these hands-on tasks independently with minimal facilitation and direct teacher instruction. I knew it would require a tremendous upfront investment of time—lab assignments would have to be written more clearly and thoroughly than ever before! But when I took all that into account, making the decision to try this took an instant. Working it out in practice, however, took a few years.
Perhaps the most immediate change was that I stopped explaining labs in detail. Instead, I prepared written instructions, and then set students loose. Interestingly, when I stopped explaining labs, I didn’t notice a huge difference in how the kids responded. Some carefully read the instructions and did their best to follow these. Others dove right in, fearlessly handling the equipment. And a few sat back, watching and waiting until they understood what they were supposed to be doing before trying it for themselves. In general, the kids sorted into these types even after I stopped introducing labs.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that left to their own devices the students found their own paths. Some were perfectionists, and having been given the opportunity, slowed to a snail’s pace. Others were eager adventurers and wanted to try everything at lightning speed. Both took shepherding, but unlike the old days they didn’t each need me at the same time for the same thing. I could catch my breath. I could sit with a group of students and engage them on a variety of topics. I could find out what they were thinking and delve into their misconceptions. I was finally teaching in a way I’d always envisioned, but never quite realized.
Switching to a self-directed classroom has been transformative in terms of differentiation because it let kids engage in common material at different levels. Not only that, but trying to do a lab per day meant repeated interaction with the same concepts in a way that wasn’t repetitive or boring. Producing the needed plethora of labs also let me offer some pretty cool tangents that I could never justify in a curriculum strictly focused on core studies.
We still met regularly as a class, but we spent the time differently than before. Since we no longer spent the bulk of our time together, I found I needed to be more strategic in allocating how we spent it. It was more targeted: we focused on discussing our findings or working on fundamental skills. Our all-class time was more collaborative and thoughtful and worthwhile than previously which energized me as a teacher.
Are you interested in moving to this type of structure? Before you make the switch, consider the following questions:
• Is all of the equipment for your unit directly accessible for your students? Remove yourself as the chokepoint; try to have all materials and supplies available.
• Are students currently deporting themselves appropriately? This switch will calm hilarity that comes from boredom but it won’t cure an out-of-control classroom.
• Do you have enough written labs and supporting materials? I like to have two to three times the amount I’ll need which allows differentiation in both speed and rigor.
• Are students clear about which activities they must complete and by when? I provide them with a checklist of core and extension activities and a basic schedule.
There were so many positive outcomes of moving to this type of classroom structure. Perhaps the most fundamental shift was seeing my angst and most of my students’ disappear. My classroom became busier and calmer overnight. There was almost no horsing around since there was plenty to do. Aside from the test deadline, there was no time pressure to get things done within a single period. They could simply pick up where they had left off. Since we weren’t all trying to do the same lab at the same time there was plenty of equipment—even enough to work alone if that’s what they wanted to do. And they were allowed to self-select their groups as long as they stayed focused on their work. It was no surprise that they loved being in charge of their learning, which most of them will tell you is the hardest and best part of our class.
I chronicled my journey in an online course you can read about here: