462. Who’s in Charge?

In my recent article about professors, I wrote that there are teachers who put their pupils totally in charge of their own learning. I wrote that that is not teaching, and I’ll stand by that statement. If pupils are totally in charge of their own learning, then what are teachers in charge of? Taking attendance? Teachers are in charge of getting learning to happen. There are all kinds of ways to make it happen – some more effective than others – but teachers are in charge of finding out what works, and then doing it.
That being said, let me also say that teachers work hard to put their pupils more and more in charge of their own learning. They do that not to decrease their work load; as soon as they’ve gotten children to take charge of one concept or skill, there are plenty more ready for them. Teachers are not going to head down to the Bahamas, or stay at home and eat Bon Bons once the children have taken charge.
During my first year as an elementary school teacher, I didn’t fully understand the degree to which I was in charge of children’s behavior and learning. I thought that children’s misbehavior was all about them, and as for learning, I thought that they would learn if they would just try to learn. I didn’t know which aspects of children’s behavior and learning I could effectively be in charge of, nor which I thought I ought to be in charge of. I didn’t keep that job.
There are children who behave precisely as teachers want them to behave, and learn whatever teachers want them to learn. There are other children who reliably don’t. And most children are somewhere between. I’ve heard some teachers say that certain compliant children have “taken charge of their own learning,” and I’ve heard these same teachers talk about children who “have minds of their own,” as if there is something wrong with that.
Getting learning to happen is quite a job. Teachers who get learning to happen sometimes look as if they aren’t working very hard; they’re very possibly enjoying what they’re doing, and they probably aren’t talking much. But they do lots of looking, listening, and thinking. They are in charge of getting their pupils to be in charge of learning.
Elementary school teachers, secondary school teachers, and (yes) professors who take responsibility for getting learning to happen have a lot of work to do. So do their pupils. That work can be joyful – can look and feel like play. And when good teaching and learning is going on, it’s not so easy or so meaningful to speculate about who’s “in charge.”

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