A Vacation Reflection – Handing Over Control To The Kids


Learner-led learning
One of the highlights of my trip to San Diego last week was a day at the San Diego Zoo.   The place is amazing, encompassing over 100 acres with over 4,000 rare and endangered animals.  However, my post is less about what I saw and more about how I saw it.  You see my guide at the park was a seven-year old.

Unfortunately, I cannot claim this idea as my own. My travel companion made the executive decision to give control (the map) to the kids.  On Wednesday a nine-year old led the way during our day at an amusement park and Thursday, it was the youngest member of our group’s turn.  As a dad of three who has micromanaged many a trip, I have to admit that I felt much less pressure and found the experience much more enjoyable with the power of managing the day handed over.

As the day progressed, I started to dwell on how this handing over of control correlates with what we need to do in our schools. I was reminded of a book I read on Sudbury Valley School over 20 years ago titled Free at Last.  The book, written by school founder Daniel Greenberg, highlighted the extremely progressive approach taken at the school where students literally chart their course each day.  The school’s website describes the learning process as follows:

Through self-initiated activities, they pick up the basics; as they direct their lives, they take responsibility for outcomes, set priorities, allocate resources, and work with others in a vibrant community.

I have to admit, as a product of a very traditional upbringing and education, this whole idea sounded crazy to me when I first heard about it in my postgraduate studies. But as each day passes in my current role as the Principal of a traditional high school, I find much about the way we function to be equally crazy.

My lovely travel companion summed things up quite nicely: “It was a great day. Instead of dragging the kids around they led the way.”

Are we just dragging our kids around in school to places they really have no interest in going? What if we just gave students maps with endpoints and let them choose their preferred routes of travel?  Haven’t we seen enough evidence that one standard route of travel for all is the exact opposite way to go?  Will public schools make a substantive move in this direction or will we become more and more irrelevant to our students?

Finally, a personal question for myself. Why does it take me so long to make these connections?



  1. COD said:

    That’s pretty much what many homeschoolers do. Our approach was to make sure the kids can read, write, and handle math up through about Algebra I or Geometry, and have the basic core science fundamentals down, then get out of the way and let them follow their passions. It’s worked great for our family, and if we could find a way to institutionalize that approach I think school would be much more effective and relevant in preparing kids for whatever route they want to follow.

    April 25, 2011
    • Thanks for the response. I guess I am beginning to wonder how early we can “get out of the way.” I also am wary of the fact that we have to look at a model that is much more individualized. IMHO, wherever we go from here will not be a scalable model.

      April 25, 2011
  2. Lisa Nielsen said:

    Bravo Patrick. You have made it to my Student Driven Learning = PassionDriven Classrooms Hall of Fame! See who you are joined by at http://t.co/f7A4CQT . You must check out my blog posts about unschooling (http://tinyurl.com/TIEunschooling). They’re filled with information about Sudbury, Summerhill, grown unschoolers who are happy, successful and never went to school and more!

    April 25, 2011
    • Thanks Lisa. That is a huge compliment coming from you. Your blog is in my RSS feed and I love your stuff on unschooling!

      April 25, 2011
  3. Annek said:

    Hi Patrick, thanks for a wonderful read. I can’t wait for the day when exactly what you propose is common place in our educational system. We plan our inquiries with freedom for our learners but I don’t believe we hand enough control to the learner, or allow them enough freedom to explore, learn and grow at their own pace. On reflection, some of my most memorable teaching moments have been when an individual, class or group have ran with their own idea and really embraced a learning opportunity. I would love to start my term with a map of our destination and allow the learners choice about how to get there. Thanks for the inspiration.

    April 25, 2011
    • Thanks Anee. Please share your experiences relinquishing “control” so we can all benefit.

      April 25, 2011
  4. Sokikom said:

    Good point about not being able to “make” students learn, they have to want to learn it or they won’t. I heard several teachers have handed over the responsibility to their students through wiki’s and videos and they’ve been amazed at the content that’s been created as a result. Yes, there is a learning curve to a few of the tools and it may take a while to really learn how to use them…but they believe the results are well worth it.

    April 25, 2011
  5. Kevin Creutz said:

    Good post and great connection to your time at the zoo. I can just imagine how liberating it was to allow your youngest to have control.

    I have written a couple posts about giving up control in the classroom and they were both good experiences overall.


    It was a new/scary/exciting experience that I continue to reflect on to this day. When we give up some control, I wonder if students are learning the appropriate content? Are they learning the appropriate skills? It’s a great conversation to have and I believe is a necessary component of becoming more of a facilitator of learning.

    I hope you saw the elephants, they are my favorite!

    April 26, 2011
    • Thanks for sharing your posts Kevin! Being a facilitator is certainly a win-win and yes I did see the elephants. They happen to be my daughter’s favorite as well.

      April 26, 2011
  6. Shayne Konar said:

    I’ve been trying to have less control in the classroom for years; giving the students more of a chance to lead the way in the mainly Grades 4 & 5 areas that I have taught in.

    One of my biggest successes has come coaching high school basketball.
    I stopped running traditional offenses years ago and encouraging skill development and players able to play all over the court.

    This past season our Senior/Varisty Girls team won their Zones/Regions and represented their school @ the Provincials for the 1st time in over 30 years. Best part was, letting them play. During the Zones, I did not call one play from the bench or inbounds play during the game.
    The players figured it out. I called the timeouts and sent subs in. That’s the next thing to work on for next season…

    June 25, 2011

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