Mantra for Educators: High Responsibility Low Control

by Rick on June 12, 2016

Alicia, early childhood educator extraordinaire, once told me the following story as we had lunch together in the faculty lounge:

“Yesterday, Helen was in the sandbox scooping sand into a bucket with a cup. I came by and (good constructivist teacher that I am) said, ‘So, Helen, how many cups do you think it will take to fill up your bucket?’

Helen looked calmly up from her work and said in a friendly manner: ‘Miss Alicia, why don’t you go teach those two kids over there?’”Illustration_AG5

“Why don’t you teach those two kids over there?” We should whisper it to ourselves as we prepare our lessons at night. We should keep these words on our blotter as we stand in front of the room talking to the students. As we teach Helen, we must remember that she has a built-in teacher, her genius. We must partner-up with this teacher-within if we are to be successful.

It is our job to challenge Helen, but her genius already knows a great deal about what she needs to do in order be successful in this changing, surprising, increasingly complex world.

This is especially obvious when we watch how children take to technology. They play with it, and in less time than it would take us to teach them, they are ready to teach us how to use it. In 1982 I hired a “techie” to be my first “computer teacher.” At the end of his first day of teaching he was in my office complaining about the kids. “I came into class with seven lessons,” he said with some anger. “Before I was half-way through the first lesson, they were all over the place. One moved into lesson 2 immediately. Another one skipped all the way to lesson 7. By the end of the period they were all doing something different.”

High Responsibility Low Control

It is normal to feel you can’t be responsible for children if you can’t control them, but the opposite is true in education. Educators must take responsibility with low control.

All too often we feel we have to test students before we can teach them. We think it is critical that we know their capabilities before we assault them with our curriculum because we think we need to teach them in their “zone of proximal development” lest we bore them or overwhelm them. The result is generally bored and stifled students.

Proximal Schmoximal

The whole process is both arrogant and insulting to children. In the first place, our assessments don’t begin to show all the capabilities that lie within a student. More importantly, ability is not the key ingredient of success– enthusiasm, persistence and discipline are much more important. Educators and parents can help students to continue to develop these powers if we encourage their enthusiasm and focus on teaching the disciplines of rising to a challenge.

Dr. Carol Dweck has been studying how to maximize learning for decades. She writes:

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggest that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

Successful people are successful because they work diligently and with discipline to make something of themselves. The children in our schools need and want challenge. We must present them with all the challenges the world will throw at them. Believing in each student’s unique genius can give us the courage to allow our kids to take on the challenges they need in order to take responsibility in an uncertain world.

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