Running down a dream

When students are given the freedom, they flourish and most of the time, challenge themselves.  I truly believe that much of student performance is based on our expectations and the tone that is set for our classrooms and schools.

Photo Credit: _ambrown via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: _ambrown via Compfight cc

If we are encouraging, open and allow students to explore anything is possible.

I’ve had so much fun this year teaching Media Design classes. I’d never had the opportunity to teach technology classes before so I jumped at the chance.  I might not have nailed the curriculum part of it, but I feel like it has gone really well.  Here’s why.

You see, I didn’t have time to learn all of the software that students were going to be using in the class, so I pretty much gave them some guidelines and told them to figure it out.  And they did. Consistently, over and over again.  They were working together, they were investigating, sharing, asking each other questions.

Photo Credit: college.library via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: college.library via Compfight cc

I became an observer in my own classroom.  The easiest class I’ve ever taught.  I became a resource when they got stuck.  Not the kind that showed them what to do, but the kind that helped them think through the process to discover a solution.

Given the freedom to work and time to explore, the students did just that. They’ve made public service announcements for the school, advertisements for school events, designed business cards, redesigned landscapes, designed new kits for their favorite football clubs, built skateparks and bridges in SketchUp just to name a few.  Each assignment had a basic requirement, but most of them were open to whatever programs and subject matter they wished to incorporate.

I’ve also introduced Google A Day and GeoGuesser to my advisory class.  GeoGuessr_logoThis group of fourteen students that meet with me twenty minutes a day now begs to play these games.  The two compliment each other nicely as they use their developing search skills to improve their chances on dropping the pin in the right place on earth.  It is really cool to watch.  The twenty minutes that often dragged by as I tried to pull conversation out of them turned into a flurry of activity and collaboration.

In my Humanities class I’ve given them free rein to decide how they want to present research in each project we’ve undertaken.  At the first of the year they struggled. It was too much freedom.  They mostly turned in incredibly boring Power Point presentations.  But slowly, they’ve figured it out.  I’ve gotten Draw My Life style presentations, a rap video made by app smashing Smule and iMovie, an Epic Rap Battle between key playas in the French Revolution, mocumentaries that featured a student’s dog as the lead character and all kinds of other super creative projects.  It took some time for them to see that I was serious and they really could do whatever they wanted as long as they included the material asked of them, but once they did, sharing presentations became a whole lot more fun.

So maybe none of these students are creating the next great novel or restructuring the Scottish school lunch program, but they are building the tools and gaining the confidence to do so when they decide they can.  I see the potential in our students all the time.  The Middle Years Program is great for promoting student activism as well.  With a 5th grade exhibition and a 10th grade personal project students are encouraged to seek out problems and offer solutions.

Photo Credit: ~FreeBirD®~ via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: ~FreeBirD®~ via Compfight cc

It can be an inspiring event to see students working on passion projects, even within the confines of the regular school structure of grading and deadlines.  In almost every instance, these projects found students using their skills to improve the world around them. If we develop a positive atmosphere around students, give them the space and the confidence, they will do good things.



  1. Rob Langlands says:

    Hi Ryan, as a fellow tech teacher I can only nod my head in agreement with everything you say.
    It’s really amazing to see what some students come up with when they are given the freedom but it’s equally amazing to see how that freedom is almost paralysing to others. That’s probably where we become less the teacher and more the coach/facilitator. I always have my students reflect at the end of a unit or project and I also noticed that students would just take to Word and typed up a few (mostly boring) paragraphs. So I switched it up and told them they were not allowed to use Word for their reflections. It took them a few minutes to get over their initial shock but after they did they came up with some really cool ideas, one student even created a maze in Minecraft where I had to go look for the different parts of his reflection. Sometimes they just need a little push.
    Now we just need to convince others that students really thrive in this kind of environment. Have you shared your experience with other teachers? I’ve invited teachers and administrators into my classroom to look at the amazing things the kids are doing and there is lots of positive feedback. But at the same time there’s a lot of reluctance with those same people to take a risk and try something like this in their own class. Are you coming to Learning2 in Johannesburg? Might be an idea for an un-conference session.


    1. Ryan Harwood says:

      That sounds like an awesome reflection process. I’ve done reflection journals this year and most of them are meh at best. There have been a few who have really taken to it and made it productive. It was daily for first semester, but honestly it has fallen apart this semester.

      Yes, I’ll be at Learning2. I’m presenting! Great idea for an un-conference session!


  2. Matt Fron says:

    Hey Ryan (and Rob),
    I come up with a similar problem in the first semester of IB Lang/Lit. Students are allowed to create any type of written work that explores any aspect of the content from the semester–the only caveats are that it can’t be an essay and it has to be between 800 and 1000 words. For the past 3 years, the first semester results are usually mediocre because the students are so tentative. So many students directly ask me “What should I do”? because they are paralyzed by the possibilities.
    This year I did things a bit differently: as we studied the content over the semester I would casually share some interesting/shocking/thought-provoking examples of people writing about the issues but in an unconventional way. Not all the students would look at the optional reading. As the semester progressed, however, students started to share their own findings. By the time they had to decide upon a project, the students had received inspiration from other sources.
    I think the key aspect, however, is one that you mentioned ” It took some time for them to see that I was serious and they really could do whatever they wanted as long as they included the material asked of them”. Students have learned the habit of producing the simplest, most-straight forward work because that’s what teachers have told them they want. If more teachers allow students the freedom to explore, take chances, fail, and get back up, freedom won’t be so scary anymore.


  3. Cate Jarvis says:

    Hi Ryan
    I was nodding my head to what you have written here. As a Design teacher it is so exciting to work with the pupils on such creative topics. I have always taught tech so I have some software skills (you can never have enough as there is always something that you can not do). For me I think the kids love the parts when you don’t know or they know something you do not know. I often have them show me/the class how to do something. When they have problems they normally find their own solutions but when we look together it is a great way to model good research practice. Lets face it most of what we need, from a software point of view, is on sunny on YouTube so there are normally solutions. I really love the freedom of these course as you can see the pupils inspired…I now need to change the evidencing and evaluation techniques to match the exciting course content – have you managed to do that yet? I have never used GeoGuessr – how do you combine it with a Google A Day? Enjoy the day 😉


  4. Chrissy H says:

    Hi Ryan – this comment is from Sharon MacKenzie Davy – unfortunately for some reason, Sharon was unable to submit it, so I’m posting it on her behalf.

    I agree with you Ryan.  Sometimes the best teacher is someone who knows little about the content!  Enough to start them off, enough to have an idea of the success criteria but not enough to guide the kids through every step of the way and not enough to have a fixed idea of what the outcome should look like.  I loved what you said about how your Media Studies class worked.

    I started this after-school Scratch (computer programming) club last year for elementary aged kids.  I really had little idea how it worked, but was interested in trying it out, and if you mention computers, you can always find a few kids willing to come along!  
    Last year with grade 4-5 kids I guided them more and used lessons from the internet to ‘teach’ a new skill each week, with given projects to work on.  However, this year it ended up being a bit different.  After a 1 week induction, they pretty much went off on their own, especially as some of them worked on it at home and then out-stripped my knowledge in about 2 weeks!  This year, my grade 2 kids have done more in 3 weeks than the older kids in the whole 10 weeks last year…I think this was down to them being left alone to pursue their interests and because they were not limited to only using the skills I decided to focus on that week.  And because I did not restrict them to using only the coding blocks I thought they could handle.  It became more about the students, than the ticking off of skills in a set order.  If they don’t know how to do something…they find out!  They ask each other, they look at other computer progammes to see the code used, or they google and find a forum or video to help.  My role is now supervisory, occasional big idea giver, personal encourager and supporter, and someone to suggest how they could find the answers to their questions if they don’t know where to turn next.

    And I agree with you that it can then make teaching a whole lot easier in some ways…far less planning to do because it’s the students that take the lead.  But difficult in that you just don’t know what exactly might happen in each lesson, and there are a lot of teachers who really can’t handle that type of approach and would rather spend the time planning so they have control!  So I applaud you for being a ‘risk-taker’ – in PYP speak!

    I think teachers will have to admit sooner or later that they will NEVER be able to keep up with kids where technology is concerned. But do we want to restrict their use of it, just because of our own lack of skills?
    By the nature of kids today, technology is always certainly going to be involved if you give students more freedom.  

    Sometimes my ES kids ask me if they can do their presentation in a certain way, with a certain programme and my answer is, “you can do it in any way you think works.  But remember, you are the expert in that programme, not me, so it will be unlikely that I can help you with the IT if you get stuck; you will have to figure out problems by yourself!”  And they seem  happy with that.   

    I wonder if you’d have less freedom to take your more un-planned approach if you were a teacher of English, science or maths…what do you think?  
    I say this, because in my PYP system, when the units are science based I HAVE to deliver certain content, so the kids have particular knowledge (it takes 1 year for the earth to rotate once around the sun; we get day and night because of the rotation of the earth on its axis), however, in the social studies units there is no set content, so they are more able to ‘explore’ the central idea.  But maths and English have set objectives each day, and pretty much ‘directly teaching’ those skills is the only way to get through the content in the time given.

    How do your lessons compare to those maths/science/English colleagues, and do they teach a certain way because it’s their ‘way’, or because they too (like students), ultimately do what they think/know is expected of them?  

    Thanks for the google a day and geoguessr links (btw your google a day link doesn’t work properly).  I think they might come in handy for my class next year!


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