Getting Off Task: The Need for Flexibility and Free Time in the Classroom

“Being flexible with your curriculum is not about sending the message to students that the curriculum is unimportant. It is about sending the message that it is important in a different way.” – Claire Potter

Classrooms that leave no space for play also tend not to leave any for questioning, critical thinking or challenging power.

This semester I have been working in a sixth grade classroom at the public elementary school which I attended as a kid, aiding and observing one of the school’s most experienced teachers. The class itself is a little more than half students of color, and is genuinely economically diverse. The teacher–a Black man who was of the first generation of his family to attend college–was my teacher when I was a sixth grader, and has been working in the local school system for over three decades. At this point in the semester, the short time which I have spent in the classroom has already been hugely challenging and revelatory. I am learning new techniques and ways of organizing lessons, and am pushed to come at education from whole new perspectives. Yet above all else, there is one element of the classroom that has been more eye-opening than any of the countless others.

As an aspiring educator and young teacher, I was initially shocked to see how much free time students in this classroom receive. From side conversations with their table mates, to jokes and stories which are encouraged by the teacher, the class is full of students’ own voices and ideas, ones which often are completely unrelated to the curriculum. When a piece of technology isn’t working, the teacher lets students talk amongst themselves until the problem is fixed, then gathers their attention again. When a group finishes a problem set early, they are allowed to hang out at their table until the rest of the classroom catches up. When an individual student is having trouble focusing on an assignment, she is allowed to take a walk in the hall, or even sit in the teacher’s chair to gain her focus back. And in the midst of introducing new concepts, the teacher stops to let students share anecdotes, ask personal questions, and demonstrate new dances, actively making room in the class for tangents and diversions.

In many of the teacher training programs in which I have been involved, allowing for this type of unfettered and undirected use of class time would be viewed as the ultimate failure of the educator. Much of modern education training–especially that which focuses on urban student populations, and is directed by the private sector–prioritizes classroom management as a means of minimizing side conversation and distraction, with the goal of eliminating them all together. Every minute of every lesson is planed out carefully, with the aim being to cram as much information and skill-drilling as possible into every moment of classroom time. Doug Lemov’s infamous book Teach Like a Champion–which has become a sort of education bible for Teach For America, Breakthrough, the charter school movement, and many other conservative sectors of educational reform–lays out tens of techniques, many of which push the classroom to function at a breakneck pace, and are designed to ensure that every students is vigilant and engaged with the lesson for the entirety of an instructional period. These techniques, which are quickly becoming the standard for modern education reform, force students to spend so much time in orchestrated participation and information absorption, that there is virtually no time left for processing, questioning, challenging and relaxing.

That these techniques are being ruthlessly enforced among brown, low-income and urban student populations, but are much less so in suburban, private and wealthy districts, is something we must pay attention to. That these techniques and their authors put an incredible amount of pressure on teachers and support staff, forcing them to become the crowd control management for enormous and in-need classes, yet put no pressure on urban school districts or private powers to fund smaller class sizes or better resource schools, is another important note to make. That the purpose of these techniques is to cram students’ minds with measurable skills and information, preparing them solely for tests, college, and work which supports the private sector–and that it is the private sector itself which advocates for the implementation of these techniques–is reason not only for concern, but for outrage. Yet all these troublesome and crucial points aside, there are even more important reasons why allowing free time in the classroom is radical.

What I’ve learned from observing a highly experienced teacher in action is that allowing for free time in classroom prioritizes students’ mental health and happiness, and provides them with just the leverage they need to challenge the system of which they are a part. It gives students the room to process new information and make it their own, rather than filling them with disjointed facts, and expecting them to regurgitate them immediately afterword. It leaves them space to react, respond and critique the curriculum, allowing them some say in what is worth learning and what is not. And perhaps most significantly of all, it teaches them that their voices are valuable, that their own ideas, experiences and expressions have a place in the classroom, and that learning should engage every part of themselves, not just their academic or intellectual sides. When students are allowed to joke, to dance, to laugh, and to get off topic, they are allowed to be their whole selves, to share every aspect of their being with their peers, and to learn more from their peers than they ever could in an overly regimented and skill-based space. This prioritizes the classroom as a genuine learning community, not just a cell for the drilling of oppressive knowledge.

7 responses to “Getting Off Task: The Need for Flexibility and Free Time in the Classroom

  1. so interesting that it shocked you at first, meaning your memory of being his student had never registered as “we’re wasting time and he’s not teaching us enough because he’s letting us get off topic.” (even though this might be how we’d initially process it now due to our training that doesn’t trust students OR teachers). despite what the administrators or teaching “gurus” may say about wasting time and the importance of drilling information, your actual experience of being in that classroom as a child was life-affirming. you took away lessons just as important, if not more important, than the written curriculum.

    • Thank you so much for this ill response! I had never thought of it that way. In my entire educational career, this teacher still stands out as the most impactful and identity-affirming educator I was ever lucky enough to encounter. He also stands out as the teacher I was most reluctant to goof off with. I never felt as a student in his class that we were wasting time or being distracted, because the expectations he set for us to push ourselves as community members and students were so high. Instead, the ways in which we joked and played were just a part of the environment which made me feel affirmed and willing to dedicate myself. It was only upon returning, after having been partially indoctrinated by “reform,” that it seemed a strange setup. In reality, I learned more from getting off task than I ever did from the written curriculum. You are so right!

  2. Once again I’m blown away by your honest, insightful & very important blog. The best blog I have read for years. I agree with Mom that your going to make an exceptional educator. Not only in the context of a set curriculum but in the equally, if not more important context of life. I, personally, have learnt alot from you already. Well done. Very inspirational. Thank you & keep it up.

  3. I’m interested in your take on Teach Like a Champion and the practices it encourages teachers to use in the classroom.
    First, I’m wondering if you’ve ever been in a classroom where these techniques are employed. If you have—which I’m assuming based on your written assessment of the text—what is your take on how students are responding to these so-called “ruthless” attempts to engage students and require participation? Additionally, I’d love to hear your assessment on the quality of participation and conversation among students in these TLAC schools when compared to the students you work with daily.
    I am an educator who has been trained for 6 years in the Teach Like a Champion techniques. In no way, shape, or form do I feel as though I am “ruthless” in my instruction, but I will admit to holding myself and my students accountable for working hard at school. My students do come from working class and low-income communities, with gross realities like the 30 million word gap (See: http://www.ipoddess.com/iPoddess/Resources/Entries/2008/10/23_The_Very_Best_of_iPod_and_Podcasting_files/30MillionWordGap-by-age3.pdf).
    So sure, story time and talk time is fun—we have that too. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t challenge your assumptions of these techniques are mere tools of “crowd control”. But rather, skills teachers can hone that enable students to actively, thoughtfully and energetically participate in their instructional settings. These are skills that hold students accountable for working hard and teachers accountable for expecting the best from students 100% of the time.

    • Thank you very much for your thoughts, you bring up some important points. I have worked in classrooms where I have been instructed and expected to use these techniques, and while I have not had nearly as much time and practice with them as you, my experience has been that students actually do not respond well to these methods. I found that these techniques were about drilling, memorization and forced participation, ensuring that students comprehend a preset task and can perform it on their own when asked. This happens, I found as a teacher, often without any engagement at all. Keeping students in constant work mode, providing them with skills, and then ensuring that they get the right answer on the final test, is not the same as engaging them, and the assumption that it is is what troubles me about these techniques. In classrooms with teachers like the one under whom I am currently working, I feel that the quality of engagement, participation and understanding is actually much higher, because students have fun with the lesson–not just when the lesson is over–and determine the learning for themselves, making the knowledge their own, as opposed to repeating back to the teacher in a timely manner the instructor’s own words and ideas.

      You are right to point out that there are real disparities amongst different student populations that have to be acknowledged. However, these disparities are the result of so many different and inequitable systems that it seems dishonest to pretend that cranking up the rate of classroom participation with a scripted set of techniques is what it takes to address them. For justice to begin being administered in the classroom, space for question asking, processing, relaxing, and determining what is valuable to be learned for that particular community, should be a regular feature of every lesson, not just time made occasionally at the end. This can be done without sacrificing high expectations for the community, and with students and teachers still holding one another accountable for the success, health and happiness of everyone in the classroom.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your insightful words on this issue! I couldn’t agree more with what you said. Its so nice to hear about stories of master teachers who have found this critical balance in their instruction and have put it into practice in the classroom. It is just so ironic that so much educational research and theory points to this flexible model of teaching, however, many administrative bodies deem it as unproductive. A broader understanding of time, space, and learning is SO critical if we are going to be teaching learners in the 21st century. Not long ago I attended a workshop by the IDEO group that offered a fairly balanced approach of skill building and flexibility that is worth consideration…http://www.ideo.com/work/a-design-thinking-approach-to-public-school/

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