Stepping Away From the Controls: Reflections on Allowing Space for Unstructured Exploration.

I experienced a wonderfully illustrative example recently that reminded me of the importance of shifting our mindsets as educators to better meet the needs of our digitally native students.  This story touches on ideas raised in two different articles that I have read this week, and provided me with an opportunity to reflect on my own practice as an educator.  

Last week in my 8th grade MYP science class, students were learning about electricity as part of a broader unit about Energy.  Specifically, students were looking at the fundamental differences of series and parallel circuits, and examining how parameters such as voltage and current change in each type of circuit.

My colleagues and I had decided to introduce the basics of the topic in a more traditional teacher-led presentation first, but then planned to use the bulk of the class to let the students explore further on their own by using the online PHET simulations produced by the University of Colorado in Boulder.  We had used one of the pre-made teacher resources available there as a starting point, modified it to suit our own specific MYP science course at our school, which resulted in a progressive step-by-step investigation of both series and parallel circuits.  There were aspects of the assignment that provided extra learning help, as well as “challenges” for students who were catching on quickly.

My colleagues and I were confident that this activity would lead students stepwise in a sequence of learning the we thought was logical, comprehensive, and methodical in its approach.   On paper, it appeared that we had designed (with the help of PHET!) an excellent learning experience, which included differentiation for abilities, and seemed to fit a constructivist framework of learning.  

When we each taught this lesson however, our classes all shared one aspect in common when we debriefed together – we all found that students were frequently “off task” in a similar way.  They were indeed using the simulation to design and test electrical circuits, however, they were frequently off exploring on their own, making their own circuits, and not following the stepwise guided inquiry assignment that we had designed for them.  

When I had first witnessed some of my students “off task”, I had at first asked them to stop what they were doing, and “please follow the steps in the guided inquiry activity”.  However, I quickly realized that this was a perfect example of students “messing around”, as described in the article “Living with New Media”, by the MacArthur Foundation.  I had been initially looking at this “off task” behavior as unproductive, and had thought that it was my teacher-designed inquiry that was clearly better for learning than allowing students to explore on their own.  However, I soon overheard some very excellent conversations happening between students who were clearly off doing their own thing with the simulation.  I witnessed students have deep conceptual insights, but through their own avenues of exploration.

So after remembering that this (supposedly) “unproductive” messing around was not actually “wasted”, but still providing valuable learning experience, I backed off my insistence that students stick strictly to the activity that me and my colleagues had planned for them.  I allowed students much more freedom with explore on their own with the program, in a far more unstructured sense than I had originally planned.

A metaphor came to mind: It was as if I had brought to class to an uncharted forest, and told them to “explore” the area by wandering the pre-made hiking trails that we, the teachers, had provided.  But instead, they were off-trail, exploring new paths through the forest, mapping it in ways that I had not accounted for or envisioned.  

(This is what I had at first wanted my students to do.)

One of the highlighted points from the “Living with New Media” study summary was quite poignant as I was reading the conclusions of the study this week, while remembering the aforementioned event in my class this week.    

“Participation in the digital age means more than being able to access “serious” online information and culture; it also means the ability to participate in social and recreational activities online.”

After reflecting on this experience later, I realized that this was an excellent example of what the authors of the study had been referring to several times.  My colleagues and I had worked hard at providing structure to the “inquiry” assignment so that students would use the time “wisely” and “productively”.  What we had failed to recognize is that some free time for students to simply explore in a completely unstructured way would provide for valuable learning experiences.  Sometimes we as educators get so lost planning our lessons in the structured framework of our own curricula that we forget to allow students this valuable time to simply explore on their own.  

This video, posted by the MacArthur Foundation, highlights many of the qualities of the 21st century learner, and how we as educators can begin to rethink our approach to instruction.

Indeed, when I stepped back, and gave my students more unstructured time with the PHET simulation, I found that this time produced some of the best student questions and insights.  It can be uncomfortable sometimes as a teacher to step away from the controls, but if we are open to the idea of letting go sometimes, we can provide students with the space they need to make their own connections.  They may not look exactly like the experiences we planned for, or had ourselves when we were in school, but they can be more in-sync with how today’s digital natives learn best – by exploring, creating, and “messing around”.  

In a way, this story also has a connection to another article that I read this week, Shaping Tech for the Classroom, by Mark Prensky (@marcprensky ).  In the article, he describes four levels of technology adoption:

  • Dabbling.
  • Doing old things in old ways.
  • Doing old things in new ways.
  • Doing new things in new ways.

I now realize that I had been using a “new” technology (PHET simulations) in an “old” framework (by providing a teacher-made, structured, guided experience, which was structured in a somewhat rigid way).   

This has been a great opportunity for me as a professional to reflect on the shift in mindset that we as teachers need to embrace if we are going to maintain relevancy and effectiveness in a quickly changing/digitizing world.  If you have had a similar experience/epiphany as a teacher or trainer when you realized that unstructured exploration isn’t necessarily “wasted”, I would love to read about it!  Please share below!  

2 thoughts on “Stepping Away From the Controls: Reflections on Allowing Space for Unstructured Exploration.

  1. Hi Brian,

    I enjoyed reading your post and hearing about your “ah ha” moment as an educator. It can be very hard to “let go” of the reins that you are so used to holding so close to help guide the students through their inquiry based lesson. But as you are discovering – is it really inquiry based if they are following a step by step guide? I wonder how you and your colleagues are going to frame your next class?
    My teacher training is from outdoor education, where students are definitely guided through a set program, but there is also unstructured times when students can “mess around”. Now I work in a K-8 school that has no walls, no bells and 5 teachers. We all rotate through the grades, so sometimes I am teaching K-2, sometimes I’m with the 3-5s, other times with the 6-8s and sometimes we are all together. This has been a totally new type of teaching for me, where students go so in depth on an activity that we might spend days, to weeks to months on an activity. My “ah ha” moment comes when students show me their own research, art work, writing piece and its about something I don’t know and I get to learn alongside them. They really make amazing choices and discoveries when its on them.
    I also read Mark Prensky’s work and ended up following him, along with Will Richardson on twitter – because I think they both have a lot to offer with education and putting it back in the hands of the students!
    Good luck and I would love to hear about your next class and if you schedule any “mess around” time.


  2. Hi Brian,

    I enjoyed reading your post this week and was reminded of some of my own teaching moments and some reading that I’ve been doing. A couple of years ago I began doing passion projects with my 9th and 10th grade students. One of the most difficult things I’ve found about doing student interest led projects is how much to scaffold the creation and how much to let go as you talk about in your post. It’s tricky and I’ve found it changes with each class that I do this kind of project with. I found myself in the same position as your where when I let go of control, which is scary for a teacher, the creativity and the learning accomplished really blossomed. This year I’ve moved to the elementary level in a new school and I am planning to do interest projects with 5th grade. As I’m planning these projects I find myself back at the beginning thinking of how I’m going to scaffold to steps without hampering the creativity. In preparing for these projects I’ve been reading “The Passion Driven Classroom” by Angela Maiers and Amy Sandvold. While reading your thoughts I was reminded of something I read in their book. They talk about a research study that was done surveying teachers about their favorite and least favorite types of students. In the survey teachers noted that they desire students who are highly creative, independent, individualistic and likely to take risks. But when further surveyed also noted that they preferred to teach students who were compliant, demonstrating skills such as answering our questions, following directions and pursuing topics we deem important. This came to mind while reading your post because at first your found yourself wanting your students to follow the directions and guided inquiry you had given them but when you had your ah ha moment let the students take the reigns some really deep learning happening. I think we all struggle with this give and take of control in the classroom and I’m glad your were able to have a positive engaging experience with your students.


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