Release the Secret Weapon – Control!

UnknownIn Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom (2013), Mark Barnes writes, “letting go of control may be the single most important part of creating a successful classroom, ” (p. 11).   And guess what?  For so many teachers, this is also the single most difficult act you can ask them to do.

Barnes states, “it’s time for educators to move toward doing less.  I don’t mean to suggest that teachers should put less effort into planning and executing their lessons.”  Rather, Barnes argues teachers should do less traditional teaching during the actual class time and instead put their students to work.  In his short pamphlet, The 5-Minute Teacher, Barnes writes about crafting daily lessons that revolve around short 5 to 15 minute segments rather than doing one or two long activities per class period.  Thus, “a five-minute teacher works much harder than an ‘old-school,’ stand-and-deliver teacher who lectures for 15-25 minutes before relegating students to some mundane, rote-memory practice activity.”  This is the case because the 5-minute teacher must craft more brief lessons that are student-centered, inquiry-based activities and projects.  This takes more, not less, work.  However, the bulk of this work takes place before class.  During class, a 5-minute teacher may find herself relegated to the sidelines more often than not, acting as a coach and adviser.

Here’s a short case study.  I recently started a unit on the early American Republic.  This unit covers such things as the drafting of the Constitution, Hamilton’s Plan, and the rise of the first party system.  As much as I love this era of history, in the past I have not been able to dig as deep into the material as I would like because so much of my time was getting “the facts” out to my students that there was less time to actually discuss what was going on at this critical point in American history.  So I decided to change this for this year.

The facts are the easy part, and my AP students could gather those themselves.  However, simply looking up the facts in a book and taking notes isn’t the most interesting activity.  I wanted my students up and moving.  I created my first-ever QR Code Scavenger Hunt using  It was so easy I couldn’t believe it.  I posted the QR codes around the school, and using an app on their iPhone, the students decoded each QR code to receive a question.  Once they got the question, they were free to use whatever sources they could find to answer the questions.  The person with the most accurately answered questions at the end of the period won a prize – their choice between a candy bar and 2 points on their unit test (not enough to make any difference, but sometimes they don’t get that).

Now, it’s true that I didn’t chunk my class period up into short segments; this activity took all period.  I do think, however, Barnes would approve since I was putting the bulk of the work on the shoulders of my students.  Today, we will spend the first 5 to 10 minutes of class reviewing what they learned, but then we will move on to meatier discussions.  Today, I will be the 5-minute teacher by moving through various segments and attempting to make those segments as student-centered as possible.

And here’s my final thought.  My first-ever QR Code Scavenger Hunt was not a complete success.  If I had it to do all over again, I would include fewer codes or allow my students to partner together.  I think this would have allowed my students to gather more complete and thoughtful information.  But that’s the point.  The 5-minute teacher has to be a reflective teacher.  You have to constantly diagnose your lessons for what is working and what is not and make adjustments.




1 Comment

  1. I like this, Donna. A boss once said to me, “Make sure you are not working harder than your student is,” referring to getting her paper written and turned in. It is so easy to resort to doing the work for them because we can maintain control over the information and the classroom. In the long run, however, they must learn to learn for themselves. Well said.

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