Controlling Students
By Mark Heintz
Oct 29, 2021

I wrote in my last post that students have been leading their own learning, and at the end of that post, I encouraged others to start their own processes. As I wrote the last post, it became too long, and here I am sharing another one in order to help anyone who needs guidance in making changes themselves.

I stated that I’m happy with what the students learned in the first part of the school year. Part of why relinquishing control to the students has been so rejuvenating is that I am working alongside them. I am not dictating every minute of the period, nor am I forcing them to do everything in a linear fashion. Rather, I am finding out what is important to them and who they are. As they research, they are reading some of the most fascinating articles, and I have been marveled by what they are learning. 

Sharing these posts helped me, but as I wrote the last post, I realized it might come off as an educational utopia.  It is far from perfect. As I write again, I am constantly reflecting on making the classroom better, not just maintaining an established course. Despite all the critiques I have, the one thing that I am proud of is stepping away from controlling the process. 

I do want to share a concern about the student-led classroom and that is the space I give them. Students will ask me for feedback on every





They are still looking to me to tell them exactly what to do.

I understand that the process is a different experience than what they are used to in school. While it may be chaotic at times, there are structures and supports in place. I do not simply tell them to research. As a class, there is a survey that guides them through a variety of topics and sources to start looking at. Also, we spend significant class time looking at sources that will challenge their concepts of the world and help them create their own product. But they are conditioned to be compliant, and I am fighting what most of their day is like. For the one period of their day where they are allowed to explore their questions, many slow to start without significant help. 

That shouldn’t be a reason to not allow this. 

John Holt stated in his book How Children Learn

“It is easy to see how too much of such treatment (controlling) could destroy a child’s curiosity, and make him or her feel that the world, instead of being full of interesting things to explore and think about, is full of hidden dangers and ways of getting into trouble.” 

This should be a further reason to give students autonomy over what they are learning more frequently. Students need time and space to produce work that demonstrates high-level critical thinking and complex rhetorical skills. As an adult with sixteen years of education, multiple degrees, and who has taught writing, I still need time to edit these posts in order to clearly articulate what I mean. 

Additionally, I still have someone — who is amazing — give me feedback on the work. To ask a student to display a deep understanding cannot simply be completed in class period. This is furthered by the fact that students are rushed through the school day doing multiple classes where they have to switch their focus. what others want them to do.  They aren’t allowed to use their curiosity in most of their classes. 

Real-World Problems

I know that many will state that this approach might lead to less rigor or a lowering of standards. However, this approach allows for deep, critical thinking on real-world problems which has led to an increase in rigor and academic levels in the classroom. I do not want rigor or high standards to simply be more work that is dictated by the curriculum. Also, the notion that this approach is lowering standards makes the assumption that not all kids are capable of learning at high levels before they even step into the classroom.

For my class (ideally, all of their classes), I want them to be curious and explore those curiosities because all people learn best when they are interested in the subject and have a desire to learn. Many studies have been conducted that adding more in a course to increase “rigor” has very little long-term gain in retention or skill acquisition.  As I write this, I am reminded of how many times I am using I. These are all my thoughts. How do they feel? How do they feel I could help them in this process?

I used to have students fill out a survey and reflect alongside me, and that is a practice I am getting back into being routine.  So I made a survey for the students to fill out on how they felt about this process.

Here is how some of them feel: 

He helps in ways that are good because instead of pushing us all towards a designated path he is pushing us to go in our own directions and choose what we want to do.It makes me feel independent.

Mr. Heintz is letting us make our project on what we are curious about. Pretty ok, most kids are doing good but some kids picked something they really aren’t interested in, so it’s not going well for them.

He made us do work in class. Bored

I dislike the part where I had to decide what form to do my project in because I had so many ideas.

He helps in ways that are good because instead of pushing us all towards a designated path he is pushing us to go in our own directions and choose what we want to do.

I know it is not perfect for everyone. Students are the focus. Working through the student comments helps keep them in the spotlight. And by not asking them, I would rarely know what isn’t working for them until it is too late. For instance, the boring comment sticks out to me. I want to make my class a place that is more than that, and I need to follow up with that student on how to change that. 

Asking students how they feel about the class is a small change that can be implemented in the classroom immediately. In my class this year, they are demonstrating their skills and knowledge MORE than a traditional facts-based class that I have taught in the past. I have taught both, and the students’ writing and articulation of what they are trying to say is some of the highest levels of work I have seen in my career. I am always amazed by what they say and it keeps me trying to make the classroom better for all students. 



As always with these longer posts, thank you to Kim Miklusak for her editing and feedback along the way. This blog would not have happened without her friendship.

Also, the picture was made by one of my students, Latifa Sert. It was a part of project that she created in class. Thank you for letting me share this with the world.


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