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Contributors: Cindy Hughes, Kellie Grant, Rachel James, Jennifer Duarte


Gradual Release of Responsibility - A Cautionary Tale

Last week I was involved in some professional development at my school, and had the opportunity to speak with the guest teacher in my classroom.  He had positive things to say about his day, and he also gave me the greatest compliment I have ever had.  He said that my students knew exactly what they should be doing and when, and they were able to work independently and collaboratively and the day practically ran itself.

I felt so proud! I told my students the next day how they were showing that they were ready for high school and indeed “real life”.  I pointed out that my principal doesn’t direct me in every aspect of my day, and likely their parents’ bosses don’t either.  Instead we are trusted to know what we should be doing at any given time.  I applauded them on the development of this skill and later sat down and asked a few of them to reflect on this.  I explained that in education lingo we refer to this as “gradual release of responsibility.”

Their answers were really interesting. They were able to point out not only the benefits but the pitfalls of taking on more responsibility for their own learning.  Without knowing the jargon, each student I spoke to mentioned differentiated learning - that students were able to work at their own pace and reread information they didn’t get the first time - as the best thing about gradual release.  They were more engaged when finding information themselves rather than listening to a lecture or copying notes.  And even when they did mention the potential problems - they all said the same thing, which was getting off track - one person did mention that they were able to use that as a reward.  They would get so much done and then take a few minutes to check email or surf around a little bit.  I think that sounds like what a lot of us do!

Before my head got too big however, I had a cold dose of reality.  Students have been working on a cell unit using their blended learning site from the OERB.  They have been very engaged and have enthusiastically found their way around a microscope and were able to produce beautiful drawings of plant and animal cells.  As I monitored their work, everyone seemed to be doing their job and I spent my time going over other things with individual students.

And here is where the cautionary part comes in.  Lulled into a false sense of security, I failed to check in with the class as a whole to ensure they had the main points, and that there weren’t any misconceptions.  When it came time to do a quiz on the plant and animal cells, they were all able to label the cell parts and even describe their function.  They knew the animal cell was roundish and the plant cell was squarish, but few could tell me *why*.  They had somehow completely missed the function and importance of the cell wall in plants.  

Frequent check-ins are a vital component of gradual release.  At the end of a session when students have been working largely independently, bring the class together and ask for contributions of their learning.  This can be done in many ways - shyer students like to use mini whiteboards or communicate through social media platforms like todaysmeet.com.  And if they don’t provide you with the information you are looking for - like the most obvious difference between a plant and an animal cell - then you need to go old school and give them the information.

Gradual release of responsibility empowers students and develops all of their learning skills.  But while teacher takes on more of a role of coach, sometimes teacher still needs to be teacher, and not only monitor to ensure students are on-task, but to check for misconceptions and understanding.

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