Tension: Freedom vs. support

How do you balance freedom with support?


My favorite restaurant in town closed a few years ago. It was a phenomenal Thai restaurant owned by an amazing woman who immigrated from Thailand. She did all of the cooking and ordering herself and love went into every bite. The menu was simple but every dish was done exquisitely.

When she sold the restaurant to focus more on her family, the new owners greatly expanded the menu. Patrons were suddenly overwhelmed by the number of choices. Overhead must have been a nightmare. They went out of business within a year.




There is a critical tension between freedom and support. Go to far in either direction and inquiry falters.

When I give my students too many choices (especially too soon), many flounder. Some can’t (won’t?) generate a question that they are interested in answering. We all get frustrated. Often this requires ¬†a lengthy discussion to help identify a productive question. At this point, neither of us is sure whose question it really is.

The role of the teacher in inquiry is different from a traditional classroom, but no less critical.

If kids don’t get the coaching they need, when they need it, they often quit. When needed materials or methods are not delivered on time, students lose the spark of curiosity – sometimes for good. When promised learning experiences are delayed or cancelled, engagement and learning suffer.

Yet I am only one man. Sometimes the whirlwind of inquiry activities is overwhelming. I’m teaching my students to be more self sufficient and to lean on their peers for feedback but the road is bumpy.

Without sufficient leadership, teenagers resemble a football team with the ball and the lead at the end of a close game – they huddle up and start killing the clock; except that teenagers will do this when they don’t have the lead. Sometimes I intervene; sometimes I let them make the choice to go into “victory formation” and take a knee when they are clearly behind. Too much guidance and the joy of discovery and the creative process of problem solving are lost.

I default to the personal approach; I know my students and I know when they are struggling. When the kids are knee deep in inquiry, I spend most class periods hustling around interjecting support when they need it, providing materials, suggesting possible next steps. Sometimes I let them lean on me too much though. That’s when I feel like I’m spinning. The kids are clamoring for my attention and get angry when I don’t help them. This happens most when I’ve given too many choices and not enough support.

How do you balance freedom with support in your classroom?

Image used under cc license from the Flickr photostream of thelastminute

4 thoughts on “Tension: Freedom vs. support

  1. I totally hear ya. It’s that balancing act we have to do. I often think I’m not providing my students enough of something, whatever that something is, when I see them waiting out the clock or counting on me too much. So I’ll either front load way too much or give them what they need as they need it. Seeing where they have trouble is helpful so that I know what help to provide. I also feel horrible when time passes and they are no longer interested in pursuing questions that we had to table for later.

    With five classes of nearly anywhere from 26 to 29 students in each class you’re going to get all these scenarios on a daily basis!

  2. Right with you on “Sometimes the whirlwind of inquiry activities is overwhelming”. I’m working hard to differentiate my university classes, and it’s tough to do even with adults who are motivated to learn. Sometimes, I’m pulled in so many directions by their individual needs that I end up being ineffective. You’re making me think again about my role as facilitator and guide of their learning. They need me to help them find their ways.

  3. Al,

    So true. Time and the number of students certainly play a role in the balance between freedom and support. There are no easy answers in teaching. Anyone who claims there are is lying or naive!

  4. Lee,

    I find it interesting that you have similar struggles with adult learners in the university setting. It actually makes me feel better about my struggles!

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