Student-centered learning is now a common phrase in education, but what does it look like? How can teachers who are accustomed to being in charge start to share power with students? These were some of the questions that led Miriam Plotinsky to write her book, “Teach More, Hover Less: How to Stop Micromanaging Your Secondary Classroom.”
Plotinsky is an instructional specialist in Montgomery County, Maryland, and a former language arts teacher. She said “Teach More, Hover Less” was born from conversations with colleagues about how they appreciated the theories in many education books but needed more advice on application. She wanted to create a resource with practical strategies for breaking the habits of what she calls “helicopter teaching.” She describes this phenomenon as micromanaging students “by controlling every single aspect of instruction.”
Helicopter teaching is usually driven by fear that without the teacher’s control, curriculum will fall apart, pacing will be off and students will be less focused. Plotinsky believes that this approach signals to students that teachers don’t trust them. She said she taught this way for almost a decade before students in a creative writing elective showed her other possibilities. Initially, she planned a variety of writing assignments, such as character sketches, children’s books and scary stories for Halloween. But then students asked if they could submit alternative pieces — stories and essays they were working on that didn’t match the boundaries of her assignments.
Plotinsky’s gut reaction was an emphatic “no.” She wanted students to try what she’d planned. “But then after a while, I thought, why not? They’re writing. And they’re passionate,” she recalled.
The difference was obvious. “As I released more and more of that ‘it has to be this way’ mentality, they were so excited to come to class. So incredibly excited,” she said. That led her to make other changes, such as inviting students to create their own writing prompts for classmates. In the ensuing years, she applied this new hover-free approach to other courses she taught.
“The obvious question is, what do you do when it’s the core content class? And maybe it can’t always be quite as much of a party,” she said. “But at the same time … you can be more flexible. So it’s just being open to the possibility of agility. And then you’ll see kids be more interested in what they’re doing, and that’s reflected in the work.”
In her book, Plotinsky details four stages for moving away from helicopter teaching. Given the busy lives of teachers, she said this shift can be gradual. Teachers can try modifying a single lesson by keeping the content but rethinking the approach. Learning to recognize helicopter teaching and to use student feedback to guide instruction are good starting points.
Recognizing helicopter teaching
There are three obvious symptoms of a micromanaged classroom, according to Plotinksy.
An overpacked agenda: This is when teachers have every moment of the class period planned out and often more. “We probably won’t get to all of this, but…” is a common phrase.
Little student talk: This happens when most of the class is devoted to silent work or teacher talk. Some educators and administrators assume that a quiet classroom is a well-managed and productive classroom, but Plotinsky disagrees.
Discussions dominated by only a few students: This is when a class features frequent dialogue but mainly between the teacher and a few vocal students, while others act as observers.
Plotinsky said she was guilty of all three of these early in her career. Book discussions in her class, for example, often involved a small group of students expressing ideas similar to her own. At the time, she viewed those classes as a success, but reflecting now, she sees a problem: 25 of the students in the room might not have said a word.
She offered a simple idea for more inclusive class discussions: Give each student one or two index cards. After speaking, they throw their card into the middle of the room and listen to others. Plotinsky recommended that the topic for this style of discussion be open-ended and low-risk, not something that feels like a “gotcha” about homework assignments. She also recommended explaining the process and giving students time to think about the question before jumping in.
By adopting practices like these, Plotinsky noticed that students who other teachers saw as quiet felt more comfortable speaking in her class. “That was a huge benefit — that people found voices in a way that they hadn’t before.”
Using student feedback
Requesting and using student feedback is a key part of Plotinsky’s concept of hover-free teaching. She likes to ask students three things in every unit:
What they already know
How they learn best
What has worked and what hasn’t in the class or in the past
Those questions can be asked through online forms or other kinds of exit tickets. As a classroom teacher, Plotinsky would share with students what they collectively said worked and didn’t work and how she was integrating that feedback into class plans. She couldn’t always make requested changes, but she said that being transparent made students more engaged.
Like other aspects of hover-free teaching, getting student feedback can be nerve-wracking. “It’s scary to hear what kids think, but it becomes less scary the more we do it, because then it’s less of a surprise,” Plotinsky said. “And then what happens is it gets kind of addictive.”
Helicopter teaching is driven by fear, says instructional specialist and author Miriam Plotinsky. Using student feedback to guide instruction can lead to higher classroom engagement. MindShift