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Aurora Institute

Negotiating Release

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Lydia Leimbach

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Ollie and Tobey
Ollie and Tobey

My husband and I have two dogs. Ollie is a springer spaniel; Tobey is a rather unfortunate cross between a Yorkshire terrier and a miniature husky. We live near water and enjoy spending time in the lake when the temperatures rise.

Ollie took to the water immediately. In no time she figured out swimming, and she could be counted on to paddle leisurely until we were ready to leave. Not the case for Tobey. He surprised us with his reluctance to put a paw in the water.

Tobey did eventually learn to swim and now enjoys a quick lap or two, but it involved a process. We had to introduce him gradually, making sure he had the skills and confidence to move from the beach area to deeper water.

I mention my dogs because they serve as an example of how we make assumptions. I assumed that all dogs instinctively knew how to swim. After all, they enjoyed going down to the beach with us. As teachers, we are tempted to make the same assumption: because our students like to use technology, surely they know how to use it effectively.

A tenant of proficiency-based teaching and learning is that students will determine how and when they will “show what they know.” This implies that the student will be asked to direct their own learning. We avail ourselves as facilitators, flip our classrooms, determine pacing guides, and do less direct instruction. Time, not mastery, is now the variable.

There’s another variable we don’t often address, and that’s the student’s ability to BE a self-directed learner. Teachers in a proficiency-based environment are encouraged to use technology to make materials available to their students 24/7. Students are often encouraged (or required) to work in a blended learning environment. Very often schools provide devices to each student to ensure access to these resources. We should not confuse our students’ aptitude for and interest in technology with their ability to leverage it for academic achievement.

Some will naturally be like Ollie. They hit the water, figure things out, and move steadily forward. These are the students who, if we are honest, just need us to tell them what they need to learn and then prefer we get out of their way.

The rest go along with us on our journey with varying degrees of compliance. Most willingly jump in. We assume they know how to manage their time, develop a workflow, find resources, and block out distractions. At best these students paddle madly. At worst, they give up and sink.

Lydia Leimbach
Lydia Leimbach

Here’s what often happens in a technology-rich school: prior to receiving a device, students sign an acceptable use policy that outlines (often in three pages of details) what students may and may not do with school machines and networks. Classrooms develop “codes of conduct” that are, in effect, another set of rules for each individual classroom. We tell them the consequences of breaking these agreements. Nowhere do we assess what skills our students need to have to follow these rules independently. We expect the same independence from our eleven year olds that we do from our graduating seniors.

One thing is universal. When students in a 1:1 environment find themselves without the skills to manage self-directed learning, it can get ugly. We see lack of work completion. We see off-task behavior replacing academic work. We see frustration and “checking out” and the behaviors that accompany the feeling students get when they don’t have the skills to do their jobs. Technology provides a ready venue for students to escape.

But what if we changed our mindset (and our culture) and looked at technology use as a learning continuum rather than a list of rules and consequences?

I’ve always been a fan of the gradual release of responsibility model. In a nutshell, it moves from “show me” through “help me” and ideally ends up at “let me do it.” It supports students as they move from being dependent on their teachers and environments to control their actions and helps them develop skills that result in good decisions that will positively impact their learning. It meshes very well with proficiency-based learning.

The chart below gives a sample of how this gradual release of responsibility might look in your learning community. Keep in mind that this is a continuum. There is no “bad end/good end”— just a place where your students begin and a direction for them to move. It’s based on the idea that we need to teach students the strategies they need to become efficient, productive, and independent technology users as well as academic learners. It won’t hurt their digital footprint either.

You’ll also find that you won’t move an entire class through this continuum as a whole. Some (the Ollies) may be ready for the situation described in the far right column almost immediately. Others (the Tobeys) may not have the maturity to move from the far left column until midway through the year – or years. Most will straddle several columns as they grow and develop skills. The key is to help students understand what they need to do to reach a level where their use of technology becomes a strong enhancement to their learning rather than a way to avoid it.

Teacher Controlled Teacher/Student Shared Student Controlled
Resource Allocation
Teacher identifies devices to be used and/or provides resources for students (e.g., links within project documents, drill and practice sites, all students go to same site, devices as a “center”). Students choose from teacher portals or handouts. Student has choice of reading level, media type, and/or devices but content is still provided by teacher (portaportals, teacher websites). Student has choice of device as offered by teacher. Student identifies best tools and resources to use for work completion. Student determines best devices to use and when to use them. Student is able to determine validity of resources pertinent to learning goal.
Goal Setting and Work Completion
Teacher sets goals for student work completion and assesses student progress. Teacher determines tools necessary to meet goals. Student sets daily goal for work completion and reflects on progress and support needed. Student completes and turns in work completion checklist or other type of daily exit ticket. Student sets short- and long-term goals for work completion. Sets deadlines and self-monitors progress towards goal completion. When asked, student can clearly explain their current place in the learning process.
Classroom Management
Teacher controls tech use via preferential seating, student grouping, and/or remote desktop tools. Students self select work area from available options provided by teacher based on needs for collaboration or peer help. Student begins to advocate for settings that address individual learning needs. Student identifies best setting for work completion. May be in or out of classroom.
Students follow teacher created protocol for work completion. Student creates workflow plan and implements strategies. Works with teacher to reflect on and adjust plan based on output. Student is able to independently develop and implement workflows to best suit learning goals.
Removing Barriers to Learning
Teacher attempts to remove as many barriers to work completion as possible. May include seating charts, media restrictions, and/or restrictions on type of device allowed. Restrictions exist for large groups or entire class. Teacher reflects on effectiveness of tools and strategies. Student identifies barriers to work completion. Teacher offers range of tools/strategies to improve work completion. Student and teacher reflect on success of strategies and tools. Student regularly and independently identifies and employs tools/strategies to eliminate barriers to work completion. Tools and strategies vary given tasks that need to be accomplished. Student understands that barriers and strategies will vary from task to task and student to student.


This shift requires us to move from a punitive system of assigning detentions or confiscating laptops and iPads for gaming and social media use during class and implementing a support system that allows students to recognize the tools and skills they have to employ to achieve success.

This model also gives us a glimpse into what holes our students have in their foundations. Do they need us to provide resources because they have poor research skills? Are they “checking out” because their reading skills are less than those required to master the standards? Do they understand how to take notes? Looking at their reluctance to learn through a new lens can turn up many opportunities to fill gaps that will help move students forward through all of their measurement topics.

The overall benefit will be one that reaches far into the future as we prepare students for secondary education and life in a digital workforce.

A self-proclaimed “competent problem solver with a large dose of curiosity and stubbornness to find solutions,” Lydia held her first teaching job at Hall-Dale High School as a computer teacher. She is now the K-12 Technology Integrationist for all three Hall-Dale schools. In this venue she is tasked with finding ways to leverage technology to improve teaching, learning, and student achievement.

Lydia recently finished a second Master’s degree – this time in Instructional Design and Technology from Emporia State University. She enjoys collaborating with others and relishes the opportunity to expand her personal learning network. She can be contacted via email at [email protected], Twitter as @lleimbach, and Google+ as Lydia Leimbach.