Questioning the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model

gradual responsibility

When I first started teaching I was told from one of my professors to grab Harry and Rosemary Wong’s book and use it as a guide.  The guidance in the book was direct and seemed to be working during my first year of teaching.  I still refer back so some of the pages from time to time.  For the most part my class of fourth graders fell in line with the expectations that I set, which were from the book.  My administrator at that time suggested I use a gradual release of responsibility model with my students.  This “I do, we do, you do” model was heavily emphasized.  Basically, I was instructed to start my lessons with a guided whole class instruction, move to groups or partners, and then have students work on assignments independently.  Student input was limited when I used this model and I didn’t really see a problem with that at the beginning of my career.  As the year passed I found that extrinsic motivation was keeping most students on task.  The pressure of getting high grades and outside rewards moved students in being compliant. As I gained experience my instructional strategies changed .

As the years passed I started to let students make a few decisions in the classroom.  I offered students a chance to sit where they wanted at the beginning of the year.  Students also had options in what projects to complete.  This happened rarely, but I found that the choice opened up a new realm of student responsibility.  When students had a choice they often performed better and with more enthusiasm.  The reward for accomplishing a task started to become more intrinsic.  From there I surveyed students and included plus/delta charts throughout the units that I taught.  The more students offered input and felt like their voice was being heard, the more active they became in their own learning experiences.  Now that students were offering input I gave them opportunities to reflect on their learning and had them set goals.  Last school year students participated in genius hour.  I was truly amazed at the projects that were created by the students and the passion that I could visibly see as students presented their projects.  Students happily took advantage of these opportunities.  Students were asked to think about their own thinking, which was a new experience for students.

This opened up a new realm of possibilities for students as I felt they were realizing teaching wasn’t being done to them.  Instead, students started to realize that they were an intricate part of their own learning.

All this is good, but this type of thinking didn’t happen until the last third of the school years.  I scaffolded the gradual release of responsibility model until I felt confident to let the students take on more responsibility.  My confidence in students was conservative and I didn’t take the risk in allowing them to take control until later in the school year.  I’d like to change this next school year.  Allowing students to be responsible early in the school year can lead to dividends throughout the school year.  One book that has influenced me in this thinking has been Paul Solarz’s book.  Students should be given the opportunity to take the lead and be empowered in the classroom. One strategy that Paul highlights is his “give me 5” technique.  I’d like to start this early in the school year.  I’ve also questioned my own thinking regarding how students should be expected to proceed with a gradual release of responsibility philosophy.

I still adhere to the philosophy although I’d like to tweak my perception of it.  Instead of providing constant scaffolding to release responsibility, I’d like to start off the school year with student empowerment opportunities.  Waiting too long to give students responsibility can be costly.  Giving students opportunities to lead with support and guidance from the teacher can lead to positive results. I’m assuming there will be times where students will speak out of turn or take advantage of the empowerment opportunities, but I’ll take that risk.  With direct teacher support and feedback, I feel like students will become better at taking responsibility for their own actions.  There is a risk, but I feel there’s so much potential in empowering students to become part of their own learning experiences.

Author: Matt Coaty

I've taught elementary students for the past 14 years. I enjoy reading educational research and learning from my PLN. Words on this blog are my own.

2 thoughts on “Questioning the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model”

  1. I think you are also talking about creating self directed learners. As I became more familiar with our Canvas LMS I created a percent module where students proceeded at their own pace. It was a workshop approach in the sense that on any given day students were at different places of the percent unit. Some students loved the independence and the ability to move ahead without waiting for their classmates. Even the less successful students enjoyed the independence because they felt they weren’t in a rush to “catch on”. As long as they were motivated, regardless of their “ability”, they exhibited the characteristics of being self directed learners. The ones we are all concerned about are the unmotivated, or what the high school calls, “In-school dropouts.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, creating self directed learners also applies. Technology has allowed opportunities for students to be more self directed in their learning. Whether students take advantage of that opportunity seems to be the question. I think self-paced courses have a place in education and I’m wondering if at some point they’ll be used at the elementary level.

      Liked by 1 person

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