The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Letting Students Decide

I’ve found myself pondering the concept of student ownership a lot over the past year or so. The research is pretty solid on this: when you allow students to make decisions that impact their own learning, when you seek not just for buy-in but actual ownership, they respond more positively. Instead of just having them stop fighting against you, they are working with you toward a common goal.

Some things I have done to increase ownership have included letting students determine our classroom expectations, giving them freedom to select research groups or math partners, encouraging them to select their own books for independent reading, letting them decide the subject matter for their essays, and asking their input on small decisions such as whether to do recess before music or after.

But I’ve always maintained my “teacher control” on some things: guided math groups, guided reading groups, the general schedule of the day, the type of math homework I send home, the book I choose to read aloud to the class, which class we are partnering with for learning buddies.

Then there is another thing that I have always given myself 75% of the control over: the seating arrangement in my actually-a-little-bit-too-small-for-what-we-need classroom. I have allowed students to pick their group members and I have let them choose whom they would sit with, but I’ve been the one to decide how the desks are arranged, whether it was a series of rows facing the front of the room or groups of four or six desks that are facing the side walls of the classroom.

Today I did something that bordered on downright crazy: I let the students decide the furniture arrangement. And their seating arrangement.

Here’s how it happened: We had finished building our balloon-powered JetToy cars and today was the competition. We couldn’t use the hallways or the gym this year, so I had the students push all of the desks out of the way to clear space in the middle of the room. After seeing which car could go the furthest and which car could go the fastest, I gave the students five minutes to arrange the room. I told them that they couldn’t move my bookshelves, my desk, or my back table, but the rest of the space was theirs to do as they saw fit. Then I started the timer and watched and listened to the chaos. Without any one student taking the lead, the class worked as a team of 26 students and they arranged their desks in a way that they felt made sense.


They were pleased with their work and excited to try it out. I looked at it and simply said, “Huh. I never thought about doing it this way. Interesting.”

One long row of nine desks at the back, a small column of three desks with a fourth making an L, a row of five meeting a column of four making another L, and a row of five in the middle. There are five entry points total that let me circulate the room as I monitor students and answer questions.

What surprised me most was that I didn’t have any small groups of best friends move their desks away from everyone else and form their own island of two or three. Even though many students chose to sit near their friends, they are in a big group and oriented in such a way that they can see the front of the room when necessary.

I think this is something I am going to do more often. I like letting students decide because I have found that they really do respond well to the empowerment that comes from being agents of their own lives.

How do you let go and let students decide?


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