Blog: Not All Structures Are Equal

​“So I teach kindergarten. At the beginning of the year, 80-20 doesn’t happen, but throughout the year it changes, shifts as the kids get better at their routines, and the way we intentionally structure our room…”, shares a teacher, sitting in the back row at my Schools of the Future Hawaii presentation on Designing Your Project-Based Practice. We’re discussing what structures in our classrooms look and feel like when they are intentionally designed, and what happens when we start to look at our classroom as a space that is 80% student facilitated and 20% teacher-facilitated. When the heavy lifting is no longer your burden as a teacher.

Intentional structures are perhaps the most crucial core component of a Project-Based Practice. Sometimes I discuss it first, sometimes it comes last. It’s the thing that we as teachers, with our like for control and order, often think we do, but when broken down, can learn a thing or two.

When heavy lifting is no longer your burden as a teacher.

​Take a simple structure like a Do-Now. Students enter the classroom, they sit down, get out their materials, look at the board, read the instructions, and begin their work. No prompting, no side conversations, smooth sailing. Correct?

In reality, I’ve seen this played out in many ways; sometimes teachers have a lock-down “silent” routine where students come in quietly, and begin their work. The student in the back who finished her journal assignment sits quietly and waits for the next instruction, while the student who came late rushes to get it done before the teacher moves on. Sometimes teachers might allow students to come in at their own leisure, chat, take out work for other classes, finish that text message to a friend, and then the teacher will come up and read out the Do-Now and explain what needs to be done and only then, do students take out their materials and get started. Regardless of what is happening at the beginning of the class period during the Do-Now, we have to step back and think, “what is the purpose of a Do-Now”?

I would define a Do-Now as something that invokes immediate action, a direction that prompts a student to think for themselves and get going without being dependent on the teacher.

If that is our defined purpose of a Do-Now, then I need to intentionally design this structure to be about less teacher dependence, and more student action. That Do-Now needs to be a routine that invokes action in my students, where they only turn to me when they’ve tried on their own to figure it out, more than once.

"...when I asked 8th grader Lucy what she thought structures were. She said, “structures motivate me to get work done, but I’m not motivated when there are too many structures, like when everything is already set up for me and I don’t have to do any thinking on my own.”

​This is an example that could come up time and time again in just one class period with your students.

Even when we have structures in place, how can we ensure that the structures are actually benefiting the students to become more independent, critical thinkers and problem solvers?

To be less dependent on the adult in the room to give the next direction, and to feel more ownership over what comes next in their learning?

​These are the questions we ask ourselves when designing intentional structures.

When I asked a group of middle schoolers how they defined “intentional structures”, I got a variety of responses, from “they motivate us”, to “structures help us learn better and stay organized”. It was clear that the students knew what the structures were intended for. But it really struck me that there not all structures were alike, when I asked 8th grader Lucy what she thought structures were. She said, “structures motivate me to get work done, but I’m not motivated when there are too many structures, like when everything is already set up for me and I don’t have to do any thinking on my own.”

So what if this is the key to intentional structures? The structures that we put in place to run our classroom smoothly should not only do that, but should also allow our students to feel like they’re the ones running the classroom. What intentional structures can you put in place to promote self-management, and autonomy over time?

A PBL high school teacher I once interviewed told me that “it’s a common misconception that PBL classrooms are chaotic. An outsider might come in and think it’s very chaotic, but I think organized chaos is required”. Organized chaos = you can bet that intentional structures are in place.

Ideas for intentional structures:

  • Do-Nows that provoke student autonomy, and require little to no teacher intervention (not even to read the instructions out loud!)
  • Transitions that are self-directed (oh, I finished this part, I’m ready to move onto the next thing without waiting for permission!)
  • Non-teacher dependent options for students who are ready to move on (feedback circles, interdisciplinary reading, continuing project work)
  • Student-guided class reflection (students lead each other through the +/deltas of how a class period went, teacher sits in the back)
  • Do you have more ideas? Leave a comment!