Ultimately our goal as teachers is to have students use mathematics independently in a way that demonstrates a deep understanding. On the journey to mathematical understanding teachers take the wheel for a while as they demonstrate and teach the lesson, then they often get out of the car and ask the students to keep going. However, this independent practice is often too quick of a jump for students, coming before they have a true understanding of the math concepts and skills. Students can manage to keep the car on the road for a while, especially in the early grades where they can “get by” with partial understandings and some support from teachers as they go. Where the lack of understanding with independent driving stops forward motion is in the later grades where a partial understanding of the mathematics will become a barrier for learning and student confidence. Their car can no long remain on the road, and often the students no longer want to take the wheel or even stay on the journey. By attending to a gradual progression toward independence teachers can support students where they are and help them confidently take the next step on their learning journey.
The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model, first developed by Pearson & Gallagher (1993), is a research based instructional model that outlines the process necessary to promote independent application of skills and understanding. In this model the teacher gradually decreases his or her support as students’ demonstrate success and if necessary, increases the level of support when students are struggling. This model is used constantly in the classroom as a way of helping teachers identify where students are and as the basis for future, targeted instruction.
Teachers are very skilled in I do it (I’ll drive) and You do it alone (You’re in the vehicle alone) phase, but it is the middle two phases We do it and You do it together that we need to focus more attention on. “We do it” is like sharing the wheel with the students -sometimes the teacher drives and sometimes the students do with the teacher remaining in the car. In the “You do it together” phase the teacher is also in the car but is only a passenger. The drivers are the students who share the wheel as they move their learning forward. The middle two phases consist of a lot of student discussion and collaboration…it can be messy, noisy and has the potential for students to get off task. However, it also has the greatest potential for helping students become truly independent with a richer, more complete understanding of the concepts and skills.
Here are some ideas of what these two phases can look like in mathematics:
This chart is far from complete but it can be a start to professional thinking and discussion. I believe that if we, as teachers take the time to focus our instruction on these two phases we can not only foster independence but understanding as well. If we can remain in the car longer we can help guide the journey, model the way and ultimately support students moving their own learning forward. We need to support them as they learn to drive, and then know when they are ready for us to get out of the car.