In Command, out of Control

In Command, out of Control


A group of students from my Publications Writing Class introduced a game to the rest of the class to illustrate a concept about inclusion and popularity.

“I remember walking by your classroom and wondering, ‘What the heck is going on in there?’.”

This quote comes from a recent conversation I had with a colleague of mine whom I greatly respect. We were talking about our first impressions of each other when we met nine years ago. His classroom is across from mine, so we have a lot of opportunity to peer into each others’ worlds. I believe we’re both competent teachers (I know he is, at least), but our classrooms operate very differently, and it’s not just because he teaches Spanish and I teach English.

“You’ve got kids everywhere in there,” he continued. “Some of them are working on computers, some are in groups, some are sitting on tables, and others are in the corner bouncing a ball to each other.”

I’m proud of what I do with my students every day. The things my students produce amaze me, and I bring my best to them every single day. However, I get nervous sometimes when I see people peer into my classroom. I worry they’ll see smiling students involved in community building activities or hear loud voices and think I am not in control of my classroom. I’d rather my kids were moving and creating than always sitting and listening to me, but,  to many people, that doesn’t look like learning. There’s purpose behind most of what they see, but I’ll admit that it could look pretty strange from the outside.

“But whenever I walk in, they’re always doing something amazing or making something incredible,” he said. “They’re always excited about what’s going on and they’ll tell me all about what they’re learning. I tell the teachers I work with, you’ve got to see this guy’s classroom.”

When students are free to explore a problem in their own way, the solutions won't all look alike.

His assessment of my classroom is far too kind, but he’s right that it can look like chaos at times. I’m proud as heck of what happens in my classroom, though. I’ve always struggled with a way to describe my philosophy of classroom management, but I think I’m starting to find a way.

Malcom Gladwell, in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, explores the concept of being “In Command but out of Control“. This concept immediately resonated with me, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to run my classroom in this way.

The concept, he says, comes from Management Guru Kevin Kelly, and it is outlined and explained on pages 117-118 in the book. It means that the person in charge has a clear vision of the outcomes he wants and keeps a group continuously moving in that direction, but the people doing the work maintain their autonomy and can progress toward their goal in their own ways, without constant intervention from management.  He uses a military example to highlight what the term means.  Here’s the passage from the book:

“The first thing I told our staff is that we would be in command and out of control. By that I mean that the overall guidance and the intent were provided by me and he senior leadership, but the forces in the field wouldn’t depend on intricate orders coming form the top. They were to use their own initiative as they went forward. Almost every day, the commander of the Red air forces came up with different ideas of how he was going to pull this together, using these general techniques of trying to overwhelm Blue Team from the different directions. But he never got specific guidance from me of how to do it. Just the intent.”

This kind of management system clearly has its risks. It meant Van Riper didn’t always have a clear idea of what his troops were up to. It meant he had to place a lot of trust in his subordinates. It was, by his own admission, a “messy” way to make decisions. But it had one overwhelming advantage: allowing people to operate without having to explain themselves constantly turns out to be like the rule of agreement in Improv. It enables rapid cognition.”

When I read this, I realized that this is exactly how I want people to see my role in the classroom. This approach isn’t right for every teacher, of course, but it makes sense to me. It’s a lot more honest and positive term than “organized chaos”, but it fits with my Concrete Random personality very well. I’d like to enable rapid cognition and let my students learn on their own in situations that I help scaffold. Giving this management style a name has helped me focus on getting better at it and understand exactly how I want my class to perform on a daily basis. It has helped me understand my role better and has given me more Command of learning in my classroom while I can refrain from Controlling everything that takes place surrounding it.

As a teacher with this philosophy, I need to release some of the ego boost that comes from standing in front of a classroom as a gatekeeper of knowledge and spend my time as a designer.

If I can invent a worthwhile destination for my students and start them on the path toward it by crafting intriguing essential questions, designing interactions, and presenting problems that demand innovative solutions, I can step out of a position of control over students while remaining in command of their direction. I give students enough direction and background knowledge to orient themselves, and then my students are free to do more than just meet my expectations. They’re able to amaze me. And, with projects like this one, they do.

When I step away from a position of Control, students are more free to learn from each other, ask their own questions, play to their strengths, and use all the tools they have at their disposal to create something unique and amazing.

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