Students as Managers of their Learning

Dr. Terrance Kwame-Ross

by Dr. Terrance Kwame-Ross

For Middle Level

by Dr. Terrance Kwame-Ross

I love to visit friends and families in informal settings. I play and talk with and observe children and adolescents outside the formal school setting.

At a community barbeque, there were black and brown children and adolescents everywhere: a group of 2-to-4-year-olds playing in the grass and dirt; 5-to-7-year-olds managing to safely play assertive water games in the pool; a group of older children and adolescents horsing around, and small groups jumping rope and playing ball games. 

My educator’s instinct kicked in, and I thought, “How much time will pass before horsing around, assertiveness, and pulling and tugging in the dirt erupt into chaos?”

To me, this was a big, long unsupervised recess period.

I waited and watched, and chaos didn’t happen!


Two latecomers, 7-year-old Shamia and 13-year-old Jamil, arrived on the scene. They both acknowledged the adults with a quick greeting and then went to play. Each approached several groups, apparently trying out friendships and activities before deciding to commit. Shamia ended up jumping rope, and Jamil played ball.

I am curious about how children and adolescents create, manage, and regulate their own spaces and positively resolve conflicts away from the watchful eyes of adults.

How do children and adolescents select, manage, and motivate themselves to direct their own play, work, and conversations without direction and with minimum intervention or surveillance by adults during play and hanging out? 

My work as a Developmental Designs practitioner gives me insight into this question.

Developmental Designs practices are built on the understanding that adolescents learn best by constructing their own understanding and knowledge through exploration, discovery, and application.

These ideas have been studied and are supported through the work of educational theorists, such as Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner, Deci: we learn best when our activity matches our skill level and interests, while having an element of challenge.

Developmental Designs lesson planning includes activities, experiences, and individual work options to meet learning goals and targets. When lessons are well designed, students, like the adolescents at the barbeque, can become managers of their own learning. They can learn to cruise the classroom, try out learning activities, assess their skill-set and interests, and land at an activity that fits them.

The more teachers practice constructing high-interest lessons and meaningful small-group and individual learning activities, the more all students become interested in their own questions, their own improvement, and their own learning. 

Dr. Terrance Kwame-Ross is the former Executive Director for The Origins Program. He teaches at the University of Minnesota and previously taught in the St. Paul Public Schools. He co-founded and served as principal for four years at New City Charter School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Posted July 2014

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