Garnet Hillman is an instructional coach at Caruso Middle School in Illinois. Also a writer and presenter, she consults around the country on assessment, grading, and student motivation.

Avoiding the Joystick and Giving Control to Students

My husband is a soccer coach for two groups of adolescent boys (ages 10–14), and a common struggle he faces are the parents who like to coach from the sidelines during the games. They want to help position the players and tell them what they think should be happening. He likens this to the videogames where a joystick controls everything on the screen. The parents are trying to be helpful and guide their children on the field, but this practice can actually stunt the growth of the player. The players need to hone their decision-making skills on the field, make mistakes, and recover from them. They need to learn how to work as a team and talk to each other on the pitch. This isn’t to say that coaching doesn’t happen throughout the game, but my husband chooses those moments carefully, and the coaching becomes a conversation on the sideline. Do the kids make some mistakes? Clearly, the answer is yes. Could a mistake cost the team a goal or cause them to lose a game? Yes again. Is there a chance to improve and correct the problem in future games? Absolutely.

If players are waiting to be told what to do on the field, the learning becomes passive. The more they are told exactly what to do, the more they rely on it. Why make the hard choices for yourself, when someone else will do it? Why try something on your own with the worry it isn’t what an adult would have suggested? Just like the players on the soccer field, students in the classroom do not benefit when every movement is managed by the teacher. There are times when the teacher must lead and guide the students, and others when a step back is the best decision so students can take the reins.

I have seen kids get nervous on the field when they are waiting for guidance and are scared to make the wrong move. I have seen this mirrored in the classroom, where students grow fearful when asked to make decisions. To be honest, learning how to make decisions is very difficult work. Many students would rather wait for the teacher to tell them what to do and how to do it. I had students like this in my classroom—the ones who wanted to know exactly what to do to please the teacher. When I told them they had to make some of their own decisions, it was not always met with excitement or enthusiasm. Some loved the freedom that this afforded. Others persistently pushed back, asking, “Will you just tell me what you want?”

Why do teachers make so many of the decisions in the classroom? The first answer that comes to mind is time. We feel there is no time to pause and allow the students to make choices. If students make a poor choice, we don’t have time to go back and recover. Additionally, the status quo of education that has spanned for decades dictates a teacher-centered classroom. The teacher is “in charge” of the room, which conveys that he or she needs to make the decisions. In reality, teachers are still in charge of their rooms when students are provided opportunities to choose. When the choice is handed over to the students, the teacher allows for a valuable learning experience. That is our job as educators—to create the environment most conducive to learning for our students.

We aspire for students to develop self-efficacy. “Efficacy requires both belief (‘I have the capacity’) and action (‘I will take the risks, even though failure is a possibility’).” (Erkens, Schimmer, Vagle, 2017) We want them to have confidence in their choices, knowing that they won’t always be the best ones, but that they have strategies to recover when mistakes are made. When students strive to be perfect, remind them that learning is never perfect. When mistakes are made and students want to disengage, sit down and set goals together.

Results? In the classroom, kids produce work I couldn’t have imagined myself. They don’t have a ceiling for their work. They learn how to make decisions. When they fail, it is an opportunity to learn, rather than a moment of disappointment. On the soccer field, according to my husband, kids learn how to respond to varying game situations on their own. Without the joystick, kids develop the skills necessary to find success on their own. We are here to support, not to control. We are here ask the tough questions, not to answer all of them.



Erkens, C., Schimmer, T., & Vagle, N. D. (2017). Essential assessment: six tenets for bringing hope, efficacy, and achievement to the classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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  1. Kathy Renfrew

    What a great post! I think it is a post every teacher should read. We need to provide our students with opportunities to think, to grapple with problems. Only through productive struggle (with appropriate scaffolding) will students blossom, learn and grow. As we move towards proficiency based, personalized education, students will be taking the reins, making more decisions for themselves and becoming more responsible for their own learning. And that helps move students toward a goal of becoming a lifelong learner.

  2. Laurie Sammons

    Excellent analogy !!! Thank you for your thoughtful post !!!


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