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The Rise of Hover-Free Teaching: Creating a Student-Driven Classroom

I used to be afraid to let any tiny detail of instruction go unattended. Each daily agenda was overfilled so that not one minute of instructional time would be unstructured. If students went off on tangents during our whole-group discussions, I would steer them firmly back to the topic at hand. When they asked to do things differently, from creating a project in an alternate medium to having a few minutes to process information on their own, my answer was almost always no. It wasn’t until I gradually learned about the magic of student-centered learning that my entire approach to teaching shifted, paving the way for methods that are far more flexible, responsive and effective.

In Teach More, Hover Less (W.W. Norton & Company), I present the four stages of what I call “hover-free” instruction: mindset shifts, reframing relationships, planning for engagement, and choice-based instruction. These stages guide readers through the process of letting go of “helicopter” teaching and achieving an instructional model that relies on both teachers and students to be leaders of learning. While the stages can be approached sequentially for anyone who wishes to implement a student-centered classroom, they work in harmony to paint the bigger picture of an environment that is free of micromanagement.

Stage #1: Mindset Shifts

When teachers enter the profession, the core beliefs we hold about education are not a fixed point. As the years pass and experiences and expectations change, our mindsets undergo a metamorphosis. When it comes to achieving a “hover-free” classroom, one key question is whether we believe that all students can learn without our constant interference. If so, do our actions support our words? If not, how can we course-correct to repair a dissonance between what we say and what we do? In Chapter 2 of Teach More, Hover Less, readers have the opportunity to take a “Mindset Quiz” and engage with several other self-reflective tools to determine how heavily they control what occurs in their classrooms. For example, one “mindset myth” that teachers often hold is that students cannot determine their own learning needs. To challenge that idea, when we ask students what they still need to get better at, the answers teachers receive are typically right on the mark. By identifying assumptions we have held true for years without thinking much about their implications and considering another pathway, the journey to creating a student-centered classroom begins to crystallize. 

Stage #2: Reframing Relationships

I used to think that building relationships with students was about knowing who they were as people, so I put a lot of energy into discovering likes and dislikes, or talking about common points of interest like popular shows or trends. While prioritizing rapport is incredibly important, personal connections only get teachers so far in creating a “hover-free” classroom built on mutual trust. The rest of the equation is about how safe students feel sharing their ideas in an academic space that values their identity as learners and scholars. When students speak up, the reaction they get from everyone around them is key. If a child shares a thought and the teacher moves on right away without much of a response, even that seemingly harmless move can be discouraging because it sends the message that the comment was unworthy of time or attention. In such a case, the teacher usually has a specific or ideal answer in mind, but that can be a counterproductive way to conduct class. On the other hand, if the teacher pauses and gives the response (no matter how correct or incorrect) the consideration that every contribution deserves, the student will feel validated. All people need to know that their thoughts hold value, and the only way to ensure student achievement is to nurture their academic identities by clearly letting them know that we appreciate their participation in our classes.

Stage #3: Planning for Engagement

Even in the hands of the most skillful teachers, it is hard (if not impossible) to engage all students on a consistent basis, all the time. Having said that, one way to increase involvement in course content is not as elusive as one might suppose. When teachers plan lessons, students are understandably left out of the equation. After all, they’re not certified instructional experts. However, with certain limits, students can be pulled into the planning process, building both their capacity to understand the “why” behind lesson outcomes and their investment in the class. For example, asking just a few questions before making final decisions about a unit plan can yield remarkable dividends. Chapter 3 of Teach More, Hover Less includes a form that students can fill out. On the form, the teacher identifies a learning target for the upcoming weeks. Then, students answer questions about how much they already know about the topic, what types of activities they find most or least helpful, and how they might wish to showcase their progress. Once the teacher has this feedback, it is much easier to plan responsively to meet student needs, rather than guessing at what they might find useful.  

Stage #4: Choice-Based Instruction 

Once we become adults, we tend to forget how few choices we had as children. Think about it: children are told when (and often what) to eat, how to behave, and what their schedule looks like for each day. In school, their options are usually just as limited, and not just in the classes they take, but also in how they are permitted to work. While choice cannot be provided to students every minute of each day, expanding their horizons by allowing more autonomy makes a huge difference. Suppose a history class is working on a research project built around the theme of resistance. If the project has a non-negotiable product, like an accompanying paper or slideshow, then students need to complete the work as requested. But if the learning outcome is built on demonstrating ideas rather than delivering them a specific way, students might enjoy the opportunity to present their work in a variety of ways, such as through a visual art medium or by recording a mock podcast. When and where they can, teachers who provide students with the chance to learn in ways that are most meaningful to them (as demonstrated in this excerpt from the book) are far more likely to be met with a classroom full of students who are invested in their own academic growth. 

Letting go of “helicopter” teaching doesn’t have to be complicated. With consistent experimentation and implementation of the four stages of “hover-free” instruction detailed in Teach More, Hover Less: How to Stop Micromanaging Your Secondary Classroom, making the shift from teacher-directed to student-centered learning is a practical, gradual endeavor that brings a classroom community one step closer to a culture of shared responsibility for learning. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.

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Image: “Courtesy of W.W. Norton and Company”