How Much Is Too Much Freedom in the Classroom?


Riding the bucking bronco

When I was in high school we had a freedom loving student. His mind was always somewhere else far away from his studies. It was usually riding bucking broncos at the rodeo. In fact his desire to run on the wild side was so strong that we would dare him to jump out of the the second story art room. If you were downstairs you would often see him fly by your classroom window onto the ground. He must have been good at it because he never got hurt. We thought he was invincible.

Of course I’m not suggesting you let your ESL/EFL students jump out of a two story building without a parachute! And it’s not because they don’t make students as hardy as they used to. it’s because you, or your school, might get sued!

What I am suggesting is that you nurture your student’s dreams and passions; allow these into your classroom and your curriculum. It will enrich your life, your content and the knowledge of the other students.  

Of course you can’t substitute students’ preferred content for what you are asked to teach. I’m only suggesting for you to find ways to integrate what students love. For example, in our art class, instead of making all the students draw the same still-life arrangement, the teacher might have asked our daring cowboy to explain what a dream saddle could mean for a cowboy.

This would have validated the wayward student’s personal interests. The teacher could have asked the whole class to draw a magic dream saddle to keep a cowboy in the saddle; our cowboy could have shared his interests; the teacher could have learned a lot about saddles; the drawing aims for the class (perspective, shading, contour composition) would still have been met.   

Every student is unique, different from every other student in the world.

Different fingers, same hand

Shift your consciousness for a minute and imagine that your purpose isn’t to teach, but to learn? 

What can you learn from every student in the classroom? They may not all be geniuses, but they’re all goldmines or challenges. With no pre-conceived ideas, you can only learn. 

A little freedom can make or break a student; their hidden messages are there for nurturing, healing or validating. That can be more valuable than what textbooks are offering.  

Balance: therein lies the challenge!

Of course, your class isn’t a therapy class. Its main purpose is to teach what you are hired to teach. That means you won’t be teaching horseback riding in an art class! But incorporating some freedom for individual interests will nurture unfulfilled needs or ignite the passions of your students. All classrooms need some of this type of freedom, even an ESL/EFL classroom. 

There are times when you can allow freedom and times when you can’t. You just have to know the difference. You can tilt the scale in favor of freedom but not so far as to compromise your teaching content or the sensibilities of the whole group. 


Allow conversation to flow freely with minimal interference; let topics morph into each other as long as students are engaged and participating. Check five essential tips for freedoms and restraints for conversation classes.

There are more restraints for  beginners who can be given freedom but only within more structured learning constraints. In all cases, advanced or beginners, apply the following guidelines for conversation:

1-Make sure a few students don’t monopolize the conversation
2-Make sure that the opinions and viewpoints of all the students are included and respected
3-Make sure bad language or insults are not allowed. If students disagree let them do so in a respectful manner.  

Provide a large variety of reading material, as a reward for students who have finished their classwork.  The space allotted for this should be comfortable and aesthetic. The reading topics are not important as long as they are slightly challenging and well written. The goal is developing  a passion for reading which will improve comprehension and build vocabulary by default. Check this reading post for more tips. 

Restraints for reading depend on the academic demands of the program which may provide lessons designed for building academic vocabulary, reading comprehension and sample texts that simulate tests student may be required to take at the end of the term. Their purpose is to advance students academically and increase eligibility for scholarships or universities. You cannot compromise these aims. However, your allotted pleasure reading time can be used to scaffold your academic aims.

Having students report on what they read for pleasure will enhance reading comprehension. Reports can include providing a ‘vocabulary’ list for the class and creating quizzes about the report for other students to take. You can also reward charts or visuals they provide with presentations. 

Students need as much freedom as possible to choose writing topics. Writing about topics that are interesting to them, will increase motivation. They should also be encouraged to keep a personal journal and or a classroom journal.

Writing restraints are only limited by accuracy and putting their thoughts down in the correct format. This may mean writing their ideas in different formats: essay (different types), narratives (first or third person), dialogues (question and answer). Choose a format and allow freedom with topics. Students can express their interests within your guidelines. 

The classroom is like a small reflection of life where there is a constant play between freedom and restraint. You need enough restraint to be autonomous and function within society and enough freedom to love what you are doing and remain motivated.

Without motivation you will be defeating your own purpose in the long run.  if you want to create lifelong learners, their autonomy is vital as human beings and as part of educated citizens in a global world. 

Insure freedom of expression and style without sacrificing your learning aims?  


One thought on “How Much Is Too Much Freedom in the Classroom?

  1. Milton

    Your suggestions are t inspiring – hope I can implement them all. MK

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