The ability to say no

StuckMike Crowley had a wonderful blog post the other day about the need for self-care and giving educators permission to say ‘no’ instead of jeopardizing their professional efficacy or mental health. Vicki Davis also wrote recently about the need for educators to say no, which then frees up space for them to say yes to other things that are important to them. Both are thoughtful posts and I agree with everything they said.


Our students almost never get to say no. 

Students rarely get to say:

  • ‘No, I don’t have time for that class assignment in my life. I’m too busy over here instead.’
  • ‘No, I don’t want to stay cooped up in this classroom. I need to stretch my legs and get some sunshine and fresh air.’
  • ‘No, I don’t think that worksheet is worth my attention today. My learning time would be better spent doing this.’
  • ‘No, I don’t want to read the assigned novel and talk about it for the next month. I feel like that kills my interest in reading.’
  • ‘No, my time for the next hour would be better spent recharging and taking care of myself. My energy level is low and I’m exhausted.’
  • ‘No, I don’t want to put away my smartphone. It’s a powerful resource and I want to use it to further my learning.’
  • ‘No, I don’t want to work on that project in that way. I’d like to do it this way instead.’
  • ‘No, I don’t want to sit still and be quiet for 48 minutes. That’s not the most conducive learning environment for me.’
  • ‘No, I don’t believe that the assigned homework furthers my learning much. I think I’ll pass.’
  • ‘No, the best thing for me right now is not to work on that, it’s to reconnect with people who care about me and refresh my mind and spirit. I’ll do that later.’
  • ‘No, I’m not interested in taking that class or subject that’s required for graduation. I’m interested in learning more about this.’
  • ‘No, I don’t want to read out of the textbook and answer some questions. I’d rather find a video on that. I learn better that way.’
  • ‘No, I don’t want to take that quiz or test. I want to show my learning in this manner.’
  • ‘No, I don’t want to march through 8 different class periods. I want to focus deeply on this one thing for the next few days.’

And so on…

Many of us are talking about the need for schools to provide greater ‘student agency.’ But true agency doesn’t exist when we only give our students limited choices within whatever constrained parameters we decide to allow them. True agency only exists when we respect students as human beings and treat them as authentic partners who are able to exercise control and ownership of their own learning drivers, processes, and products: the what, how, when, where, with whom, and WHY around their learning. True agency also only exists when students have meaningful input into things that are important, not just tokenistic, inauthentic, powerless participation opportunities.

Want to know who has true agency in a school? See who has the ability to say no.

See also

Image credit: stuck, madamepsychosis

6 Responses to “The ability to say no”

  1. Hey, school leaders and policymakers, teachers would like the ability to say ‘no’ too…

    – to scripted and other inflexible curricula
    – to inane PD
    – to daily schedules that barely leave them time to go the bathroom
    – to blame for everything that’s wrong in society
    – to ridiculous ‘accountability’ mandates
    – to the denigration of the profession
    – to the hubris of non-educators who think they know best
    – to …

  2. I’ve had colleagues who’ve tried giving students choice (well, a step towards ‘no’) and given up because student flailed around helplessly when given any kind of option. The problem, of course, is that the students had spent years in a no-options system, so literally could not believe that they were being given a genuine option now. They looked for the trick and tried to choose the ‘correct’ option but because there wasn’t one correct answer, suffered stress. I solved that problem for my class by learning to always have one option labeled “default’ so if they didn’t feel like taking risks or putting in effort of choosing, their route was clear. Solves it, and lets real optionality occur.

    I’m guessing the same is needed for allowing them a ‘no’. A lot of the ‘no’ options sound kind of like trick questions: “Would you like to hand this assignment in tomorrow, or take a 10% cut per day late?” We ask them to manage their time, but then don’t give them time with which to manage. “Would you like to put your smartphone away or visit the principal’s office”? How about instead, they choose some goals and their own strategies to meet them? No to worksheets, unless they’re one of the % of kids that worksheets really work for (Kumon makes them work–why can’t we?) but not insist that every kid fill in every worksheet just so we can have some desk time and some workproduct to show administrators and parents. (If a kid who did the five hardest examples on the worksheet, showed that mastery of the concept, what possible point is there in insisting they go back and do the other 25 earlier, easier examples?

    • William Glasser and Alfie Kohn have written quite a bit about the fake choices we give children.

      Yes, if you’ve been socialized into a ‘just tell me what to do’ model for years and years, it’s very hard to all of a sudden be responsible for one’s choices. There needs to be some scaffolding and supports and gradual release for students if schools are to take student agency seriously.

  3. Students are just that STUDENTS! They must follow the rules of society as all of the other students before them. If students were allowed to say “NO” when they wanted to, the students would be running the schools.. We all know how that will turn out. Students need to be students so that teachers can be teachers. Kids today already have too much power and it is not making education better-but worse. I agree that some changes are good. The teacher must remain the leader in the classroom if the students are to learn what is essential for the competitive society we live in.

    • Birdy, there are easily hundreds of schools in America – and thousands of schools worldwide – that have proven over and over again that students can exercise learning agency quite responsibly and don’t need to be helpless pawns of adult educators and school systems.

      Also, in democratic schools, students do a great job of ‘running the schools.’

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