Meddling In the Middle: A Role for Teachers in the 21st Century

Raylene Olinger

Over the course of my career, classrooms have become increasingly student-centered. In full realization of the access we all have to an enormous body of information, teachers have been called to move from a position of the holder of knowledge to one who facilitates students finding their own answers and solving their own problems. This has created a shift in which teachers move from imparting knowledge and wisdom to creating the conditions in which students can be successful owners of their own learning. This does not mean that the teacher is a passive participant in the classroom; to the contrary, great teachers are architects of the learning experience. As such, they approach each day with a clear learning purpose, create the conditions for meaningful learning experiences, and help students find relevance and meaning on the way to addressing required standards.

I recently read an article which expanded my thinking of the role of the teacher in classrooms. In Personally Significant Learning, author Erica McWilliam issues a call for teachers to create learning experiences that encourage students to be self-managing learners. One of her primary tenets is that the ability for students to learn is more important than the knowledge they possess. She mentions several times the need for agility within their knowledge base. This implies that students will be able to apply their learning in different ways and that within the classroom students may be on different trajectories. While this type of classroom environment is not a free-for-all, it certainly would seem to require a different set of conditions than some classrooms of the past.

In order to balance the requirements to meet a set of standards, yet help students construct their learning in personally relevant ways, it is critical for teachers to make learning intentions very clear. Students have a greater chance of engaging with and owning their learning in meaningful ways if we as teachers have given them something to own. By setting clear goals and creating an understanding of what success looks like, students can move towards being self-managing learners because they are clear about their learning and can measure their own progress. It is essential that students be given the opportunity to grow more comfortable with academic risk, and to learn to persist through ambiguity and failure. In this environment, teachers neither occupy the “Sage on the Stage” or the “Guide on the Side” orientation. Instead, they work alongside students in constructing knowledge as a “Meddler in the Middle”. They create tasks that could be considered low-threat, high challenge. Failure is considered an opportunity to learn as opposed to earning a poor grade. Furthermore, every student can find an entry point for the task, yet the task is challenging enough for all; the essence of low floor, high ceiling tasks. For more information on low floor, high ceiling tasks for math, see our list of Summit Math Grant resources in the SEED PAK.

To this end, teachers will need to be given the opportunity to be as agile in their own professional learning. They need to be afforded the opportunity to update and learn new strategies in ways that are as personally relevant as the tasks they create for students. Professional learning will need to provide an application to the individual context and be based on teachers’ needs to better serve their students. Generic, one-size-fits-all professional development needs to be replaced with learning experiences that allow teachers to develop expertise that can be shared with others and adapted to various contexts.  

If being a “Meddler in the Middle” is a new label to me, it is not a brand-new idea. In my own learning experience both in and out of school, there were certainly those who set the stage for authentic problem solving and personally relevant learning.  I have fond memories of those teachers who “rolled up their sleeves” to help me solve the problem of a leather project gone awry or starting a fire in a snowbank. For today’s students, my own children included, I hope for them to be given the opportunity to explore personally relevant learning, persist through challenge and failure, and become more agile in their use of knowledge. This is the same hope I have for their teachers.


Byrd, I. To Differentiate: Lower Floors and Raise Ceilings [web log post]. Retrieved from: February 21, 2018

Hattie, J. (2015, Feb. 27).  Learning intentions and success criteria [video file]. Retrieved from:

McWilliam, E. & Taylor, P. (2012, April 16). Personally Significant Learning [Web log post]. Retrieved from: