The gradual release of responsibility model is a social constructivist teaching strategy that promotes student competence and confidence in completing tasks.
The model is one of the key ways ‘scaffolding theory‘ (the idea that teachers provide support to students and gradually remove it over time) can be implemented by teachers.
The premise of the model is that the responsibility of a task begins with a teacher, and is slowly moved from the teacher to the student.
There are four steps to the gradual release of responsibility model:
- Modeling (I Do)
- Co-Construction (We Do)
- Facilitation (You Do)
- Independent Practice (You Do)
Below are all four steps, outlined.
Gradual Release of Responsibility in 4 Steps
1. Modeling (Focused Instruction)
In the first step, the teacher models a task or concept in front of the students as a whole group. During their modeling, the teacher should talk through the process and break it down into steps. The task should remain visible to the students at all times.
The most successful teachers during the modeling phase are those who can explain and demonstrate concepts in simple, easy-to-understand terms. Over complicating the task can lose students, while over simplifying it might do a disservice to students’ knowledge development. I like to talk through what I’m re doing out loud while modelling.
During this modeling phase, students are mostly passive learners. They observe the teacher doing the work.
However, it’s good practice to continue to gauge students’ responses throughout this step. Students might get confused, lose eye contact, and start to fidget. If this is the case, the task needs to be paused, and the teacher should break it down to even simpler steps.
In the second step, the teacher remains in control of the situation, but asks students to provide instruction and input.
Do the modeled task again, but this time ask students to tell you what comes next in each step.
So, the teacher is still the person doing the task here. But the students are the people directing the tasks in a collaborative learning style.
The teacher should be gauging how well the students can follow the steps and their levels of confusion or comprehension of the task. Students might need reminders and nudges to keep them on track.
If the co-construction task does not go well, you might need to regress to to step 1: modeling. But if you feel the students have a good general idea of how to do the task, you can now move on to the third step, where students first get a chance to do the task themselves.
3. Facilitation (Guided Instruction Phase)
In step 3, the teacher now allows students to get hands-on with the task. The students are now the active learners who are doing the task with their own hands (or minds!).
But students are not doing the task independently yet. The task still has a strong role for the teacher. The teacher leans over the students’ shoulders and asks them what to verbalize what they are doing.
The teacher could, for example:
- Ask the students to tell you what they’re doing next before they do it.
- Ask the students to talk out loud about what they’re doing as they do it.
- Ask the students to pause and reflect on what they just did (and make amendments if necessary)
Sometimes this step is done in small groups, while at other times it’s done independently. This often depends on the type of content and whether it involves independent tasks or group work.
To move on to the next step, the teacher needs to have confidence that the student is capable and confident about the task. A lot of step 3 is about allowing students to develop that confidence in a controlled and safe environment. Students need the chance to fail and get feedback before moving on to independent study.
4. Independent Practice
The final step is the independent phase. The goal in this phase is to allow students the chance to conduct and complete tasks without the teacher’s oversight. At this step, the students will go off on their own, but the teacher will be available if needed. Students who need the help will need to approach the teacher to ask for help, effectively giving them the chance to go back to step 3 for some instructional reinforcement.
Independent practice is sometimes assigned as homework and the teacher will work with the students the next day to field questions and gauge success.
The gradual release of responsibility framework is based upon social learning theory. Key links include:
Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development highlights that teachers need to create tasks that are at the right level for student learning. A task that’s too easy will bore a student, while a task that’s too hard will cause the student to give up. The goal is to ensure the task is achievable with the help of an expert ‘more knowledgeable other‘. The GRR model provides an instructional model for presenting tasks right inside this ‘optimal learning zone’.
Bruner’s scaffolding theory explains that teachers need to apply supports for students until they are capable of doing tasks on their own. This is perhaps the closest theoretical link. Scaffolding is a metaphor based on the scaffolds that builders place around buildings as they are constructing them. When the building can stand on its own, the scaffolds are withdrawn.
Piaget’s constructivist theory emphasizes the importance of “learning through doing”. This mentality is emphasized in the gradual release of responsibility model, which has as its key goal to have students do the task themselves, without teacher support.
Rogoff’s guided practice model highlights the importance of teacher guidance while students practice a task. Here ‘cognitive apprenticeship model’ overlaps significantly with the gradual release of responsibility framework.
Pros, Cons and Criticisms
This approach is very popular in schools today. Its greatest benefit is that it provides a practical way to implement theoretical ideas from social constructivism. In this sense, it’s the bridge between theory and practice.
It provides clear, step-by-step pedagogical guidance for teachers.
The model works primarily for recipe-style tasks which have clear steps and procedures. Critical thinking tasks which are messier and don’t have clear steps are much harder to model.
Furthermore, the framework presents a ‘right way’ of doing things, which is reinforced from the teacher. Such an approach does not allow students to learn through their own differentiated learning strategies or learning styles.
The gradual release of responsibility model is a step-by-step strategy that works very effectively for classroom instruction. It can be used in whole group teaching, small group learning, or even one-to-one individual instruction. It’s a central strategy that should be core to a teacher’s pedagogy, but does not represent the one and only strategy that’s perfect for all situations. Teachers still need to determine when is a good moment to use this strategy, and when to utilize another approach.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.