Student Choice

As I work through the “8 things to look for in Today’s Classroom” from George Couros, “Choice” is one of those that we might immediately consider more difficult than some of the others – especially if we are teaching a prescribed curriculum, or an prescribed course, with a text book, a time schedule and an external exam on a given date in May! I’m not going to say it’s easy, or that I know how to suddenly infuse your course with CHOICEs – that’s for you to consider. What I do understand however is the fact that when students have choices they are more engaged, and when they are engaged, learning becomes more effective. I did originally write “learning becomes easier” here, but many times it doesn’t.

Engagement doesn’t make learning EASIER! From a personal perspective, when I am engaged I’m prepared to struggle with my learning for a lot longer than when I’m not. I tend to persevere more. Through this willingness to persevere I learn more. The learning isn’t any easier. In fact, because I am prepared to persevere more it would be fair to say that in some respects the learning is harder, or at least there’s more struggle.

So coming back to Choice…

From an institutional perspective, some schools do a better job of allowing Student Choice to permeate their school culture than others. Some schools allow students to choose their high school courses, to fit into a set schedule. Others have flexibility in scheduling and can allow some degree of student choice in timing of when they take those classes throughout the day. Some schools opt for a “no uniform” policy and allow students to choose what they wear to school. Others don’t. Some larger schools allow students to choose which teacher they want when there are multiple sections of a course. And then there are graduation requirements that guide student choices for extra-curricular, sporting, cultural, service and other activities. While these institutional level choices are important, the more critical arena for student choice is the classroom.

If you work in a classroom (note I didn’t say “Are in charge of a classroom”), here are some questions to ponder:

  • If you drew up a pie chart titled “Teacher Choice – Student Choice”, how would the two sections of the pie compare in size? Have you thought about how you might be able to make the Student Choice slice bigger?
  • When you are designing an assessment task, how do students get to choose?
  • When you are planning a unit of instruction and are considering learning activities, how is student choice built into the planning?
  • When students take notes in your class, do they get to choose how they take their notes?
  • When an assessment task is finally assessed/marked/graded, do your students get to choose their result/grade/mark (self assess)?

Alfie Kohn, in his September 1993 article, “Choices for Children – Why and How to let Students Decide” put it pretty bluntly when he wrote,

“Much of what is disturbing about students’ attitudes and behaviour may be a function of the fact that they have little to say about what happens to them all day. They are compelled to follow someone else’s rules, study someone else’s curriculum, and submit continually to someone else’s evaluation. The mystery, really, is not that so many students are indifferent about what they have to do in school but that any of them are not.”

If you have some time to read through the whole Alfie Kohn article it is well worth the time! If not, at least begin to consider how you might be able to introduce more student choice into your classroom. Alfie Kohn suggests possible starting places when he writes, “The four key realms in which students can make academic decisions are what, how, how well, and why they learn” and goes on to expand upon these ideas.

The FacultyFocus.com article titled, “A Role for Student Choice in Assessment” takes the idea of “how” and “how well” and challenges the idea of prescribed assessment tasks, suggesting,

“rather than a teacher mandated sequence of assignments, students are presented with assignment options and they decide which ones they will complete. Or, students do all the teacher selected assignments but determined what percentage of the grade each assignment is worth. Lots of variations are possible. In my graduate course on college teaching, students completed all five assignments, with each being worth 10 percent of their grade. I gave students the other 50% of their grade and let them divvy up that amount between the assignments.”

While I am not advocating every teacher suddenly creates an assessment buffet for students to help themselves from, it does help us to rethink something that possibly has been considered un-rethink-able. Again, the whole article is well worth a read (and is a bit shorter than the Alfie Kohn article).

In summary, engagement is critical for deep learning, and giving students choices in the what, the how, the how well and the why of learning can only serve to increase engagement.

References:

George Couros. “8 Things to Look For in Today’s Classroom.The Principal of Change. 08 Jan. 2013. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.

Alfie Kohn. “Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide (*) – Alfie Kohn.Alfie Kohn. PHI DELTA KAPPAN, Sept. 1993. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.

Maryellen Weimer, PhD. “A Role for Student Choice in Assessment? – Faculty Focus. Faculty Focus. 2011. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.