I was thinking today about the choices we give students. When I look at my classroom through the eyes of a student, what would I see in terms of my personal choice? How many times during the day could I offer my unique perspectives, an answer that isn’t exactly what the teacher wants? Some days I think it could be very challenging in school to just have no opinions. Yet, so many of our students experience this very thing on a daily basis; moving from class to class with only notes to write, questions to answer and results to find.
My hope is that you looked at the title of this post and could easily list off the ways your students are able to take charge of their learning, how they can make their learning count in every minute of your class. If you aren’t there yet, maybe there are some ways to integrate student choice into your learning environment.
Create an independent choice project
As a high school English teacher, I often felt constrained by the requirements of curriculum to teach and follow certain texts. Not a great deal of choice right? What I found is that there was more there than I had considered. Not only could I vary how a student approached the text, but I could also vary the required outcome. So though I as the teacher may have wanted a certain learning outcome associated with each project, sometimes the students were better at choosing what was important about each project for themselves. As long as they knew the overall outcomes for the course, flexibility in the response was a worthwhile expression of their autonomy. Often it meant that they would complete assignments that they didn’t want to in order to get to do what they had a strong desire to work on.
Make choice part of the process
Even if there isn’t an immediate method to create choice in the content of the project; solicit initial thoughts, beliefs and feedback in the introduction, feedback loops or review of an assignment. Often there are ways to give students choice in their manner of responding to their learning, if we take the time to do it. Think about the things that seem most resistant to giving students choice, those items that require direct instruction or monitoring perhaps. Even giving the students a moment to speak about what they feel about that learning process can be beneficial. As an adult learner, I know that time to reflect on my learning with someone else is often as useful to keeping me involved in the learning as if I were doing the steering of the learning myself. Better yet if that feedback is collected and has some impact in the learning process.
Making choices allows us to feel a little more in control of our learning process, and can ultimately be the difference between what a student “Had to do,” at school versus what they “Got to do.” I’m always hopeful as a teacher and a parent that the latter perspective is the one that the students in my life are able to experience.
Change is hard. In education, it can be downright terrifying. As teachers, we pride ourselves on routine and having the answers for everything. Often, a focus on routine means sticking to very specific types of teaching, assignments and assessments. This can certainly make teaching more expedient and manageable, but I would argue that by introducing change, we often have the opportunity to make education better. We give students a chance to experience different ways, new experiences, and some of that ever-vaulted creativity we are looking to instill in burgeoning minds.
I have changed enough in my practice and worked with enough teachers to know that you can’t change everything right away, nor should you. Many of our practices are good, and are rooted in excellent pedagogy. So start with something you’ve never been 100% sold on, something that doesn’t feel excellent when you teach it. When I first did this, I found that I was so excited to get rid of the part of the course I felt was weak, the excitement got me halfway through the work it took to redesign it.
But what to do with it? That’s another challenge that teachers face when dealing with the unknown. While there are enough theories and ideas out there to make your head spin, I would suggest picking something one of your peers is doing or has already done. There is strength in experience, and you can always learn more about new techniques, but having someone who has already ‘walked the walk’ will give you a place to turn when inevitable challenges arise. If you are having trouble with ideas or there is no one around to help, visit my contact page and drop me a line. Supporting teachers is what I do, and I am always willing to support as I can. If you really have no inkling of how you’d like to change, check out Twitter, or some my previous posts such as: Creating a Buzz in your Classroom, Project-Based Learning: Writing a Classroom Novel. Also, if there is a post on a topic you are interested in that you would like to request, please do so through the contact page! There will be more ideas and inspiration forthcoming!
I had the pleasure of being asked by Jonathan Mugan if I would give his new book The Curiosity Cycle a read and possibly a review on this blog. I was glad to oblige, any book that deals with children’s curiosity was something I am willing to take a look at. I’m not sure if I would have come across Jonathan’s book in my regular travels, but I am certainly glad I had the opportunity to read it. First off, this is not an education exclusive book by a long shot. In fact, many teachers I know would intuitively teach in many of the ways Mugan describes in the book. Teachers are innovative individuals, and curiosity is at the heart of what many excellent teachers do.
One of the greatest traits of The Curiosity Cycle is that it is written in an accessible manner for parents. In fact, the main audience is parents, and how to inspire a lifelong learner in your own home. By knowing how curiosity works, a parent can ‘tune in’ to the way a child’s mind works and guide him or her to fill in knowledge gaps and extend their curiosity forward. This is an excellent image to keep in mind when interacting with children; and if you do, it quickly becomes apparent how spot-on Mugan’s perspective is.
While I’d never really thought of curiosity as a cycle of filling in unknowns, Mugan does an excellent job of finding concrete examples of how this happens in a young mind. This process of leading the reader through examples and then analysis of the cycle, shows the depth to which Mugan has obviously analyzed and thoughtfully presented the concept of creating and testing mental theories, developing new ones and filling in the gaps of knowledge. This is where his book becomes a great resource for teachers, because as you consider in your learning plans how a child’s mind may be inspired to learn more and seek completion of the theory they are working with, you may find your lessons become more engaging and focused on the inquiry of the students. At least I found mine did.
I am so happy that Jonathan reached out to me, and I feel I am that much better of a father and teacher for reading his book. I realize the summer reading times are behind us now, but The Curiosity Cycle is a quick and easy read, one that I fully recommend.