As a kid, all I wanted was independence. I knew what I wanted and I went for it, even though it was hard for my parents to not feel needed. It started as young as single digits, wanting to explore the grocery store on my own (My Mom really enjoyed that one - sorry, Mom). At some point in my education, I developed the ability to make choices for myself and that empowered me to go out and take risks as I got older.
You've all heard the term "helicopter parenting" before, but really, children are policed and directed in every aspect of their life these days. They never get the opportunity to really make choices for themselves. A classroom or learning space is the best place to experiment and take risks! As a teacher, I encourage mistakes as opportunities for growth. I have a harder time convincing the parents than the students that it is OKAY TO FAIL. I reassure them that I am a safety net and that when they make a mistake, and they will, I am here to support and guide them, but that it is so important that they learn to make mistakes! More on independence in the classroom in a future post... I digress.
Ultimately, we want students to feel that they spend some time in the driver's seat when it comes to their learning. They are told what to do ALL THE TIME. From the moment they wake up, until the moment they go to sleep, they are ushered through life, minute by minute. They have no autonomy, no empowerment and no choice in what or how they learn. We then expect them to develop critical thinking skills and executive functioning skills for their futures and we look shocked when they've arrived to university and plummet to a puddle of anxiety and panic.
Here are the things students cannot control:
- the curriculum: you have to learn what you have to learn!
- their grade: unless you are in a unique circumstance for your child or are in a flexible learning school, your grade is likely determined by your age
- the necessity of being in school: legally, it's not a choice. sorry, kid.
Here are the things students CAN or in this case, SHOULD control:
- how to present their knowledge*: written, oral, artistic, tech-based, media, independent, collaborative, etc. Students can choose how to show what they know, or be given multiple opportunities to show their learning in different ways!
*With limits - students shouldn't ALWAYS work alone or ALWAYS with a partner or ALWAYS do art, etc.
- the order in which they do things: For certain tasks, you can provide all the tools and have them complete the pieces in whichever order they want, as long as they complete everything by the given deadline! I like to use choice boards for this (they work great for larger projects such as novel studies or social studies units)
- how they learn*: Students can explore material in a variety of ways after they learn which ways they learn best! If the educator provides material through video, a textbook, and a presentation/slideshow, the student can choose their preferred method of learning.
*With limits - students need to learn how to extract information from a variety of places! They should be practicing all of these skills throughout the year.
Choice can be used to motivate a struggling student, or build independence in children who have a good handle on their academics already.
Motivating a Struggling Student
I once had a student who hated writing more than anything else on Earth. Actually, the only thing he hated more than the act of writing was being told to write by a teacher. I knew I needed to use choice to help him decide to write on his terms, because otherwise it was not going to happen! We started small with attainable goals and I would let him choose to write on a topic of his interest. In this case, it was building and Lego. I would give him the choice - three words now, a short break and two words later OR five words now and five minutes of Lego time. He could do it alone or with help. He could choose in pencil or pencil crayon. I didn't give him all of these choices all the time, I liked to keep it simple and direct. Either way, I got five words out of him. Not writing five words was not a choice and any attempt at that option had a natural consequence. No matter what, I had to follow through on the choices I provided, no matter the protest! If he completed the five words, he got his Lego time, even if it went into my recess break. He needed to know that I meant what I said. Ultimately, he chose how he completed the task but there was no choice NOT to complete it. Him having the choice made him feel empowered to take control over his learning, even if it was something he didn't enjoy. It was a win-win!
You can use choice to motivate learners who are struggling because the struggle makes them lose confidence, and the element of choice brings them back to the driver's seat. They gain power, which leads to motivation, which leads to success and engagement, which makes them more motivated to keep trying! It's a positive cycle and it is worth the small tweak in the way you present a task to a student.
Building Independence in Successful Students
We all have the student who races to finish first. She just gets it. Whatever topic you throw at them, whatever the task, she's always the first one lined up at your desk with her paper haphazardly filled in (not necessarily completed perfectly, but done nonetheless). She is never the kid who you need to explain an instruction twice to. However, she is the one that you always need to send back to give you MORE, to extend her thinking, to dig deeper.
Adding in the element of choice is great for these students, too! Providing flexible time in the classroom or learning environment allows them to reflect on the areas they need to be working on. Using a choice board or a weekly hour of flexible skill practice is a great way to have student's control what they spend their time on.
A choice board or menu is kind of like a bingo board of activities for a unit or topic. You can set the limits (give point values and expect a minimum number of points by the end, or a minimum number of activities from each section, etc.). Students can complete it at their own pace and in whichever order they choose, but it has a deadline at the end. I like to do check-ins throughout, and I use a feedback form to document the check-in and the comments I gave them.
In my classroom, I started doing something called W.I.N. Time (Whatever I Need Time). It was similar to a Daily 5 Literacy Program, where the students had options such as Word Work, Reading Goals, Keyboarding Practice, Spelling, Grammar, Work on Writing, etc. They would come up to the Smartboard table by table and move their name to an open spot on the board. They needed to choose a task that reflected an area they needed to work on, and not just one that seemed fun.
The limitations and considerations:
- To keep students fresh, no activity could be done more than 2 consecutive weeks in a row
- Timer on the board to let students know how long they have (you can do 20, 30, 45 mins...do whatever works in your week!)
- Each week, a different table started the choosing in order to keep things fair among the students (my students came up with this idea!)
- Unfinished work from the week needed to be completed before any W.I.N. Time activity was started
- Teacher Time was an option I kept available to work with students for reading support or extra practice on a concept from class (teacher-chosen). I would put their names under Teacher Time before putting the board up for selection
- Initially takes a lot of setup and practice of clear expectations to get it going in the classroom, but once it's solid, the kids LOVE it!
Choice builds empowerment. Empowerment builds motivation! See if there are ways you can bring the element of choice into your day.