Should students have a choice in what they learn and what work they do? The question reminds me of sitting in the doctor’s office when I was a little kid.
Whenever I went to receive school shots as a child, I remember the doctor would always have me select from one of her two hands she held behind her back. In these hands held the fate of my morale, and somehow I had the amazing gift of consistently choosing the hand which held a square of bubble gum. (I must mention that this was around the same time that I thought I had magical powers because I could fall asleep anywhere in the house and wake up in my bed the next morning). The pain seemed to weaken with the promise of a thrilling Bazooka Joe comic. I bravely faced measles, mumps and rubella with the help of my impervious (delusional) sense of power at having just chosen the correct hand.
Reflecting on how I was given this special opportunity to choose as a child has made me think about the influence choice has on my students when brought into the classroom.
In today’s world, “choice” as a positive is contested. Even when speaking in educational terms, choice can quickly divide a room. With this said, I’m going to suggest something that I feel is a bit less controversial, although I can already imagine objections similar to my own when my parents tried to tell me they had just been carrying me to bed.
Bringing Choice into the Classroom
Over years of creating projects and assigning essays to students, I’ve noticed that when given a choice, students tend to respond more positively. I started slow – students could choose a character in Of Mice and Men and decide if they were round or flat. I started loosening my grip on the gum and allowed students to choose a creative writing project over an essay.
This year, I’ve added multiple creative writing options, an essay, or a graphic organizer presentation which must be delivered to the class at the end of the unit. I’m not surprised that more students have completed this final assessment than in any year previous.
So let’s break down the “gum” and “shots” in providing choice in assessments:
Weighing the Pros and Cons of Student Choice
1. Students take ownership over a project. (They can’t complain that it’s too difficult or too boring because they chose it.)
2. They can demonstrate their knowledge in a way they feel they can succeed in. You also get to know your student’s strengths by observing their choices.
3. As a teacher, grading diverse projects is more interesting.
4. Students are exposed to a variety of mini-lessons to support the work of the various projects.
1. Projects, while different, have to be equally rigorous and meet the goals set out at the beginning of the unit – this takes careful thought.
2. Guidelines, supports and lessons must allow students to complete any or all of the projects which takes more time.
3. Students won’t choose to stretch themselves to practice and develop new skills. Everyone practices all the skills, but each chooses one to further develop.
Despite the potential drawbacks, I find myself choosing choice more often these days, improving past projects and creating new ones. In order to make your students feel they have a say in the classroom, I suggest always having something they want in that hand behind your back.