I am currently a Grade 4 teacher, working within the IB Curriculum. This piece of writing is in part a reflection of my own practice – where I have come from, where I am, and where I want to be. I have been inspired by reading, conversation and interactions with parents, educators and students.
In short we want students to choose to learn, and to choose in order to learn. (Starnes & Paris 2000)
I was once asked to consider how much choice a student is provided with on any given day.
So, I will take this opportunity and ask that of you right now. Think about a typical day in your class or school. How much choice are your students provided with?
A deceptively easy question, which at first, I thought would be easy to answer. As I began to walk through a “normal” day for my students, I struggled to identify instances where students had choice. Immediately I could recall “choices” students make with regards to their behaviour. In this reflective process I actually hear my own voice chiming over student activity, “make good choices everyone.” But can I really say that those moments are presenting students with true, authentic choices? These days, with working at an IB World School, these behavioural choices are most often linked with the PYP Learner Profile and IB Attitudes. And while making these kinds of behavioural choices explicit is an integral part for instilling specific IB values, I was not all that convinced that these choices had a direct impact on any metacognitive skill development. Were these the kinds of choices that led to enhanced evaluative decision making skills? Do students feel they are part of a classroom culture that is inclusive and participatory? To what degree of ownership do they feel?
I continued on my quest of considering current and available choices. Green or blue paint, sandwich or pizza for lunch, what game to play at recess, etc. While I think these choices do matter (as was highlighted to me by a prior student who recounted her first week at a new school where students aren’t provided even this level of decision-making), I wasn’t sure if these choices were making an impact on students’ decision-making ability. Starnes (2000) refers to these choices as “small choices”. Choices that don’t necessarily connect with the decision-making skills students require for metacognitive learning.
So, I thought some more about my students’ day. I wasn’t feeling very triumphant about the choices my students were experiencing and I came to the conclusion that my students actually have very little choice built into their day. They arrive to school, the time table is established, I have determined the learning experiences, I set the pace, I organise groups, I sometimes even choose the seating arrangement, etc. I decided this needed to change.
When I speak of meaningful student choice, I am referring to those choices that actually have an impact on student motivation, sense of ownership, autonomy, and learning. Teachers often allow students limited choice within a very narrow range of options. In these instances, the teacher very much retains control of the learning rather than giving the control to the students, which constitutes a much bigger instructional risk. (Ritchhart, p.156)
My first experiments with choice
Must Dos Cool Dos
Over the last few years I have been modifying a way of organising my schedule through something that is called Must do Cool Dos. (Thank you Kate Morgan!) The desired outcome of this system is twofold. One, there just isn’t enough time in the day to “cover” everything. (Coverage is a whole other blog post!). Why not use some of that time before school to accomplish routine tasks? Secondly, while some students could organize the time before school, most could not and it was always a scramble starting on time. Add to this scenario, the few children who constantly come in late and miss the crucial first 5 or 10 minutes beginning of class. Mornings always appeared so inefficiently managed. And so, with a modified system of attendance (a system that students manage independently which I can then follow up on to see who is in fact at school and who is not), 15 or 20 minutes to the start of the day where the official “beginning” of the day starts (now everyone there), and a class that is settled and engaged in learning tasks, I found the stress of early morning business subdued.
On the white board I outline several Must Do tasks. These tasks are tasks I expect the students to be able to do with some degree of independence – they are often tasks that consolidate learning from the day before. I try to provide a Language A (Literacy) task and a Math task. Sometimes the Math tasks might be tiered (more choice) for certain ability levels. Students have choice in the order they do these tasks in. Sometimes I might have a few Language A tasks, in which case students must complete one but have a choice out of several options.
Once they have completed these Must Do tasks, they can move on to a Cool Do. The Cool Dos should act like an incentive to move on through the Must Dos. I have experimented over the years with how to implement the Cool Dos. My Grade 4 students can really sustain their Cool Do tasks and so I now I change the tasks every two weeks. Cool Dos can be:
- Read and reading response (students can choose from our pool of responses)
- Create a math game (connected to what we are doing in class)
- Play Chess
- A task linked to our Unit of Inquiry
- Creating writing, with or without a prompt
In the few years I have done this, students often struggle when we get this system going. Why do students have so much trouble working through these tasks? I believe one of the main reasons is that most children have never had an opportunity to authentically manage their learning in the classroom.
1. I’m not sure students have many opportunities to recognize the pace of their learning, and self-regulate their timing. For instance, at the moment where I teach, every day students have to record important notes into their agenda. In my class, when Must Dos Cool Dos are first introduced, students went from taking 5 minutes to record in their agendas (with me standing formally at the front of the classroom) to taking 20 minutes under this new system. It would be easy for me to say that they just can’t do it without me watching over them, and revert back to the initial routine. But then I would be overlooking a crucial learning experience. The learning comes out of having to monitor time using the classroom clock, estimate how long it should take to complete such a routine task, noting only the relevant details (if you aren’t on the soccer team, don’t write down the practice times!).
2. Too many tasks, they can’t get to the Cool Dos and don’t feel successful. Again, this comes back to recognizing a pace of learning. I am very cautious about this and am careful to ask their opinions after a session. Did the students feel the tasks (if managed accordingly) could be completed with the given time frame? Sometimes I might be wrong in understanding their pace. Can students recognize their own learning needs and make on the spot decisions about something that needs to change? For example, “I’ve been working on my story for 10 minutes while sitting next to my friend, but I haven’t really accomplished a lot. I need to move somewhere else.”
So, what am I doing while all of this is going on? Once it gets going and students are capable of working independently, it leaves me with some time on my hands. Instead of having the same students at my side each morning, I am free to rove around and attempt to make my time more equitable for students who, because of their more introverted nature, might not be able to gain my attention. I might take the opportunity to have a conversation with a quieter students about their weekend or a book they are reading. Find the student who I know had a ballet exam and take 5 minutes to talk to them about it. I might conference with a few students about a particular item in Math I noticed they struggled with. Or conference with my ELL students. I have used this time to conference with students on their goals or maybe other issues that have come up in class. To me this feels like authentic interactions – attending to what the students actually need on a more individual basis.
After the system is up and running I always ask them how they feel about doing things this way, and I always get a resounding thumbs up. The comment I hear most often is that students enjoy being able to choose the way in which they organise their time. Some prefer to read first, and some prefer to do their Math task first. I have used this system for a couple years, and although it is always first met with frustration because students never finish anything, once they learn their own pace and how to manage their time, they never want to go back to a situation where the whole class moves through lessons together.
I should clarify that I don’t do this every morning. I often choose a morning where I have my students for a large chunk of time, perhaps until our first recess. Normally our day would officially start at 8:45, but on Must Do Cool Do mornings I post a starting time of 9:00 or 9:10. When things are going really well I might even say 9:30. When the system works and students are equipped with the skills of managing their time, I am always astounded by what what we have accomplished as a class. I have conferenced with several groups, students have had a chance to consolidate some time on a specific skill in Math, worked on a piece of writing and maybe read for 20 minutes. If I were to do the same tasks, but as a whole class going from step to step there would be an enormous amount of time wasted in transitions, putting books away, managing the behaviour. Do I think the Must Do Cool Dos are the only way of establishing choice in the class? No. But this system of guided independence has demonstrated untapped student potential. Students are in fact quite capable of being self-directed and independently engaged learners.
Are there mornings where, as a class, not a lot of “work” gets accomplished? Yes. Do I think that there would be less time wasted with the traditional time table (first Reading, then Math, then etc.)? At times yes, particularly when I’m feeling coverage pressure. But I force myself to take more time and have these discussions with the students.
- What obstacles did you encounter today? What stopped you from getting something accomplished? How can this be changed?
Teachers often bemoan the fact that students stick to what is safe rather than taking risks. However, one must have time to take risks. When time is limited, we typically fall back into the familiar because we recognize that we might not have time to recover from a misstep born of taking a risk. (Ritchhart, p. 159)
Disadvantages to Must Dos Cool Dos
- It is set up with the frustration of an overloaded curriculum. Like I said before, the notion of “having to cover” things is a whole other blog post. I believe as educators we really need to start evaluating and questioning overloaded curriculums. Are the things we “teach” really and truly necessary?
- Must Do tasks are consolidating tasks and rarely open ended. They tend to be skill orientated (I wonder if this is connected to the above point?)
- The Cool Dos are often the more creative, open tasks we really want students to be engaged in. What about students who can’t complete the Must Dos and therefore never get to the Cool Dos?
Advantages to Must Dos Cool Dos
- Students are given a time in the day where they have to self-regulate their learning. It is only a short period of time, but this is a first step. In PYP students are provided with a large chunk of time to prepare for Exhibition. I think it is important students are scaffolded with opportunities for learning how to manage their time well before Exhibition so that they are cognisant of their learning needs (pace, environment, instruction, equipment, etc.)
- Students like the responsibility of organizing the ways in which they go about completing tasks. Do students develop a heightened sense of responsibility when the teacher gives them opportunities to manage their time?
- Students aren’t forced to go at the same pace as everyone else.
- The teacher (potentially) has time to authentically attend to individuals’ needs.
- Can the use of technology in the class (e.g. 1:1 ipads) enhance the ability to monitor and record student learning?
Math Groupings – Are ability groups necessary?
I recently completed an amazing course through Standford University Openedex and Jo Baeler (the instructor) presented a very challenging idea. She suggested that ability groupings do more harm than good. She pointed out that studies show when children are put into ability groups, they tend to stay in the same type of grouping for the remainder of their educational time. The outcome of this is that students are presented with similar kinds of instruction and information, and are never really presented with the necessary breadth or depth of instruction or experiences to be able to improve. The learning tends to be very limited creating a situation where students never develop the skills that can help them move beyond their ability group.
Jo used research from Carol Dweck’s Fixed and Growth Mindset to support her reasoning for why students should have opportunities to work in mixed ability groups. A person with a fixed mindset tends to view knowledge as static and that learning equates to performing. If you perform well, you are learning. A growth mindset tends to view learning as a process and challenges are met with resilience.
What messages do we send to students when they are explicitly placed in ability groups?
Squares – Students who are at grade level expectations.
Triangles – Students who are below grade level expectations.
Rectangles – Students who are exceeding grade level expectations.
I know no matter how hard I try, no matter how many conversations we have had with a class, I still would hear “They are in the smart group.” And I began to notice specific tendencies and attitudes from specific groups. Students who have always exceeded in Math (they have always performed well) were quite negative when presented with a challenging problem. But don’t students thrive when we give them challenges? Raise the bar and they will meet our expectations? If students have been led to believe that learning means performing well, and they are then provided with a task that might lead them to not performing well, you can see where the conflict may arise.
Likewise, students who are in the “Squares” might wonder why bother even trying? I’m just in the “Squares” group.
Last year I had had it with these prevailing attitudes and decided to do things a bit differently.
I would introduce a general WALT (we are learning to) to the students. We would do a bit of a mini lesson, or I might do some kind of assessment to figure out where the students are at. Once I’ve gathered this data and I know the range, then I started presenting tasks in this way: I would have the tasks organised in some fashion around the classroom and I would say,
“If you require some more practice with ______ this would be a good place to start.”
“If you need to extend yourself with your learning, start here.”
I will always remember what one student asked.
“Can I do them all?”
I continue to do my math groupings this way, and students still ask, “Can I do everything? Even the harder one?” And of course I say yes. During the Math session, I would either provide a further “tutorial” when students are starting their task. I provide this time on the mat for students who struggle beginning a task, or who might need a bit more support with a concept. This is a drop in time for anyone. At times some of the students who typically “get it” would drop in for a listen, and then head back to work independently. Other ways I run these tutorials is I post times of what I will be doing. So it might look like,
9:15-9:35 – Focus on near doubles with 2-digit numbers.
9:40-10:00 – Focus on adding with decimals.
Students can then choose which session they need to “drop in” for. Does this mean I’m teaching whole class math? Kind of yes, but there is differentiating opportunities across abilities. Open-ended math problems and project-based learning would be more ideal learning scenarios. Math problems in these learning contexts are open, have a multiple of entry points (meaning students can find many ways to start) and high ceilings (students can extend themselves).
But for now, with my own practice, I will continue on with what I’m doing. I am happy to see some attitude changes in my students. I don’t hear comments like “I’m in the smart group”. Rather, I see students taking a step forward and taking personal responsibility for their own learning.
- Although I feel my students are now part of the process in identifying areas they need to work on, my math programme is still orientated around practicing skills. Moving towards more open tasks when different entry points and different “ceilings” (meaning students can take learning to their own level) is a more desirable outcome.
- “Can I do them all” – If placed in an ability group, I might inavertedly limit learning by only presenting one of the learning tasks. In this situation, the student is excited by the opportunity to try something challenging. I have had students gather materials from all the learning tasks and construct their own learning by “dipping into” the challenging task. Stopping when it is too hard, and then using the easier task to “dip in” and maybe hone in on a specific skill. I want to move away from the statement “Can I do them all” (suggesting there is still learning to “collect”) and present larger tasks that students work through in a more hollistic way.
- My goal is to run a math class where students don’t need me to start the lesson with instruction. They can just pick up where they left off the day before. I am left to conference with individual students. We gather as a class to declare our learning, share new acquired learning, and learn from each other’s mistakes and misconceptions (students must feel comfortable with this because making a mistake can be interpreted as not performing well).
- Students appreciate that there are different ways of solving problems.
- Identifying and correcting mistakes are viewed as an integral part of the learning process.
So this got me wondering….
How does student choice impact their motivation?
Can student choice lead to improved metacognitive awareness?
Can choice improve student learning?
Developing a Culture of Choice – Letting Go
I believe developing a culture of choice begins with the messages we give our students. Teachers give students messages all the time. We might be more explicit with some of those messages, and some messages might be sent with no ill-intention. This is what makes the classroom such a complex place to co-exist alongside 24 other people. For instance, what your response be to a student who asks,
“Can I do _____ this way?”
A) No. Do it the way the instructions ask.
B) What an interesting idea but for this task can you please do it this way? Why don’t we look at the timetable and perhaps we can use your way for another task?
C) Wow! I never thought about it that way before. Yes, I would love to see how __ turns out. What can I do to help.
All three options are certainly plausible for any classroom. I have said all three myself. But what different messages each of these responses send to students. If a student was continually met with option A, I would imagine the student would eventually stop asking the teacher if they could do tasks in an alternative way. And my question would be, why is it so important students do tasks our way? I have begun to ask myself this on most things we do in the classroom. This teacher might have presented the task to students a few days before they would be doing it, and ask for their insight on how they could see themselves completing it. The teacher might then take their ideas and modify the task accordingly. What a powerful way to show students their ideas are valued in the learning process.
I always wonder, what political, economical, social and emotional landscape will my students find themselves in when they graduate from High School? The once progressive saying (now, fearfully, becoming so common its significance is overlooked) we educate children for jobs and careers that haven’t been created yet.
This fact has such HUGE implications for our educational systems – and yet 10 years later (after this saying popped up) nothing much has changed. Well, our world has changed, but our educational systems – for the most part – have not.
In a conversation I had just the other day, my very insightful friend noted that lately it is like people are expected to brand themselves once out of school. Increasingly there is an implicit need for reflexivity so as to position oneself in a world that is changing at an increasingly fast pace. Let’s just consider some of the differences from when I graduated. Some of the world’s top universities are offering courses for free. More universities offer courses online that allows for increased flexibility in how learning is accomplished. In the face of decreased academic tenure, academics are increasingly working through contracts in colleges in their own country or in new economies. Why bother committing yourself (and future debt) to one university when you can have a similar experience at a local college? Careers that have stable and long term benefits where one can assume a life long sentence alongside one employer is going extinct. The clear cut paths that were once available no longer exist. The choices that are available to students are unlimited and ever changing. Education needs to reform in order to develop critical and evaluative minds that can sift through this world of abundance.
Ah, once again I get swept up in the ideal world of educational reform taking place. I don’t want to end this conversation within the lofty clouds of policy changes and Ken Robinson’s learning revolution. However, this isn’t to say that just because we may feel too distantly removed to enact change, we shouldn’t bother. Change desperately needs to happen at the policy level, but in the meantime in our classrooms, our own reform can begin with choice.
Currently, my favourite ways to incorporate student choice
The following are some examples of how teachers can add choice into their classroom.
Like so many things, it all starts with attempting something small and then going from there. Maybe next time a student asks you “Can I do it this way?”, pause, breathe, and ask (preparing to let go a little) “Yes, I would love to see how you go. What can I do to help your learning?”
Exploring Passion in our lives: https://vimeo.com/64410009
Bubble Up Curriculum – Naturally embedding the curriculum
Check out this great explanation of how one school uses the Bubble Up Curriculum to plan for PYP exhibition.
What Teachers Say and Do to Support Students’ Autonomy During a Learning Activity
Johnmarshall Reeve, Hyungshim Jang Feb 2006 Journal of Educational Psychology v. 98, n. 1, p. 209
Burris, C.C., J.P. Heubert and H.M. Levin (2006), “Accelerating Mathematics Achievement Using Heterogeneous Grouping”, American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 105-136.
Kohn, Alfie. Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide. Phi Delta Kappan,(Sept., 1993). http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/cfc.htm
Starnes, Bobby Ann., Paris, Cynthia. Choosing to Learn. Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 81, No. 5 (Jan., 2000), pp. 392-397
How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses. Wired Magazine. http://www.wired.com/business/2013/10/free-thinkers/
Erwin, Jonathan., The Classroom of choice: Giving students what they need to know and getting what you want. ASCD, Jan 2004.
Ritchhart, Ron. Intellectual Character: What is it, Why it Matters and How to get it.