Choices, Choices, Choices

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Today started as a normal weekend morning…get up, drink some coffee, look at Twitter, read a few blogs. The blogs I read always make me think, but my problem is that I can’t stop thinking about them. What I really thought (and thought, and thought) about this morning was how two very different blogs were actually related. The first  blog I read was by Starr Sackstein and focused on the idea that students don’t really know how to make choices because others regularly make decisions for them.

“Children start out naturally curious, asking a lot of questions and engaging with their environment as soon as they are aware of it and have the ability to do so. Then they enter the school systems and almost immediately have that autonomy taken away. It’s a slow, insidious process that systematically strips students of their ability to understand their own interests in academic or even purely passionate way, especially as it pertains to school.”

The next blog I read was by  Kenneth McKee. While his main focus was how instructional coaches can build relationships, one suggestion was to provide teachers a menu of services that instructional coaches can provide. This menu “forces” teachers to pick from a limited list of services. I assume that Kenneth’s decision to provide a menu stems from the fact that not providing any choices would be overwhelming to teachers. I should point out that he did include an “other” choice.

What these two blogs share is the idea that choices are something that many in the field of education have trouble making.  Why is that? Is it because both students and teachers are conditioned to having choice made for them by others? Is it a societal thing? Are we just presented with so many choices in our daily life that we actually like it when others make decisions for us? Does having someone else make decisions for us lessen our responsibility for the final outcome?

It seems that those who have been in a school setting for a long period of time are conditioned to do what others have told/ask us to do. The student is “told” what to read, write, draw, etc. While most teachers are probably not told how to teach, many are told what to teach as well as how long to teach (fill in the blank). We need to start consciously moving toward allowing/expecting students and teachers to make more choices. Making choices is a life skill? If you always have people making decisions for you, how will you ever learn to make them on your own? It would seem wise to allow students the ability to practice in a safe environment like school rather having have to make those choices out in the “real world” without the necessary skills to weigh options, which is necessary for any well thought out decision.

Building in more choice in our schools is imperative. Teachers will need to decide what areas choice can be provided to the student. For example, many schools have a set curriculum outlining what books must be read. If you are in a school like this, the choice may be focused around how the understanding of the book will be shown. When I was a classroom teacher, my colleague and I would provide four or five different modes that could be used for presentations. Students would randomly be assigned to one of these modes. The next project would involve jigsawing students so that there was at least one representative of each mode in the new group. These groups would then choose which mode was best for the new project.  Eventually students could use any mode that they thought would best meet the requirements of the assignment. This was our way of providing some guidance to students on how to make good choices.

Approaching the issue of choice with teachers is a bit more challenging. When presented with so many choices of how and what to teach, and ultimately assess, it is very easy for teachers to choose the way that it has always been done. This is the “safest” choice and requires the least amount of work. The life of a teacher can be a very demanding one. As a result, when trying to reduce workload, the easiest choice is sometimes seen as the “best” choice. Having access to instructional coaches is one way of helping. These coaches can and should start by providing some options from which the teacher can choose. Doing this will hopefully open doors for the teacher to feel comfortable exploring other ways of presenting and assessing their students.

Choice must become more a part of the education process. It allows both students and teachers to feel more of a sense of ownership.  This feeling of ownership has the potential to lead to great things within the education setting. What can you do to encourage more choice?

Don Sturm

2 thoughts on “Choices, Choices, Choices

  1. I agree with you about student choice. As you illustrated in your teaching example, you sometimes have to teach students how to make the good choice. I would also argue that while high school students could see the project someone else made and decide to try that with the next assignment, elementary students need ample practice with each mode before they will be comfortable making that choice.

    I also thought it was interesting that you brought up teacher choice. I think we have swung back yet again in education to administration dictating more of what we do in the classroom. While I think it’s fair to insist teachers have data to back up their choices, I would prefer to see more teacher autonomy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think we take for granted that we have to teach how to make choices. We took one of my daughter’s friends on vacation with us and stopped at a fast food restaurant to eat lunch. When it was our turn to order, I asked her friend what she wanted and got this look of panic! I had to guide her through the menu. By the way, she was 12. At the table she said that she had never been expected to order so she really didn’t know how to do it. I was amazed, but it really hit home the idea that we have to allow kids to choose so they get skilled at it.

    There is no doubt that age/maturity has to be considered. Do you think your kiddos could experiment with a few modes and then share out to the class. There could then be a discussion about which mode might be best for the given project/presentation? Could you give them the choice of two or three modes that you know will work? I love visiting elementary classes to keep adding to my knowledge of different age groups.

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