Tag Archives: student choice

Contemplating Student Choice in Learning

In one of our recent teacher meetings I riffed off a classmates phrasing when talking about students and choices, coming up with “It’s hard to have a voice if you don’t have a choice.” It ran out of my mouth before I could really stop it. I think it’s because I really believe it. Plus, since becoming a teacher, I have succeeded and failed at affording students choice a lot, but I keep trying to find ways that allow and encourage student choice.

This is not always an easy objective. Certainly in more traditionally conservative pedagogical models, there is little room for student choice. In the English department, choice is often relegated to elective classes like creative writing. Yet even in elective classes, apart from choosing the course, there can be remarkably few options in terms of assignments or lines of inquiry. Fortunately, there seems to be a groundswell of change in the air in the field of education. All I can say is that is a long time coming.

After attending graduate school in pursuit of a license to teach, the university I attended was deeply influenced by progressive, constructivist theory. Student choice was something we regularly discussed in classes. It seemed like this was the way things were to be. Upon entering the profession I was surprised at how little opportunities students had to demonstrate their understanding in self-selected ways. Of course, making arrangements for this kind of assessment is a challenge, and I am by no means expert at doing so. However, I continually challenge myself to find ways to accommodate student choice in my practice.

On a grand scale, the first element of choice entered my practice almost as soon as I started teaching, when I began employing a portfolio approach with my English classes. While there are some universal elements, such as formatting and self-reflection that all complete, students are required to choose samples that best represent their work in the class. This portfolio of work typically contains pieces that have gotten feedback and been revised multiple times. The portfolio is the single most significant grade for any given term. I do this so the student controls what is included and what is subject to such a major assessed. I have been using portfolios in nearly every class I have taught since the second semester I began teaching.

Still, a portfolio is only one aspect of choice. Often it is selecting from a lot of options that are similar for every individual. The outputs fro given assignments may not always vary as much as I would like. To me the real challenge has always involved building options into individual assignments, which has proven far more tricky.

On an assignment scale, one of my favorite examples of student choice is the I-Search paper. Originally created by the late Ken Macrorie, in a 1988 published work he coined as the first context book, The I-Search Paper, it is a writing-to-learn spin on the typical research paper assignment. I-Search is a framework that focuses on student interests and the process of real research, the kind researchers do. Part narrative and part inquiry, students must develop their own research question that guides their investigation and answer. It took me three years to convince my colleagues to implement it in my current school, replacing a previous literary based research paper that produced semi-plagiarized faux research and a hackneyed paper.

What is encouraging is that the trend toward student choice seems to have gained genuine momentum in the last year or so, particularly in the realm of English. More and more references to student choice are being presented in the field. In fact, while I was in Orlando for the National Writing Project Annual Meeting, an educational organization that has long been advocating student choice, a colleague of mine mentioned that it seemed to be the theme of nearly all of the presentations that she had seen at the simultaneously occurring National Council of Teachers of English Convention.

So there is definite reason for hope. Nevertheless, I will keep trying regardless of the trend.

Reviewing Student Choice and Technology as Differentiator

Reviewing the material for “Module 5: Choices and Creation” presents the first opportunity to completely share the material from the class. While I have been sharing quite a bit about the experience, the window into the class has been somewhat limited. Some of the material is from a yet to be published book, so I have wanted to be very respectful of that fact. This week, however, the core material comes from material that has already been made public. So I share it here in hopes that others might share what they think of the same material.

Here is a presentation by Davis, entitled Technology Driven Differentiated Instruction

What I like most about this presentation is that Davis uses the notion of a framework. Sometimes frameworks are confused with formulas. Yet, formulas imply that if the right number is plugged in for the variable the right answer can be found. However, frameworks by their very nature imply choice. Instead of plugging in the “right” numbers like a formula, frameworks provide a structure that allows for multiple “right” possibilities. WIthin any framework are possibilities upon which building begins to take shape.

I must admit that I am very partial to frameworks and tend to use them as an instructional practice a lot, especially when it comes to teaching writing. I try to make composition the core of my English classes. Writing is about choices and making decisions. There are many ways to be “right,”  but there definitely are structural concerns to different modes of writing. Presenting students with the compositional structures or frameworks, requires them to make a lot of choices while writing, helping create authentic writing experiences.

In the presentation, Davis’ focus on technology use as the framework for differentiation, an area where technology certainly can be leveraged. By automating certain processes of class, more time can be spent on developing choices. More than that by helping students to develop a kit of tools that will help them to automate certain tasks, they too are empowered to make more choices about how to tackle a specific task. Possibilities begin to appear that were not previously apparent. Sometimes deeper knowledge of a tool reveals new solutions to existing problems.

The strength of this presentation is in Davis’ use of Gardner’s multiple intelligences to frame an array of possible tasks related to a few core digital tools, like Ning, wikis, and digital storytelling. This is the heart of her differentiated approach, which has a lot of insightful possibilities.

The idea that I like most, however, is the idea of giving students the rules and then giving them choices. This too is a practice i employ quite often. How can a student have a voice, if they are not given a choice? What’s more providing rules as a framework creates dynamic opportunities, even the possibility for the unexpected. In fact, from a technology standpoint, it is particularly reminiscent of dynamic web pages, where a scripted template essentially functions as the rules wherein the content will be presented. Extending this metaphor, eventually after some mastery, the students can begin to create rules. Then they are really making choices.