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Providing our youngest students with choice is one of the most powerful things we can do for them. It empowers, engages, and inspires them. It teaches them how to make decisions, be independent, and solve problems. When we give them choice in how to learn, show, and share their knowledge we are sending some very clear messages. We are letting them know that we care about them and that we value their decisions. What better way to help build positive self esteem in our youngest learners? We are also creating a supportive classroom environment where risk taking is encouraged and celebrated, and mistakes are not frowned upon but a reason to keep trying. Choice helps develop life long learners. Students are a lot more curious when they are in control of what or how they learn. Choice puts the student at the centre of their learning.
When I started to provide more choice for my students there were several changes I noticed with my young learners. These include increased engagement, problem solving, ownership of learning, authenticity of learning, collaboration, cooperation, peer assessment, and pride with accomplishments. These are all good reasons to give your students more choice.
Traditionally being in control is most natural for teachers. It is very easy to see why teachers struggle or are fearful with offering their students choice. As an educator myself, I totally understand that. For many, letting go of classroom control is a very scary and unimaginable task. It’s filled with a lot of “but what if...” . Although I’ve given up a ton of control in my classroom, I’d be lying if I said the “yah but...” thought hasn’t crossed my mind a few times over the years.
Some also fear the chaos that may follows when children are given choice. It can be louder and messier than we are comfortable with. If a teacher is able to look past the noise and the messiness and really look and listen to their students, they’ll see the incredible learning that they are doing - not because they have to but because they want to.
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But how do I do it?
I’d be lying if I said that on the very first day of school my students have complete choice in everything that they do. That’s nuts, and the reality is, it would probably lead to complete chaos. On the first day of school I let my students hang their coats on the hook of their choosing and let them choose where to sit. Those are choices that I can live with on the first day. That’s key. When you are providing choice at any time during the year figure out what you can live with.
I start really slow with the choices I offer my young learners and model making decisions about each choice I give them. We talk about the options available to them and the pros and cons of each. For example I may offer them the choice of working on their own or working with a friend (or two). We talk about the benefits of being on your own (quiet, no one to distract you etc...) and the cons (lonely, no one to help you etc...) vs working with a friend. I try really hard to let them see the difference in the options and how those differences may work better for one person but not another. We look at the pros and cons each time I provide my students with a new option and my students get better at making decisions for themselves. When I see a student having trouble making a choice (and in the beginning this is very likely), I am there to help them with their choices. Eventually they too can make their own choices.
I do have expectations for appropriate behaviour in my classroom as well. We talk about work conditions and how one person works can affect another person. My students are made clear that if their method of work is interfering with another child’s ability to work they either need to find a better location to do what they are doing, or choose a different option. Sometimes it boils down to a discussion between the students to figure that out. Sometimes they both change, other times they both find ways to accept the way their classmate is working. In any case respectful problem solving skills are taught in advance, and then modeled over and over again as necessary.
Slowly, over time, I provide my students with many different areas of choice. Sometimes the choice has to do with the tool that they use. For example, in writing, I might let them choose to write with a pencil, felt pen, crayon, iPad etc... Or I might let them choose where they are going to do their writing such as on a whiteboard, chalk board, notebook, poster paper, their blog etc. Or even still I may let them choose which tools they want to use to demonstrate their learning. The key is that my students know what the learning objective is and they are encourage to make the best choice for them to meet that objective.
At the beginning of the year, as I’m training my students to handle choice, I control most variables. Sometimes the choice has to do with where they work such as at a table, at a desk, on the floor, in the hallway, or outside the classroom window. Sometimes I teach them different options to practice a specific skill, but then I tell them which option to do so there are different groups doing different things at the same time. This method helps my students understand that there will be times when everyone is doing something different at the same time working on the same skill. This controlled choice is key to help my students become more independent. It also helps me teach them a variety of options so that when I let them have full choice, they are aware of the many different options they have available to them.
When it comes to providing choice for my students iPads have revolutionized my ability to do this. An iPad meets my students exactly where they are and provides them with tools necessary to take them forward with their learning. Here are a couple of examples. My extremely shy student, whose voice was barely heard in class, was able to record her thinking on the iPad, and then share that thinking with the world on her individual blog. This student, who barely spoke at school, was able to share with the world because of the ease of comfort of an iPad. Another student, with a severe learning disability, was able to use the speech to text feature of the iPad to have his spoken word turned into text in a matter of seconds. This was huge for a student who battled constantly to get his thoughts into written word. While these are only two examples, there are many others.
When I introduce a new app I will show my students some of the things that are possible and how they might use it with their learning. I might assign a task that everyone has to do so that they can learn how the app functions. I will also make sure that they have time to explore the app. Free exploration is important.
Sometimes I will also introduce an app using our big buddies to help. This gives each child a “big kid” to help them learn. One on one attention makes everyone happy. Together, after a little guidance from me, they learn the app as a team. Playing with apps is vital in my classroom. I want my students to explore apps so that when they are looking for an app to demonstrate a specific type of learning, they have a large repertoire to choose from.
I strategically introduce apps to my students as I think they will benefit the required learning outcome but my students also have other times during the day to explore apps on their own. Once an app is explicitly taught it becomes a tool. Like all the other tools in our class, my students can draw on these tools to practice and demonstrate their learning. In addition if their iPad has an app that hasn’t been explicitly taught but they think it can help them demonstrate their learning they are free to use it too. I’m always open for new ways of sharing demonstrating learning and nothing makes me happier than when a student can come up with one on their own.
These various ways of teaching my students how to make choices for themselves are key in helping get my students ready to make their own choices. Slowly over time, I start to give my students more and more choices with their learning to the point where they have almost complete control of their learning. In my class my students end up picking what to read, what to write, and how to demonstrate their math concepts. While I provide them with options of ways they could show a math concept, I don’t expect them to show me in one specific way. My students are taught what the required learning out come is. They are given samples of what not meeting, minimally meeting, fully meeting, and exceeding expectations looks like. They CHOOSE how to demonstrate their learning. They continue to amaze me with what they know when they are given the chance to show me in the ways that work best for them.