Student Choice

Learner Agency

One can wind me up and provoke me with a few prompts and I can go on for a long time. One such "rant" is about teaching responsibility. If we really wanted to teach responsibility wouldn't we sometimes give students choice if they need extra math practice or not? Instead of telling a student, "Answer 1-31 odd." Maybe we could say, "Try 3 or 4 problems, make sure to try harder ones and if you understand how to do it, stop." Which better teaches responsibility for learning? The first instruction or the second? How would you, my reader, prefer to be treated? Giving a student some choice promotes responsibility.

Let me tell you about Kevin, one of my advisees. He's an upperclassman. Kevin is so excited about school. He likes some of his classes; others do not excite him. He's intellectually very bright and does very well while putting forth only a middling effort. What excites him? Where does he put his effort and energy? In his clubs. Kevin does two moot courts, debate, model UN, and another half dozen clubs. Kevin spends hours upon hours a week preparing for club meetings and going to club meetings.

Why is he so excited about what "doesn't count"?  Competition excites him, yes. The ability to take a leadership role likely does as well. I'd argue that what really excites him is the fact that he chooses these clubs and that he has a real voice in determining what the group is going to do.

My school's teachers aren't authoritarian in style or personality. But the 19th century school model that we have inherited is. Students are asked to complete the same tasks in the same time frames and have very little say in what they will do next.

In this one size fits all approach, we threaten the students with poor grades and reward them with high grades to motivate them to do the work. Yet, Kevin works far less on his schoolwork on which he is graded than he does on his club work in which he is interested.

I taught for 22 years without giving grades. This is my 25th year teaching. I have to grade students this year because I teach High School. "It counts", I'm told.  (I'll spare you my grades rant.)  I can tell you with certainty that my 9th grade students who I grade work no harder than my 8th grade students who I didn't grade. Grades don't seem to be the tool to generate student's excitement. A professor of mine argued that students want to learn until they go to school and we start grading them!  hat tip +Russ Walsh .

One anecdote doesn't prove a point. But I've seen many Kevins in my years teaching. Here's one other story. My school started a STEM club about 6 years ago and the club leapt to national prominence. People asked one of the teachers who founded it, "Why not make it a class?" I remember my colleague's answer clearly, "That would kill it."

The system far too big to overthrow. Still, we can make significant changes within the system and it starts with giving students real choice. Give them choices in what they might wish to study in greater detail. Let them decide if they want to write a paper, take a test, or make some sort of project demonstrating learning. Gasp, let them choose some of the books they get to read.

Schools are schools and business is business. We never should conflate the two. I don't even like the terms "homework" or "schoolwork" because that mindset makes LEARNING tedious. Yet, giving students choice better prepares them for what businesses say they want. Here's a 2015 Bloomberg survey of the top companies in the country. It looks like what Kevin gets out of his clubs is at least as important as what he learns in his classes.

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