Letting Them Choose

EVERY DAY for CHOICE by Jenn Farr
EVERY DAY for CHOICE, a photo by Jenn Farr on Flickr.

I have discovered, during my most recent attempts to give students the ability to choose the way they will show me their learning, that many of my students will just choose what they have always done. The easiest way. Not the way that would best showcase what they’ve learned, or their particular skill set.

In June I assigned what I thought would be a pretty cool final project in social studies. They were to compare and contrast the three societies that we had studied in grade 8 Social Studies (Renaissance Europe, Japan – Edo-Meiji Period, and Aztecs vs Spanish) as well as interview a person who had grown up in a different decade than them about their Worldviews. The assignment can be found here on google docs. As you can see, I gave them a number of different options for how this would be presented to the class. I honestly thought that they would come up with more original, more interesting options than the ones I gave. I thought that they would seek out new and exciting ways to show what they know. Well I couldn’t have been more wrong. There were eight groups and all but two of them chose to use a trifold or do a powerpoint. In truth, the presentations were quite boring and although they did know the information, I could tell that none of them had enjoyed the assignment.

When reflecting on the assignment, I realized a few things:

1. It was a boring assignment with little critical thinking involved at all.

2. I was the one who gave them the option. I put it out there for them to choose.

3. As this is the first time I have given this kind of choice, I do not have any previous examples for students to see.

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4 thoughts on “Letting Them Choose

  1. Marci, I love the fact that you saw the results of the assignment and reflected not only on the students learning but also on your own. Given the reflection you’ve done on the project now, how would you do things different?

    • I actually wrote this post in the fall, so I have already made some changes to the way I teach and how I get kids to present. We have talked this year about focussing on our strengths and on what makes an interesting/pleasing presentation. There has been a lot more students “coming out of their comfort zone”, but I still find myself having to coax others to do something different.

      As far as the assignment itself, I will be changing the compare and contrast section to a critical challenge. I haven’t thought it out completely yet, but I think I will have them choose which of the three case studies they would have rather lived through. We will work on criteria together and then have them focus on that. They can still compare and contrast … but with purpose now.

      I’d love to hear more ideas or thoughts about the assignment!

  2. Marci:

    First, bravo for opening the possibilities of choice. This is a pretty common problem I think. On one level, it is hard to envision what you might know is possible. It can be an iterative process.

    As ironic as it seems, part of the challenge is making some determinations about the kind of work you are hoping to see. I am not sure how much of that you did or didn’t do. Mapping some of that out can at least function as a platform for possibilities. I try to incentivize the more creative options, if I can.

    Sometimes I leverage something like grades as a motivator, although I don’t like doing it so much. More often I try to pitch some kind of alternative or creative option to a few students and get them to try it. If they end up producing strong work, it can become pretty contagious. Plus, you can use their experiences to scaffold the process for others.

    One riskier possibility that I haven’t yet tried but am game to at some point this year is a mystery basket-style challenge or task, in the spirit of the Food Network’s Chopped or Bravo’s Top Chef. Give the students the ingredients or resources that they might need, with a couple of chosen criteria and see what they come up with on their own. I know you have younger students but I think it could still work.

    Good luck,
    Fred

    • Fred,
      Thanks so much for your response to my post. I think this assignment did a great job of showing me what I needed to work on. Like I said before, I have done a lot more teaching this year on what makes a good presentation AND now that I am starting to get some higher level work, I have had more examples of what exemplary work looks like.

      I LOVE the idea of the mystery box! That reminds me of So You Think You Can Dance? where the dancers pick different styles each week that they perform. I’m not sure I would use that for a final project, but I could really see it throughout the year. Thanks for that great idea!

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