Educator and media critic Neil Postman once remarked that: ”children enter school as question marks and leave school as periods.” In other words, kindergarteners and first graders are full of enthusiasm, raise their hands high when asked a question, and respond favorably to new learning activities, but by high school, the zip is gone and students are like Shakespeare’s school child ”creeping like a snail unwillingly to school.” A 2016 Gallup Student Poll reveals that 74% of fifth graders report being engaged in their learning at school, but by tenth grade that figure goes down to 33% (with 34% of students feeling ”not engaged” and another 33% experiencing themselves as ”actively disengaged”). What’s a teacher to do? The answer is: find ways of engaging students. One of the best ways to do this is by giving students choices and fueling their sense of autonomy. Here are some ways to do this:
- Give students choices in materials to be used. One study revealed that giving simple choices to students in a math computer task normalized the behaviors of students diagnosed with ADHD. Another study reported that when students were allowed to choose their art materials, they produced more creative art projects. Give students opportunities to choose their own books to read, lab experiments to conduct, vocabulary lists to memorize, and math problems to solve.
- Design classroom spaces that support student choice. If a classroom space consists merely of a 5 x 6 grid of school desks, a teacher’s desk in front, and chalkboards around the perimeter, there is little in the environment to invite student choice. On the other hand, a teacher who sets up the classroom with activity centers in different parts of the room is anticipating learner variability and highlighting the importance of choice in learning. At the elementary school level this may include a reading area, a math lab, a science center, a social space, a building area and so forth. At the middle school or high school level, these may be temporary spaces where activities are written on index cards and attached to the walls around the perimeter of the classroom, where students can gravitate to their preferred learning experience.
- Provide opportunities for student-chosen project-based learning. Project-based learning is a great option compared to paper-and-pencil learning, but all too often the projects (and outcomes) are teacher-imposed. When students have the opportunity to come up with their own ideas and monitor their progress from start to finish (with teacher guidance), their ownership of the learning experience can skyrocket. One practical resource for initiating these projects is the Genius Hour, where teachers reserve a selected amount of time each day for student-initiated learning projects.
- Give students options in their homework assignments. Students studying U.S. history, for example, may be given the options of going home and collecting from the Internet songs of the Civil War, maps of important Civil War battles, compelling memoirs by Civil War survivors, or timelines of important events of the Civil War. A spelling or vocabulary list might be sent home with instructions for different ways of studying them (e.g. look up etymologies in online dictionary, draw pictures of vocabulary words, make a numerical code, write a story or poem with all the words etc.).
- Consider the impact of time as a learning variable subject to student choice. One of the things that first impressed me about the Montessori Method when I was learning about educational methods as a college student, was that students were allowed to spend as much time working with a given set of materials as they felt they needed. When I was in eighth grade, I attended a school that built opportunities for choice into the class schedule. Every day we’d come to school and consult a master list of classes, and construct our own individualized schedule for the day. Similarly, teachers should consider ways of empowering kids by giving them some control over the amount of time they spend on learning tasks, especially on those activities they feel most passionate about.
- Provide choice about subject matter. The structure of having electives at the high school level provides students with the opportunity to choose topics of interest to them, and the more electives there are, the greater scope there is for students to make choices. Some educators argue that with academic course requirements for college being more rigorous than decades ago, it’s not possible for students to take many electives. However, many high performing schools are showing that it’s possible to balance core course requirements with electives. Pelham Memorial High School in New York,, for example, offers a broad range of electives like broadcast production, Mandarin, Hollywood: Spotlight on History, and Intro to Robotics, while still maintaining high academic standards. Elementary schools have more latitude in course offerings and some schools, like The New City School in Saint Louis, MO, provides course opportunities that span the range of intelligences covered by Howard Gardner’s MI theory. including performance arts, movement and music, and the natural sciences.
- Involve students in decisions about school policy. Increasingly in education there has been a movement that embraces the idea of giving students greater ”voice” in many arenas of school policy traditionally managed solely by teachers and administrators. Students are being empowered to sit in on school board meetings, take a role in the hiring of teachers, serve as consultants in the development of curricula, and advise school officials on discipline matters. Emphasizing student voice in these ways, builds civic values, improves student engagement, lowers drop-out rates, and helps to boost academic achievement.
- Engage students by truly personalizing their learning experience. There are an increasing number of online products coming onto the educational marketplace purporting to ”personalize” students’ learning. These programs use algorithms to track student responses to academic material and then ”customize” content that matches student inputs. Education guru Diane Ravitch calls these ”(de)personalization programs.” A truly personalized approach to learning involves a direct human connection between teacher and student, with an eye to discovering that student’s personal interests, aspirations, perception of challenges, goals, talents, and cultural background, among many other variables. These factors are then connected to learning experiences — courses, clubs, projects, small groups, independent study, modules, mentorships, and other academic events that are tailored to the unique needs of the student.
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