I don’t believe in a lot of the magic bullets we hear about at all levels of education. I don’t believe there is one magical solution to all the woes that face education, because results vary according to students, teachers, and schools. There is no magic bullet because every student, teacher, and school is unique – and when you mix the three unique elements together you get an infinite variation of results. This is why the factory model of education does not work and why the obsession with testing does not work. But enough about what does not work. I want to focus on something that may not be a magic bullet, but I am confident that it works – based on my experience as both an educator and a student as well as the experience of numerous rock star teachers and research – student choice.
As I wrote in Notable Notes: Student Choice, I don’t assign topics or texts in my classes. Even when we work within a required reader (required by my department), I give my students choice. We always begin each semester exploring our ideas, thoughts, interests, passions, and questions so each individual student can find their own entry point and topic to pursue.
That is the way choice works in the undergraduate courses I teach, but I am even more free with my graduate class and I hope to make the shift with my undergraduate classes next year – or at least start the process. That is because I have seen the powerful effect on student engagement caused by giving students the agency to choose their own topics and approach. This blog post will focus on how I incorporate student choice. Check out Notable Notes: Student Choice to learn more about how others incorporate student choice into their classrooms.
It is important to remember that choice does not mean chaos. You need to determine your goals for the particular class or assignment and then use those goals to guide your badges. For example, my graduate class is focused on National Writing Project professional development goals so we would work on the badges pictured above:
- Community Member
- Reflective Practitioner
Also, not all badges offer choice in my model. For example, it was important to the overall class community that we operate on a level playing field so the requirements for that badge were the same for everyone. The other four badges all offer students varying levels of choice.
The writer and leader badges have specific goals, but the student can reach those goals in a variety of ways. For example, the leader badge is achieved by leading the class through a writing-focused lesson or activity. However, this could be a demonstration, blog post, or mashup – or students can propose a form. Similarly, the writer badge is about embracing the writing process so students are required to start a certain number of pieces, revise a certain number of pieces, and take a certain number to polished final draft. However, students have their choice of writing prompt, activity, and form to meet these goals. I encourage them to experiment and play outside their comfort zone at least some of the time, but what really matters is that they write – a lot – and experience the grief and joy of the full writing process.
However, the researcher and reflective practitioner badges are full of choices. I don’t even have a firm word count, because the products vary to such an extent. I am even open to projects that strive to meet the goals of both badges, because my bottom line for these is that I want my students (who are or will be practicing teachers) to work on a project(s) meaningful to their teaching. So reflection can mean writing a teaching philosophy or literacy narrative or case study and research can involve gathering tips and advice from reputable experts to address a particular classroom question or a more methodical study of research surrounding a particular pedagogical topic (as in a literature review). But I am very open to student proposals that look at both sides of a thorny classroom question and I am not picky about the form of their work. I am equally happy with traditional papers and Youtube channels. What is important to me is that my students have explored their practice and pedagogy through reflection and they have expanded their knowledge through research.
Do you believe student choice is important? What does student choice look like in your classroom? Do you think student choice could be the magic bullet we are seeking?
Note: If you are intrigued by my description of my graduate class you can join the Morehead Writing Project Online Summer Institute this summer (you have the option to choose graduate or professional development credit).