Friday, October 17, 2014

Student Learning: The Power of Limited Choice

A young child lamented, "Why can't I do what the others do? I want to do what they do?"

Challenge. How do I respond?

I thought about it, and used a story from my childhood. I said, "When I was young, my sister was the fastest runner in the school and I was the slowest. I felt bad that I wasn't as fast, but I knew I had other strengths, and running for me would take lots of practice."

He heard me.

(Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School, affirms the fact that for some people, some tasks are more difficult and do take more practice. That's a cognitive fact based on multiple factors, but a fact that's important for students young and old to recognize. )

Then I said, "Tomorrow, you have a choice. You can choose to keep working on the assignment you were working on today, or you can start with a version that's a bit more reasonable. In fact, I'll offer that version to others too as you weren't the only one facing a challenge with the assessment. It's like me starting to run a quarter mile rather than starting with 10 miles. Remember, I'm just getting to know you as a learner, and I won't always be right. Let me know tomorrow what you'll choose."  He seemed calmer.

So today, he'll have choice. He can choose to keep working on the more difficult set with teacher coaching or he and his peers can choose the more reasonable set also with teacher coaching. He can also choose where he wants to sit, and how he wants to tackle the packet guided by the following suggestions posed for the whole class:

  • Believe in yourself.
  • Do what you know first.
  • Ask questions when you don't understand. Don't stay stuck!
  • Write clearly.
  • Do your best.
Limited choice disarms students when they're frustrated or feeling unheard--it gives them some power over their learning in ways that are manageable and honorable.  I'll see what my student chooses today, and I'll support his choice. I'll also add that if he has an idea about a third choice that's better, he should let me know because after all he's the one in charge when it comes to his overall learning, and I'm there to do all I can to help him.