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Supporting Student Choice Through Technology

December 16, 2014

What do we know about how children learn? We know that they need to experience a concept many times to remember it—some say seven times. We know that active engagement—hands-on learning—is superior to “sit and get” experiences. We know that when students have positive emotional connections to the experience, they are more likely to remember it, and that negative emotions produce stress-induced chemicals that interfere with the brain’s ability to remember.

The importance of personal choice cannot be underestimated. When a child chooses an experience again and again out of interest—whether that experience is a book to read, a puzzle to assemble, or a video song about the days of the week—the lessons embedded in the experience will be reinforced. The positive emotional connection the child has to the chosen experience will magnify its value and make it easier to remember. What’s more, the experience will not feel like learning.  It will not feel like school.

When I first saw Ted Nellen’s CyberEnglish classroom in March 2000, the most striking aspect of the environment he created was the extremely high level of engagement. Each student in his class was actively engaged in some learning experience—an experience that the student had chosen (from a vast menu provided by the teacher). Some were revising their writing, some were emailing telementors regarding their work, some were reading text on the computer, some were reading text on paper, some were taking notes, some were consulting their teacher... They were all engaged differently, but they were all engaged. I knew I was seeing not only a profound shift in the classroom paradigm, but also a profound shift in what it means to be a teacher as well. Since that time, I have tried to emulate his model in my own CyberEnglish classroom, embedding as many choices for students as I can.

For most students, school feels like a place where they go to do what the teacher tells them to do, a place where they have very little say in what goes on. Children, no matter what age, desire to make their own choices.

Giving students choices is not just a good way to approach curricular design—think diversity, think differentiation, think broad scope—it may be the only way to truly engage 21st century learners who are so accustomed in daily life and culture to menus. Contemporary life is all about making choices. Our image-saturated, media-driven, razzle-dazzle world requires non-stop decision making. Want an example? Just try watching television news. You will have to decide if you will listen to the anchor’s banter, read the fast-paced news scroll, notice details in the inset image, try to decipher the sidebar data, or even try to think about all of that simultaneously. There’s a lot of information to manage, a lot to choose from, but that’s the world our children live in.

What if, instead of offering one teacher-selected experience, the teacher said, “All right children, it’s play time. You can go on a computer and choose any game (from a page of over 20 choices). You can choose a book to read. You can build. You can paint, draw, or mold clay. You can do what you choose. I’ll be here to help you if you need me. Remember, you can also help each other.”

She says play time, but what she means is choice time and what she expects is active learning. We have only to imagine ourselves again as students to know, in an almost visceral way, that we would be having a lot more fun in school if learning time was play time and not lecture time.

This begs the question: what does it mean to be a teacher these days? To me, the answer is simple. A teacher is a person is responsible for creating engaging learning spaces for all students. What it does not mean is to manage that learning space down to the last detail, including the choice of what to study, learn, or especially play with, which not only diminishes the learning experience for everyone but it may also turn students away from the idea of school altogether.

Certainly there are times when it is simply more desirable to give one message to all students at once. Laying foundation knowledge, building foundation skills, and setting the context for learning is generally something we present to the whole class at one time. However, end learning goals for students beyond that point can be met in so many ways that for a teacher to choose one path for all is at the very least hubris and at worst malpractice.

Dawn Hogue is a high school English teacher in Wisconsin. 

A longer version of this blog originally appeared on her blog, The Polliwog Journal