Choice in Class: Three-Pronged Attack

So at the EdCamp session about choice, I shared three ways that I’ve tried (and am trying) to encourage student choice in my classroom:

  • “free choice” time
  • wide-open projects
  • goal setting

When I wrote those up on the board at EdCamp, I had them associated with three of the classes that I’m teaching this coming year–fifth grade math, high school geometry, and calculus, in that order.  Upon further reflection, I’ve begun to see how I want to have all three features embedded into all of my classes, as well as how they all rely upon each other.  I’ll say more about these three prongs individually at a later date–and writing about how they actually happen in my classroom on a day-to-day basis is what I’m here for.  For now, I just want to say a few words about each to give some context.

Briefly, free choice time is time set aside in class when students are working on their own thing without my giving them direction.  I make available a variety of resources and suggest a range of possibilities.  I did this for the first time this past year with my 6th and 7th grade classes.  Each week on Friday after their SBG-style quiz buffet, students would pick up some new activity or continue on their ongoing project.  As a point of reference, think of Google’s “20% time”.

By wide-open projects, I mean some piece of extended work where the steps haven’t all been laid out for the student.  Further, the end products that individual students produce may look very different–either because they’ve investigated different problems, or approached the same problem in different ways, or because they’ve chosen to share their efforts through different media.  It’s easy for me to point to examples from my geometry course, like this project about geometric properties.  But now that I think of it, the free choice time activities could fall into the same category.

For goal setting, I mean asking kids to figure out what they want to accomplish and helping them to do so.  I’ve done this some with my middle schoolers with their skills quizzes–which ones they want to prepare for and take the following week–and now that I think of it, in helping them navigate their free choice time activities.  This year I plan to ask my 5th graders to reflect on both their quizzes and free choice time activities as weekly journal assignments.  However, my mind for whatever reason has recently been thinking about this in the context of my upcoming calculus class–having my students do the same kind of journal reflecting, for one, but also helping them to establish larger goals about what “success” in the class will mean for them.  A student could decide that basic proficiency on the items on my skills list is what he’s after.  Or maybe he wants to get almost all of them, but to try tackling some additional challenge topics.  Or who knows what.  Allowing him to make that decision and then helping him with following through on it seems huge to me in terms of motivation and learning that’s bound up with integrity.

To summarize: give students the time to dig into a rich variety of possible activities and the freedom and guidance to choose among them.

Finally, I should say that at Saint Ann’s we don’t give grades to our students and that curriculum is by-and-large decided upon by each teacher for his or her classes.  The way I give an account for how my students use their free choice time is the same as how I report on anything else they accomplish–through a semi-annual page-long report, individualized for each kid.  Having no grades definitely frees me up to take chances with what I do in my classes, and not having to worry about attaching points to tasks makes something like free choice time easier to legitimize in my classroom.  But even with no grades, fostering student choices is countercultural, it runs against my own inherited habits and thought patterns, and it’s really hard.  Still, I deeply believe and hope that real student agency and empowerment is important and that it can happen in any school.

I’m excited to find out whether these ideas resonate with your own experiences and your own hopes.


4 responses to “Choice in Class: Three-Pronged Attack

  1. Great stuff!

    I think it’s hugely important to help kids choose valuable ways to spend their own time. You’re right that it is extremely hard. We so often think school is about getting the goods from the teacher and getting it over with, so we can move on to whatever we choose. Unfortunately, most of the time we choose anything but school-type material, because we know someone else is doing all of the choosing there.

    As you know, I also love how individualized these opportunities are. All of these things seem immensely important in making lasting attachments to mathematics, but more generally, I think school has to help students decide upon and transition into control over themselves in their lives.

    This life is yours. Wake up and take control. Make it great. That’s the ultimate lesson, I think.

    • Yeah, it’s amazing how you can kill someone’s interest by locking them into some program or activity. I’m reminded of this tweet. (You have to highlight it to see it.) Wild how we might be pushing students away from the very subjects we’re so passionate about.

  2. A great post, Justin. This is one of the ways I’ve used choice, and I encourage the preservice teachers I work with to implement it in their teaching. It represents a subtle shift that doesn’t necessarily rock the expectations of the kids or the mentor teacher about what it means to do mathematics.

    • Right back at you, David. As I commented over that way, those are great tasks, and I’m excited to use them as models for assignments where my 5th graders can choose between ways of tackling a set of exercises.
      Glad to meet you!

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