Sunday, February 3, 2013

Choice is a waypoint on one route to engagement

Could a classroom be transformed into a place where "on task" and "off task no longer had any meaning, where all student activity that led to learning was honored and promoted?

@GeraldAungst poses this disruptive question in his recent post entitled On-Task is not a waypoint on the route to engagement. He describes a four-quadrant grid with On-Task as the horizontal axis and Engaged as the vertical axis.

He correctly observes that "While we'd like to have all students in the upper-left quadrant (on task and engaged), we seem to think that the lower-left quadrant is the next-best place to be." And he asks, "What if instead of forcing kids to the left, we looked for ways to raise them up into the quadrant of off task but engaged? What kinds of teacher action would encourage a student to engage on his terms without necessarily participating in our activity?"

The distinction that @GeraldAungst articulates between on-task and engaged relates to Phil Schlechty's distinction between ritualistic engagement and authentic engagement. With ritualistic engagement, students go through the motions of a task, complying with the instructions of teachers, but not fully committing themselves to a task because they do not intrinsically value it.

I commented on Gerald Aungst's blog about practical considerations relating to his proposal for a classroom where ALL student activity that leads to learning is honored and promoted. Gerald appropriately responded, "If practical things are getting in the way of learning, maybe we have to change what we consider practical . . .Change the system, and what is practical may change."

Honoring ALL student activity that leads to learning is an incredibly high standard. Accepting Aungst's challenge to "change the system" with this high standard in mind leads to many disruptive questions. How should the student day be organized? What type of classes, if any, would be held? To what extent, if at all, should we rely on direct instruction? How should we assess and recognize student progress in learning? Is there still a role for course credits/Carnegie units?

And this brings me to the key role of student choice. Even within the confines of the current system (standardized tests, bell schedules, Carnegie units, etc), educators can increase the likelihood of student engagement by providing more student choice. This leads to greater variety of student activity within a classroom, even if it does not achieve the proposal of honoring and promoting ALL student activity that leads to learning.

Imagine a continuum that runs from teacher control to honoring ALL student activity that leads to learning. Providing students more choices moves us along the continuum.

We can provide students different types of choices. Broad or narrow. Relating to means or outcomes. In any case, as we provide students more choices, we will open our minds to the possibilities and avenues towards honoring ALL student activity that leads to learning.

To use the language of @GeraldAungst, choice is a waypoint on one of the routes to student engagement

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  1. Eric, I love your choice of phrasing in your last sentence, specifically the idea that there is more than one route to engagement. This is all very hard work. It's much easier for us as teachers to plan a pathway and then ask all the students to stay on that path. It's much harder to be a travel agent: letting kids know the destination and helping them navigate their own path through the territory.

    I completely agree with you about letting choice be one of the steps towards engagement. It's interesting you selected that specific approach, given that "on-task" tends to limit rather than encourage choice, at least in the way we normally define it. The irony of course is that when we give more choice and students are doing the work they choose, they are now "on-task" in a new way. Essentially I think what choice does is expand the upper left quadrant and shrink the upper right.

    Thank you for continuing to provoke my thinking and for expanding this conversation.

  2. Eric,
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. In high-quality project-based learning, we know that student voice and choice are essential. The key is to make sure that those choices are real. When students have authentic choices, they're prompted to think about: What do I really care about? What do I want to figure out? If students haven't had occasions to make real decisions during their education, they can be perplexed, even frustrated, the first time they're expected to generate their own ideas. "On task" takes on new meaning during engaging projects. It's not about following the teacher's directions, but finding your own way to understanding.
    I wonder, as a school leader, when you walk into a classroom where PBL is underway, what do you look for or ask to find out whether students are truly engaged?

  3. Eric,
    Excellent post. I think one of the barriers to accepting all activities that lead to learning is the heavy weight of content standards and misguided teacher accountability measures. Student choice is a great angle to take in any activity. Teachers can wade in my allowing smaller choices, hopefully leading to more substantial choices. I've been using project-based learning over the past few years, but I plan to move to a more pure inquiry-based method where students can make choices about what particulars they want to learn about within an given topic. Glad to make a connection with you.

  4. I really enjoyed this post.

    I teach at an alternative high school for “at-risk” youth who haven’t been successful in other school settings. Given our students’ negative history with school, we intentionally aim to have our school look, feel and BE different than the schools they came from. One of the ways we do this is through the things you suggest – especially student choice. There isn’t one pathway to graduation through our school (we offer both Carnegie units and proficiency-based portfolios) and students have a ton of choice in their class topics, structures, community-connections, projects and more. We find that when students first arrive to our school, this choice is very overwhelming to them – it’s not something they immediately want or really know how to navigate. However, once they have a semester or so behind them, we find that they really take off. Their level of engagement increases, as does their use of their own voice.

    All of that said, we’re able to offer this level of student-centeredness and student choice because our classes are very, very small (2-4 students is typical). The small class size is necessary based on the therapeutic work that the students are doing along with their academic work, but it’s an immense help when it comes to supporting student choice. I wonder how larger schools do this. Of course a buzz-word answer to that is “differentiated instruction,” but I’d love to hear about the things teachers consider when deciding how and when to differentiate their instruction, as well as what challenges their ability to do so.

    - @jennedvt

  5. The breadth of choice you provide students is impressive. Your reference to proficiency-based portfolios is intriguing.

    You articulately focus on the challenge for students of transitioning from schools without much choice to a school with more choice.

    What suggestions do you have for helping students navigate choice?

  6. One thing I find helpful is to scaffold the choice for newer students. So while more experienced students might be able to take advantage of the opportunity to help design their unit of study, newer students might need smaller, more specific choices. With new students, I'll sometimes start with an either/or choice (eg: "we can either do a unit on kitchen chemistry or we can do a unit on forensic science. Which would you prefer?"). In cases where even an either/or choice is too much, I'll sometimes start the unit off more conventionally, but then make a point of listening to the students as much as possible, and actively incorporating their ideas (as informal or passing as they may be)into class whenever I can. Then, when that unit of study is done, I do my best to reflect back to the students (either formally or not) the different ways they helped shape the unit. Doing that often helps them feel more confident taking gradually more and more ownership over time.

    As I said in my previous comment, though, I recognize that our very small class size allows me to do this in ways that I imagine would be harder in a class of 20 students.