Choice, Choices, Choices

I get overwhelmed by choice very easily. In fact, one of the reasons I like being a pescatarian (vegetarian + fish) is that it instantly reduces my choices at restaurants. As much as I like feeling in control, I don’t mind when particular choices are unavailable to me because it means less decision-making stress.

Sheena Iyengar’s keynote about choice at NAIS Annual Conference 2011 has me thinking about the kinds of choices I give students. (Check out this cool graphic recording of the keynote.) She noted that people generally perform better when given choice (although this was nuanced a bit based on individual characteristics), but that too much choice can be paralyzing.

In my classes, I often employ a choices + suggestions model. Those students who get overwhelmed easily by choice can operate within the pre-defined choices, but those who feel restricted by those choices still have the autonomy to suggest alternate choices. As a teacher, it also reduces the choices that I have to make. I can think carefully through the options I initially offer students and then consider the alternate requests rather than having to think through requests by every student. The choice of topics for the Shift project worked this way.

Another way to provide choice such that students feel empowered rather than overwhelmed is to allow either choice of content or mode of presentation/demonstration of learning, but not necessarily both in the same project. For example, in a recent project, students had a choice of characters from a book to an create a glog that portrayed a page from the character’s imagined scrapbook. In an earlier project, groups all had to represent seven cultural universals in their utopia, but had a choice of forms/genres (comic, recipe, postcard, journal entry, etc).

Iyengar noted that leaders don’t give people the choices that they would prefer, but the choices that the people themselves want. For me, this underscored the importance of getting feedback from students on the things which are important to them and the areas in which offering them choice has the greatest likelihood of helping them feel empowered.

What choices are you willing to let students make? What are your concerns or hesitations in giving choice?

This Is Hard!

Overheard in my high school blended learning class last week…

How do you teach someone something without just telling it to them?

I want to play a game, but what if everyone else plays games in their lessons and people get bored of games?

You’re not going to bail us out if the tech fails?!

What if people are looking at their tablets instead of me? I don’t want to look out and just see the backs of tablet screens. How will I know if people are paying attention?

This is hard! No, seriously, this is hard.

As the final part of their cumulative project, the students in my blended learning class are planning the learning experiences (lessons) they will lead for the class in the weeks to come. Over the course of that time, each of the students will be responsible for posting prep work for students to complete prior to their class, facilitating the lesson, and evaluating students’ preparation and participation. Students who are participants in the lesson will evaluate the facilitator/teacher. (We’ve had discussions about what makes effective teachers/lessons as prep for this part of the project.) The incredible thing about the project so far has been watching students become really invested topics and then wrestle with how to teach that to others.

I will act as a student doing all the prep work and participating in the lesson. I’ve told students that I will not be intervening as an authority figure unless something happens contrary to the code of conduct in the student handbook (violence, hateful language, etc.). As a teacher, it’s no small thing to give your class over to seventeen and eighteen year olds for six and a half weeks. I’m sure there’ll be occasions when I’ll have to resist the urge to offer a correction or bail a struggling student out. In those moments, I’ll try to remember my first days of teaching. The wonderful, painful, hilarious days of fumbling to discover what it was to be head learner.

Southeastern Brain Conference

I’m presenting at the Southeastern Brain Conference being held at my school tomorrow. I’ll be talking about the blended learning class my students and I have been creating (really feels like a collaborative venture) over the past school year. Definitely one of the most exciting, challenging things I’ve done in teaching. Students are currently working on their final projects, and the energy in the class feels good.

Answering Questions About Education

A teacher working on her post-bac teaching certification wrote to ask me some questions for her Foundations of Education class. Below is my response. Feel free to push back/disagree or extend in the comments section.

Those are some big questions! I could write for pages on any one of them, so a caveat that this isn’t all I could say.

What do you think the purpose of education should be? I’m going to be a bit lazy (energy conserving) this one and point you to my philosophy of education. I think it addresses this question.

What knowledge do you think is of the most worth to students? I’m not 100% sure how your professor is using the term knowledge. I generally think skills are more important than knowledge, if knowledge is construed to be a particular set of facts. Perhaps the most important skill is how to learn. As a teacher, I don’t delude myself that students are going to carry with them the majority of the discrete pieces of information that they come across during the course of our classes, but I do hope they have built some habits and skills they can use forever.

(I was struggling a bit to formulate my thoughts on this question, so I tweeted it out. Here were some of the responses:



What values should teachers encourage their students to develop? Perseverance, self-discipline, curiosity, and joy.

What do you think is the best way for a students learning to be evaluated? I think students should play a role in the evaluation of their and their peers’ work. I wouldn’t advocate solely for self-evaluation because I think it’s often difficult to adequately assess our own work. (See Dan Ariely’s The Upside of Irrationality) That doesn’t make self-evaluations useless in my opinion; it just means I wouldn’t use them as the only measure of a student’s work. Ideally, the audience for a student’s work is larger than the classroom (through public presentation, posting it online, etc.), which opens up additional avenues for students to receive feedback on their work. I think many of the evaluation schemes used in education today are designed to be convenient for adults to grade and collect quantitative date from, not necessarily beneficial for structuring lessons and activities for student learning. I don’t think quantitative, standardized data should not be used, but I don’t believe it should be the sole evaluative strategy.

First Week Reflections

We finished our first full week of school today. A few quick reflections…

Mind warp at mad speed
This year I’m piloting a blended learning class at our school. It’s a 11/12th grade section of US History that meets twice per week in the classroom. On the other days, students have assignments to complete online and independent research they’re working on. On the days we have class, I have to make it from my sixth grade Language Arts class across campus and upstairs to the second floor of the Upper School building in less than 5 minutes.

It’s a logistical hurdle, but more than that, it’s a mental shift. This is my first year teaching juniors and seniors. So far the biggest difference I’ve noticed is how much harder I have to work to read them. Sixth graders are still at an age where most of them will cry or sing or dance or laugh or openly pout or look seriously confused in my class, but that’s certainly not the case with the juniors and seniors. I’ve dialed my usually gregarious teaching persona down a notch with the upper schoolers. Which isn’t to say I don’t get excited about ideas or make the occasional wry remark, but I’m still feeling out the right tone with them in a way that I feel like I don’t have to do with the sixth graders.

max speed 15 km/h

Can’t stop
By Tuesday, I was feeling pretty caught up on work, so I coasted a bit. (Played with blog design for longer than I should, read some articles, etc.) By Friday morning, having been at school late for Meet the Teacher night on Thursday, I was pretty snowed under. There’s a sweet spot working hard enough to keep up with the demands, but not so hard that I’m tempted to slack afterward. I am finding that working in the library during my planning periods several days a week is helping my productivity.

I love teaching
The messiness. The intoxicating feeling of getting sucked into a particular lesson or quandary. The incredible complexity of it. The hilarious things my sixth graders say and their sometimes strange obsessions (so far they include Chuck Norris, cupcakes, and eskimos). The incredulity of the Upper Schoolers when I had all their names memorized on the first day and the great personal artifacts they posted on the group blog.

Death By Lecture

Before my Upper School History class met for the first time, I asked them to complete a quick info form, so I could get a better sense of them as students. I wordled the responses to a couple of the questions.

EDIT: I want to note that the sample size for this was 11, and I’m not suggesting it’s empirical research. Just food for thought/conversation.

When do you feel most checked out/bored/uninterested in school?

When do you feel most engaged/interested/curious in school?

Dr. Drew

No, not that Dr. Drew, but Dr. Drew Becker, the Paleontologist. Drew is only 5, and one of the great things about the video is how much Drew loves dinosaurs and how clearly that comes across. He’s also ok with ambiguity and tells us the three different ideas about why the amargasaurus had a “sail thing.” Drew’s also confident enough in his knowledge that he’s willing to teach others about what he’s learned.

This is the kind of learning I hope goes on in my classes. I want students who love learning, who are willing to work through and with ambiguity, and who are confident in their ability to teach others what they’ve learned. (What better form of assessment is there than to teach what you have learned?) What I often fight against though is the years of schooling students have already been through (endured?), and the fact that I am tasked with teaching a number of students (thankfully fewer than many) at once. I’ve also still got plenty of learning to do myself about learning and how to best structure a learning environment.

Thanks, Drew, for helping me think more about ambiguity and assessment. And you just thought you were talking about dinosaurs 🙂