Monday, February 8, 2010

Real Choice

I was speaking to two teachers yesterday about real choice. I distinguished it from fake choice this way. When my children were 2 and 3, and in a phase where they really wanted to do and choose everything "self", I often provided the illusion of choice to gain compliance.

Me: Well, it is almost bedtime. Would you like to put on your pajamas first or brush your teeth first?

See? Looks like choice, but it isn't. You might get to choose your order of operations, but you are still in bed by 8 and your choices made no difference to the outcome. I think school functions on many of those algorithmic (finite sequence with instructions) choices.

Me: Today we are going to show we can suit what we write to our intended audience. Would you like to write a descriptive poem or a narrative poem?

Never mind that almost none of you see poetry as a way you choose to express yourselves and the intended audience will be me. I've given you choice - and it is about as genuine as the "Have a nice day" you get in a fast food drive through.

If you haven't read Daniel Pink's new book DRiVE: The surprising truth about what motivates us, you should. You can get the synopsis by watching his TED talk, but you miss some really important stuff.

In the book, Pink talks about our world has shifted from algorithmic tasks to heuristic ones. 70% of the new jobs created are heuristic and need people who can think creatively, plan their own task and solve problems. In short, the type of people who have experience choosing in complex situations without a template. Pink argues that schools need to shift to providing choice where ever possible, and that those choices need to be about things that are important. If we want students to be engaged, we need to avoid rewards and punishment and focus on creating opportunities for flow.

Dangerously Irrelevant, a blog I read, was on this very topic recently. The essential argument was that we let students choose content but not delivery, and they need to choose both. I think I'd take it a bit farther.
  1. We need to make the content essential questions, so it is worth studying and full of choice.
  2. Then we need to co-construct what is worth doing and how we can tell if it is done.
  3. Lastly, we need to allow students to show us what they know in a wide variety of ways (not just deliver it differently).

Let's try the classroom conversation again.

Me: When you write a text message or an essay, or you compose a digital story, you use different conventions. Let's view some pieces of text and talk about the differences (class discussion ensues).

Me: Make a list of three things that you think people need to hear. For each one, write what the message is, which people really need to hear it, and what type of writing, audio/video or speaking they will listen to the most. When you are done your list, pick the one that draws you the most (students start thinking about what they believe and how to communicate it).

Me: Now when someone really communicates well for an intended audience, how do you know? (Assessment for Learning process follow. The class brainstorms criteria. I help them group the criteria, prompt for criteria that might be missing and help them think about value the criteria in relation to each other).

Me: Now look at your plan. Will you be able to show us what you know? Get a buddy to help you revise it, so you can meet our criteria for communicating well for the intended audience (good critical thinking and an opportunity for powerful descriptive feedback before the product is even created).

In my newer version, virtually ever stage of the task is heuristic. My students are designers, arts and writers, and problem solvers. They are thinking critically and making choices about a subject that matters to them. In short, they are engaged because they are choosing and their choices really matter. They are motivated by the worthiness of what they choose not the mark they hope to get, and get much closer to mastery as a result (Pink has lots to say on this subject as well).

I don't have time to do this with every lesson, but I do it every time the thing my students are learning is important. And like with my children, I have taught my students about how to make effective choices and provided a safety net for the inevitable bad choices (if it isn't safe to fail, it isn't safe to take the risk of learning).

That's what real choices are, complex problems with significance - things that encourage engagement in deep learning rather than driving through on the way to a credit and a forgettable, nutrition-less meal.

1 comment:

  1. I almost never experienced failure during my education. Consequently, failure was terrifying. To me, failure in a classroom setting = a failing mark in class.

    I have heard countless times "we learn as much from our failures as from our successes." Well, I always found a way to succeed in class without taking any risks. If failure and success are equivalent, why take a hit for getting something wrong with a risky/interesting answer when I can use a safe/sure one? I think there need to be times for being spectacularly wrong and having it be worth MORE than being right. Not lip-service about how important it is to be wrong sometimes -- real value that the kids can take to the bank.