Coaches Corner: And Behind Door Number Three. . .

As teachers, we make choices at every turn throughout the school day. That includes everything from selecting which lessons to teach and how to teach the lessons, all the way down to the specific details about the students’ interaction. We hold a lot of control, allowing us to be powerful leaders and advocates both in the classroom and beyond.

What about our students? Do they hold any power? Do they have any control? Do they get to make choices? All too often, the answer is “No,” “No,” and DEFINITELY “No.” Of course, we as teachers do not set out to be power-hungry and control-driven. We certainly know how important choices are to us, so we should know that they are important for our students, right? In theory, yes, but take a walk through your school. You will likely see that, in practice, offering choices to students involves teacher-controlled “fake choices” or, even worse, you may notice that student choice is nonexistent.

Let’s begin with this last scenario. We’ll call it Door Number One: The “No Choice” Classroom. Now, we have all seen this at some point in our careers: the classic image that movie producers and book writers portray of a by-the-books teacher standing in front of a classroom of completely disengaged students. We all know the drill. The students come in, they sit down in their assigned seats, and they complete the menial task put in front of them. I think we can all agree that this is not an ideal situation for learning to take place. It’s not even a tolerable situation given what we know about engagement and student learning.

So, we move on to the other familiar setting, Door Number Two: The “Fake Choice” Classroom. In this classroom, there are centers or stations posted and a queue of various activities that students are expected to run through within the day, week, or month. Students have an option in deciding which center or station they want to work with first, second, and so forth. At some point during the classroom session, a bell rings to alert students that it is time to move to the next center or station.

The good news about the Door Number Two classroom is that students are moving around a bit and are not getting bored with a never-ending teacher lecture. In addition, students are getting exposure to small group experiences and are interacting more closely with their classmates.

The bad news about Door Number Two, however, is that because this classroom model purports to have choices available to students, teachers often stop there. Because this model feels like the teacher is offering students a choice (they get to choose which station they start with, after all…), we assume that authentic and engaged learning is taking place. Unfortunately, it is not that simplistic.

What we should be emulating as teachers is behind Door Number Three: The “Actual Choice” Classroom. It’s the hardest one to do, and rightfully so. It takes much more time and energy to plan lessons and manage tactics for this classroom. It also requires teachers to loosen the reins and relinquish much of the control over their students and the class because, in this classroom, students are making the ACTUAL choices: choosing what they want to learn about, how they want to learn it, and with whom they want to learn it.

All of this freedom may distress a teacher who is constantly under pressure to increase test scores and passage rates. They may think, “How can I give up control and still get the students to learn what I need them to learn?” The answer to this question is simpler than you may think. By offering real choices to students, they are engaged and intellectually present in the classroom, with the teacher influencing student outcomes and behavior.

It is important here to differentiate between control and influence. You see, in this kind of classroom, the teacher is not dominating, but he or she is maintaining influence over each student in the room. The teacher is still setting up classroom norms and management strategies for student success in the classroom. The teacher is also setting up the curriculum flow and academic calendar. However, the teacher now gets the added bonus of students assisting with planning and completing work in a way that suits each student’s learning needs. Student engagement is also encouraged.

With all that in consideration, are you ready to offer ACTUAL choices to your students? Have a go at offering choices in the following:

  • What students learn: Have each student discuss topics and areas of interest with you and the class. Then the teacher can use these areas as starting blocks to build classroom curriculum.
  • With whom students work: Ask each student to list the names of three individuals with whom they enjoy working. Then the teacher can create work groups to accommodate student requests while also mitigating potential disruptions and personality conflicts.
  • When students work on tasks: Encourage students to break up tasks into chunks that they feel comfortable with, and let them work on these chunks in their own order. The teacher sets checkpoints and due dates, but this allows students to have flexibility in their learning schedule.
  • Where students work: Accommodate students’ physical comfort. This might mean working on a pillow on the floor or standing at a lab table to complete projects and presentations. The teacher is still active in the classroom and monitors for potential problems.
  • How students show learning: Let students present information and show mastery of concepts in a variety of different, meaningful ways, such as a slide presentation or journal compilation. The teacher can still easily assess student mastery while allowing students to have choices in their learning.

By purposefully offering choices to students, it sends a message that the teacher cares about each student’s authentic learning and that the teacher wants the student to take control of their learning. This is especially important in our science classrooms where we want to inspire students to be the problem-solvers of the next generation. In order to encourage true engagement in science and the scientific process we must offer real, actual choice in our classrooms every day and in every lesson.

Have you had similar experiences? As comments to the blog this month, share with us your ideas and experiences with bringing new strategies into the science classroom and offering actual student choices! I hope Talley’s Take becomes a place where you and others can share your thinking about being a STEM teacher and a place where you can comment and ask questions about what others find to be highly effective strategies for teaching in STEM content fields. I look forward to your comments!

Terry Talley, Ed.D.

STEMcoach in Action!