Teachers heighten engagement using student choice

Inspired by recent professional development and the work of a Sandshore colleague, two Mountain View third grade teachers created an entire week of science lessons that put students in the driver’s seat of their own learning. Emily Cali and Courtney Koppinger gave their students the power of choice by allowing them to select how they were to learn the subject matter and also the activities they would complete to show their learning.

The teachers provided their classes with a chart of five lessons that had to be completed by the end of week. Students were given the choice of deciding which of the two activities listed for each lesson they were going to complete. And, to empower students even further, the kids could do the lessons and projects in any order they wanted.

Student choice and self-directed learning form one of the key components of personalized learning, a focus of the entire district. Studies show that choice provides students with greater autonomy in their own learning, thus increasing engagement and motivation.

“Student choice encourages independent, self-directed learning that allows students to explore on their own,” said Mrs. Cali. “They become invested in their own education and that means they’re going to come away with more knowledge and greater satisfaction. Over the course of the school year I’ve been gradually including more opportunities for choice. The professional development we had [with Dr. Rob Zywicki, superintendent] really inspired me.”

Every day teachers provided some direct science instruction before students were set off on their own to learn and do. Peek into the classrooms during science time and you’d see a flurry of activity with students engaged in completely different projects. Some were researching fossils and making their own with modeling clay, others were creating presentations on snowy owls and the ways the birds have evolved to survive in their environment, and still others were watching video clips about cicadas and creating booklets that compared and contrasted their life cycles with others the class had learned about.

To the outside observer accustomed to the old model in which teachers stand in front of the class dispensing information, it might have looked like anarchy. It was far from it. The teachers were there to guide students every step of the way (and occasionally throttle back over-enthusiasm).

“Student choice means that teachers have to be comfortable giving up total control of the delivery of instruction and letting kids take the reins for themselves,” said Ms. Kloppinger. “It completely changes the classroom dynamic. The students feel in control, successful, and in charge of their own learning.”

The teachers had previously used a student choice board for social studies. That went so well, they expanded and tailored the concept further for the week of science lessons.

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