Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Giving students choices

Last week I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by Alfie Kohn, a nationally known speaker and expert in the field of education. His audience was public school teachers and his message encouraged them to give students choices in their education. Research shows that students are more creative and more productive when they are given choices rather than having everything dictated to them.

One study he referred to had five and six year olds create a collage. The first student was given a wide array of materials to choose from to make his collage. The second student was given the same materials the first one chose. The next student got to choose his own materials and the fourth student was given the materials the third student chose and so on. At the end, the collages were judged on creativity. The collages of the students who were given a choice in materials rated much higher than those who had no choice.

In another example, one group of high school students were given a chemistry lab and all of the instructions were spelled out for them. They just followed directions and did the lab. The second group of students were given very little information and had to figure out in groups how to do the lab on their own. When tested later, the second group learned the information much better than the first. When students are not spoon fed everything, they take ownership and pride in what they are doing. Real learning and thinking takes place instead of just rote memorization that is quickly forgotten.

As I listened to Mr. Kohn speak, I kept thinking that public educators can learn a lot from the practices of home school educators. Many home school families take a child's interests and let the child learn and discover as much as he or she can on that subject. In a home school, choice is an easy thing to encorporate. Would you like to read the book you chose in your room or outside on the porch? Would you like to do your math in the morning or the afternoon? What is your passion? Anthropology? Ok, lets learn all we can about anthropology this month. Why do your eyes dialate? Why don't you try to figure that out. Here is a flashlight and there is the closet. Do an experiment and let me know what you find out.

Just last week one of you gave me an example of this at work. One student is passionate about pigs and just loves the Mercy Watson books by Kate DiCamillo. Her mom took the opportunity to let her daughter write her own Mercy Watson book. Is there a difference in the passion she will have for writing that as opposed to doing a worksheet in a language arts workbook? You better believe it! And the opportunities for reinforcing spelling, capitalization, punctuation and grammar are probably better because now they are relevant to something that matters to the student.

In the next month or so at the Home School Connection I will be giving your students some choices. The older students are going to be writing mysteries and they will have a lot of choice in what they write about. The younger students are going to be choosing mysteries by Ron Roy, from the A to Z Mystery series and the Capital Mystery series to read and do some activites with. If you see that your child is really enjoying these and you would like to do more at home, I found some excellent educator guides from Random House on the web that can easily be adapted to a home school setting. You can find them by clicking on the links above. Many of the books are available at the public library.

As I reflect on the times in my life when I was really learning and using higher level thinking and problem solving, it was not when I was listening to a lecture or filling out a worksheet. It was in times of discovery, research, using creativity and times when I had some choice, even if it was only a small choice, in what I was learning or how I was learning it. I am sure if you look back, it was the same for you. Do you have an example you can share that would encourage another parent? Leave a comment.

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