Allow choice but insist on depth

Width vs. Depth

Allowing for student choice is a vital element in a modern education. Good teachers know this.

However, it is possible to go too far and allow for too much student choice – it places the focus on width rather than depth. It can rapidly devalue the power of the teacher as the person who guides students deeper with their learning through informed choice and decision-making, the person who has high expectations for their students.

Let’s start looking at this in an early years context. Many early years teachers claim that children should just be free to play and choose to do whatever they like, whenever they like. They like to call this “learning through play” and they get upset when anybody suggests that they design learning experiences for the children and have any sort of expectation that children engage with it. So, in essence, this approach suggests that “learning through play” is the freedom to choose from a wide variety of activities. Children may wander from one thing to another, perhaps rarely or never engaging with anything to any depth… or being expected to.

Now let’s fast-forward a few years. Surely we are hoping to bring up young people who are capable of giving their full attention, their curiosity and their interest to things. To do so, they will need to learn how to engage with things fully, the process involved in taking your learning beneath the surface. This is the type of learning that results in people who are experts, who are in their “element”, who achieve that state of flow, who are fulfilled and who have been able to develop their talents, passions and interests fully.

This all needs to be learned, over a period of many years.

A powerful early years education lies in the hands of early years educators who understand that there is a massive difference between “learning to play” and “learning through play”. Freedom of choice to roam from one activity to another is really “learning to play”. Engaging with ideas and concepts, coming to new understandings through a series of purposeful experiences – yes, planned for by teachers – that feel like playing are “learning through play”.

Young children are capable of going to great depth with their natural tendencies for curiosity, puzzlement, experimentation, trial and error, repeating, observing and risk-taking. The only thing holding them back, all too often, is the attitude of the adult who believes they are not.

With older students, say 10 and 11 year-olds, the teacher’s understanding of how much student choice to allow for continues to be very important. Of course, have a “student-choice mindset” in that you are looking for frequent opportunities to create the conditions for it. However, don’t allow it to become so dominant that it dilutes learning by limiting opportunities for students to engage with things to real depth. Allow choice because it gives you more of a chance that students will be able to settle on things that really interest them, but then insist on – and guide them towards – a commitment to depth.

Frequently, when teachers are disappointed by what their students have produced, they will shift the blame back to them and say “well… that’s what they chose”. Or, they shift the blame to the new pedagogy they are being expected to facilitate and say “well… we’re supposed to let them choose”. The fact of the matter is you – the teacher – allowed them to make that choice and opted not to get involved, to intervene, to guide… to teach!

This has been a very hard blog posting to write because its difficult to explain this simply and, no doubt, I have failed to do so! I will continue to ponder it and try to find ways to capture it… in the meantime, please help me out by making some comments!

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2 comments

  1. Desiree

    Sam, I get what you are saying and think you have expressed this pretty well. Like your width vs depth analogy.
    You used the word ‘guide’ twice and yes, that’s what we need to do. Sometimes we need to ‘guide’ their choices as well as guide their learning once they have made their choices.

    • sherrattsam

      Yes, in fact it’s an interesting shift in our role as a teacher when see ourselves as guiding choices. We then become genuine mentors.

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