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!
This is Elmarie’s class blog. She has embedded a Wallwisher page as a way of collecting her students’ thinking. She is asking parents to speak to their children about school and get them to tell them what they enjoyed most about school this week. Then, the parents “post a sticky” on the wall to share what their kids said. How cool is that?
When going through Kelli’s photos of her SLCs, I was blown away by the richness of the experiences that were being had by the students and parents of her class. Even though these are “silent” photographs, each picture definitely “tells a thousand words”. The language, both English and mother-tongue, must have been so rich in that room!
One of the main things we can learn from this set of photos is the immeasurable value of taking photos as a way of gathering assessment data. Kelli learned a lot about her students by watching them so closely through the lens of the camera. She knew what she was hoping to see and then captured it visually.
Check out the parents who built a puppet theatre from scratch – priceless!
What were the highlights of your SLCs?
The presentations were kicked off this time by the Early Years team and a variety of guest performers. They had made a very professional video in the form of a breaking news story about the recent high demand for teaching positions in Early Years! The video was extremely funny but also set out key points about how language is taught and learned. Viewers were challenged to complete a puzzle in order to have a chance of working in EY and the main message of the puzzle was “It’s all about language”. The team feel very strongly that everything they do is about language development, there are no moments in Early Years teaching and learning that do not involve language enrichment.
Here is their video:
Here’s some photos of a variety of Mums, Dads, Grandmas, Grandads, teachers and assistants reading and telling stories in the students’ home languages.
There was a great buzz in EY this morning as so many stories were being shared in so many languages – English, Thai, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, Hindi and Korean!
Several of the EY teachers have been talking about the effect of these sessions on their students and I will invite them to share their thoughts by commenting on this posting.
Conceptual understandings from IB Language Arts Scope and Sequence Document
I went down to Early Years this morning, hoping to pop in to some classrooms and learn about how language is taught and learned with those tiny kids! They were having their break when I first arrived, so I sat down and caught up on a few emails. Twenty minutes later, they were still at break.
“Hmm… they do have a long break don’t they?” I thought to myself and started to head off to another year group.
Luckily, though, I overheard a conversation that was going on between three girls in the little house by the front of EY. They were pretending to bake a cake and were discussing the ingredients of a cake, the process of how to bake a cake and the workings of an oven. They were also negotiating turns at doing each task and giving each other instructions to pass on their skills!
The time that these kids have to play gives them time to immerse themselves into their games and to set up scenarios that call for all sorts of communication and social skills to be used.
Another group of kids had set up the giant bowling pins and were being taught how to throw the bowling ball by one particularly confident boy. He had also organised a system for putting the pins upright again and collecting the bowling balls for the next person.
All around me were little social situations in which the kids were developing and applying social and communication skills. Language in its purest form.
But, what of the teachers? What about assessment? Is it really learning if the teachers aren’t teaching?
Well, the teachers on duty were watching, observing and guiding the students when situations arose that the students needed guidance or extension in. That is teaching, isn’t it?
Then, just before I left, I came across something very exciting. Four girls sitting together and sharing a book. Four girls who now, as Bonnie Campbell-Hill’s continuums put it, “see themselves as readers”.
Conceptual understandings from IB Language Arts Scope and Sequence Document
Speaking and Listening:
Viewing and Presenting:
Early Years are just kicking off their Who we are unit of inquiry with an inquiry into language and our sense of identity and belonging. To get the unit going, they are inviting parents and other members of the school community to come in and read stories in their home language to the Early Years students who share the same language.
This is an ongoing initiative so watch this space for more photos, maybe some videos and some comments from Early Years teachers to let us know what effect these sessions have on student learning and inquiries.