How to implement ‘choice-based learning’

Ira Cross Jr

I am an elementary educator working in Columbus, Ohio in the US. I have a passion for innovation in ...

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Whenever I am with my girlfriend and we are both hungry there is always a discussion as to what to eat. She will say she does not know what she wants to eat. I will say “whatever you want is fine”, as a generically good boyfriend should. Then we each throw out suggestions with one person having reasons to not go to the other person’s suggested restaurant. “This place is too loud”, “that place has nothing I like”, “this place is always busy and not worth the wait”, “we went to that place last time”. The list could go on and on. One place that we always agree on is called Blaze Pizza. If you are not familiar with this establishment: You are pulled into this majestic place by the very smell of the greatness that awaits in food form. As you step towards the counter, you see a grand array of assortments. Choosing your delectable dish will be no easy task. Will you order a signature pizza or will it be a build your own? Of course you want to build your own!

Now, before I go too much into the great experience of Blaze Pizza, I am sure you want to know how this is related to anything educational and why I would torment anyone with such a delicious set up (I’m sorry if I made you unnecessarily hangry - hungry/angry). The point that I want to make is that you have choices. You can put anything that you want together and have a delicious meal made just for you, truly to your liking. After you make the choice you are satisfied. Even if you aren’t satisfied there is always the chance to go back and make a new decision based on what you previously learned about your first one. You are accountable for the decisions that you made.

"When students are accountable for their own learning, they own their learning."

As a teacher, I always want to give my students the chance to be accountable for their learning. When they are accountable for their own learning, they own their learning. It makes my job as a teacher much more worthwhile when I see that students enjoy what they are learning. They simply enjoy learning. As much as I wish that I could apply this “choice-based learning” to every subject, I understand that it is not always the best option and also not always the easiest. In order for my students to have the best chance at learning and also the best experience, there must be a lot of work on my part as the educator. Sometimes coming up with a theme so that multiple subjects are covered helps greatly in “choice-based learning”. Integrated curriculums are nothing new. Why not make them more of an experience for you and your students rather than just part of the curriculum?

While it would be great to have choices for every subject, it is not always possible for every part of every subject. However, that does not stop me from doing my best to make it work. Thanks to Dave Burgess I always ask myself how I can do something, instead of asking myself if I can. It automatically gives me choices rather than limiting me in my lessons and my students in their learning. Some ways that I have given my students choices in their learning include any activity that is student centred. This involves having students do rotating centres where they choose which activities they go to, or even just having multiple centres for the same concept with different ways of practicing, exploring, or learning them.

Anytime I do centres I always keep Howard Gardner in mind. It is obvious that not all people learn the same. Centres are an easy way to give students multiple ways to express their learning styles. However, it is imperative that I know my students’ learning style and how best to cater to them. This takes trial and error, but has still made way for great experiences as long as the activities are varied.

"When I take students’ ideas, they are proud and excited that they were a part of the lesson."

Another way to give choices to students in their learning is through project-based learning (PBL). PBL can offer so many different things that it is clearly an ideal way to give students that Blaze Pizza-esque experience. Anytime that I have done a PBL with students, I give them the opportunity to choose from a variety of options that I make and then give them a chance to come up with something that I did not. I am pleasantly surprised when students come up with something that I did not. This shows me their excitement and innovation.

I, of course, take their ideas and use them the next time I use PBL. When I take their ideas, they are proud and excited that they were a part of the lesson and that their ideas were significant enough to me that I wanted to use them. This is like any restaurant looking into their suggestions/comment box and using a customer’s idea. That customer would be so excited and proud. That same customer would of course remain a returning and loyal customer.

PBL, like Blaze Pizza, is a great experience. If students choose something that they do not like, conversely, I give students the chance to change what they are doing to something more suited to what they like. Imagine going to a restaurant, any restaurant, and they gave you some dish that you did not like / did not order. You would obviously want something else. Why shouldn’t students get the same opportunity?

The last thing that I will say about “choice-based learning” is that it offers the educator the opportunity to naturally differentiate. It is so simple to make differentiation because the students choose. Giving students the opportunity to choose something on their level to practice, below their level to build confidence, or above their level to challenge or enrich them, is what differentiation is at its core. The teacher will have to put in the work to make each of these levels obvious to their students and the students will have to be responsible enough to choose the level best suited for them.

What choice do you offer your learners? Let us know below!

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