Guiding Through Choices

May 29, 2019

Listen to the podcast version here.

SUMMARY

 PART ONE – The Power of Choice

So, as children develop from birth through childhood and adolescence, one of the most important skills that is developed along the way is the skill of choosing.  When a child or youth is allowed to choose, they develop neural pathways that, with encouragement and guidance, lead to success in critical thinking and the development of agency. Agency is that sense within a student that they have a cause-and-effect relationship and an impact with the rest of the world.

Now, if you’re involved in Afterschool or Expanded or Out-of-School Time – be sure you allow for generous amounts of time as far as choice is concerned.  Afterschool is really the perfect place to practice choice as it combines the aspect of being a “miniature society” with open-ended curriculum that for the most part isn’t state-mandated to fit a particular time aspect.

Either way, pay attention to how much time you’re allowing for choice activities, and understand that student choice takes time.

 PART TWO – Acknowledging The Social and Emotional Aspects

One of the most intuitive areas in which to activate student choice comes with learning in the social/emotional arenas.  The whole topic of Social/Emotional learning is huge today.  The fact is, allowing children and youth to explore choices socially – and then having an adult help in deconstructing the effects – that’s one of the most valuable areas of choice and leads to significant social and emotional development.

This is really where you, as a teacher, can become an artist.  We know that effective choice-making abilities vary from student to student and they differ with age and maturity.  As the teacher, we need to gauge, experiment with, and fine-tune the opportunities for social and emotional choice that we give to our students.

PART THREE – Strong Enough To Bend

In order to maximize the student effectiveness of choice and student voice, we need to strive for a structure that is in the middle.  It needs to be strong and focused – yet it needs to remain flexible, because, as we all know, children and youth can be unpredictable, and the learning process often takes some valuable detours – if we have the structure in place to allow it.

Creating a program with structures that are both strong and flexible is both a science and an art.  We have to start with that magic ingredient of INTENTION.  But we also have to cultivate our skill of being PRESENT in the moment – so that we’re attuned both to what we are setting out to accomplish as well as the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of our students.

This combination of INTENTION and MINDFULNESS is something to practice and reflect on daily.  If you’re not used to either, then it may feel like slow going at first – it may even feel uncomfortable.  But the more you practice it, the more you hone your art as a teacher in guiding your students so that they are supported, that they feel understood, valued, respected, and appreciated – ALL the WHILE guiding them down the INTENTIONAL paths of learning.

Watch the video above to get the full training.

  

INSPIRATIONAL QUOTES

     

 TRANSCRIPT:

GUIDING THROUGH CHOICE

 Hey everyone, Rick Rood here with Transforming Teachers, Transforming Education.  I’m glad you’re here – today, we’re going to be taking on the idea and practice of CHOICE – which is a key ingredient to your students’ development of AGENCY and Critical Thinking.  So, grab your journals, and let’s dive into this key topic!

 

PART ONE – The Power of Choice

So, as children develop from birth through childhood and adolescence, one of the most important skills that is developed along the way is the skill of choosing.  When a child or youth is allowed to choose, they develop neural pathways that, with encouragement and guidance, lead to success in critical thinking and the development of agency. Agency is that sense within a student that they have a cause-and-effect relationship and an impact with the rest of the world.

The development of the mental muscle of choice also allows students to act more confidently, to achieve higher goals, and understand the impact of their actions in the wider world.

The ability to choose is also vital to our sense of democracy – here in Western cultures, we hold free choice to be central in the ethical development of the individual.  Our societal sense of the importance of choice that’s central to how we have constructed all the facets of our culture.

And, so, it’s logical, then, that we as educators should be well-versed in helping children and youth practice – really to train their muscle of choice.  While much of the idea of free choice is learned from the family, the everyday education setting also has a lot to say, both overtly and subconsciously about how we value choice.

Both formal and Informal education settings are ideally equipped to allow children and youth to practice choice in safe settings and that also provides valuable learning and feedback.  When consciously and intentionally embedded into formal and informal learning opportunities, choice becomes opportunities not just for cognitive learning, but also a fertile ground for developing confidence, critical thinking skills, and social skills as well.

Every opportunity given for a student to choose strengthens their sense of self, and bolsters their confidence in their ability to navigate socially, and it teaches them evaluative and long-term thinking skills.

So – why isn’t choice used more in our education system?

First, for most of the 20th century and even up to today, most of our educational curriculum has been top-down and teacher-driven.  The more rigid the outcomes we, as educators, seek in any given curriculum, the less chance there is for meaningful choice.  Now I’m not saying that choice has to exist everywhere.  But what I’m noting is that the more rigid the curriculum is, the less chance there is for true choice within that curriculum.

So, the obvious solution is to add as much choice as any given system will allow.

A good example of inserting choice into a rigid curriculum is where the inherent beauty of the common core principles in mathematics come to life – the student doesn’t get to choose whether 2 plus 2 equals 4, it just does … but the student is given choice in how to internally come to that conclusion, choice in how to manipulate their mind map, what happens then is that the learning becomes more cemented deeply than, say, through rote memorization.  The beauty of the common core mathematics lies in the exploration and the allowance of choices in how to mentally model mathematics.  Unfortunately, the way common core is being taught in some schools, unfortunately have missed the point and that’s taken this key aspect away.

Another barrier to more choice in educational settings is that choice, well it takes more time.  With the school day already packed to the gills with schedules and timetables, choice often gets thrown out in the service of schedule.  If this happens a lot in your classroom or school, be on the lookout.  Proactively seek to put extra time in the learning schedule for choice.  Find out ways that you can embed it into what you’re already doing.

Now, if you’re involved in Afterschool or Expanded or Out-of-School Time – be sure you allow for generous amounts of time as far as choice is concerned.  Afterschool is really the perfect place to practice choice as it combines the aspect of being a “miniature society” with open-ended curriculum that for the most part isn’t state-mandated to fit a particular time aspect.

Either way, pay attention to how much time you’re allowing for choice activities, and understand that student choice takes time.

 

PART TWO – Acknowledging The Social and Emotional Aspects

One of the most intuitive areas in which to activate student choice comes with learning in the social/emotional arenas.  The whole topic of Social/Emotional learning is huge today.  The fact is, allowing children and youth to explore choices socially – and then having an adult help in deconstructing the effects – that’s one of the most valuable areas of choice and leads to significant social and emotional development.

It’s important that outside of academics – outside of the cognitive aspect of what we’re doing, whether its in a school classroom setting or an afterschool program or a preschool – it’s important that we understand, appreciate, and really pay attention to the social-emotional fabric that underlies how our classroom or program operates.  When we understand that the social and emotional components are really the supporting structure, really the frame of the building that undergird our – and our students’ – day-to-day experience, we have to look at it seriously and be intentional about how we are – or aren’t – setting it up for them.

And part of that analysis or intentionality becomes about the choices that we set up for the students to make, about the choices we’re allowing them to navigate and make on a regular basis.

For instance, think about your environment.  Do students have a choice in how they’re allowed to move around the room?  Are there rules about running and walking?  Can they choose where to sit?  Can they choose where to do assignments, can they choose where to do their projects?

If you think about the social aspect – do students have opportunities to engage socially with other students?  Can they choose their own partners for projects?  Are they allowed to collaborate on assignments?  What rules are there that govern social behavior?

Now, what I’m NOT saying here is that we should just take all the rules and throw them out the window in favor of good old-fashioned anarchy.  Now, what I am saying though is that these type of questions should be asked and analyzed.  Much of the time, we take the social-emotional fabric of our schools or programs for granted – we put it in the background and don’t really take time to think about it very much, to reflect on it.

What we should be doing is treating these aspects intentionally and really bringing as much thought and intelligence to them as we do to our curriculum and our physical environment.  We’ve established that it’s important to work with the development of our students’ sense of agency and choice… we know that it’s important that we foster their social and emotional development.  So, we need to be looking in these areas for opportunities for students to exercise choice – areas where they can strengthen that choice muscle in ways that support their overall learning and support the classroom as a whole.

This is really where you, as a teacher, can become an artist.  We know that effective choice-making abilities vary from student to student and they differ with age and maturity.  As the teacher, we need to gauge, experiment with, and fine-tune the opportunities for social and emotional choice that we give to our students.

For older students, it might be giving them the choice of where to sit during a class period, or for younger ones it may be letting them choose between available projects.

PART THREE – Strong Enough To Bend

In the big picture I like to use the analogy of an orchestra.  Now, we, the teachers are the conductors standing at the podium, and our students are our orchestra, and together we sorta play the symphony of every day.  How’s that for a metaphor?  The point of it is that one of our main jobs as teachers is really just to hold everything together – to create this cohesive whole out of the different parts of what happens during our time with our students.  To direct and make sure that everything works together.

But, using that same theme of being an orchestra, one of the hardest things for some teachers to realize is that they simply can’t run around and play all the parts.  They can direct, they can inspire… but they can’t go play the flute part for the student, and then rush to play another student’s part.  That’s the whole point – the students all have to have a part.

In order for this all to work together well – there has to be some sort of structure.  One of the key ingredients of every amazing teacher’s secret sauce is this: you need to have a structure that is both strong and flexible.  Many teachers err on one side or the other.  You probably see examples of each of those every day.

Some teachers have a teaching structure that is strong but inflexible.  I’m sure you know the type.  You might know the type… personally?  You know… classrooms and programs where the teacher’s attitude is like “my way or the highway”.  Every minute is planed out with precision, and there is no room for change or student input.  Of course, this is an extreme I’m describing … but you would be surprised how many classrooms and programs out there operate this way.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum are what I call the “loosey gooseys”.  The structure of their classrooms and programs – if you can find any structure at all – is completely unplanned, morphable by the moment, and completely and entirely unfocused.  This too, of course, is a caricature… but let’s just call it the “weak, but flexible” structure.

In order to maximize the student effectiveness of choice and student voice, we need to strive for a structure that is in the middle.  It needs to be strong and focused – yet it needs to remain flexible, because, as we all know, children and youth can be unpredictable, and the learning process often takes some valuable detours – if we have the structure in place to allow it.

I’m reminded of an old country song by Tanya Tucker, it’s called “Strong Enough To Bend”.  The song talks about a tree out in the front yard that’s never has been broken by the wind.  And why is that?  Because it is strong enough to bend.

We should keep this in mind when designing environments and experiences for our students, so that our program and classroom structure has strength, but its’ also strong enough to bend… meaning we have clear intentions and supports in place for our students’ learning… but we’re also flexible.  We honor and appreciate the detours of student opinion and we respect students’ voice, and we work to embed it in our curriculum and daily plans.

Creating a program with structures that are both strong and flexible is both a science and an art.  We have to start with that magic ingredient of INTENTION.  But we also have to cultivate our skill of being PRESENT in the moment – so that we’re attuned both to what we are setting out to accomplish as well as the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of our students.

This combination of INTENTION and MINDFULNESS is something to practice and reflect on daily.  If you’re not used to either, then it may feel like slow going at first – it may even feel uncomfortable.  But the more you practice it, the more you hone your art as a teacher in guiding your students so that they are supported, that they feel understood, valued, respected, and appreciated – ALL the WHILE guiding them down the INTENTIONAL paths of learning.

CONCLUSION

CHOICE is an important part of any classroom or program.  It strengthens your students’ ability to understand cause and effect, it bolsters the social/emotional skill of AGENCY – and it helps develop the key traits of CONFIDENCE and CRITICAL THINKING.

If you’re not actively and intentionally planning for student choice – the time is NOW to get started.  Use the suggestions we’ve talked about here to support developing choices and creating a classroom or program that has a strong, yet flexible structure.

I wish you well in your quest to implement choice with your students.  I hope that you’ve gotten something valuable from this… if you have, do me a favor, would you?  Go out on your favorite social media platforms and share this.  It helps spread the message and will impact other teachers and their students.

And always remember…

What you do is important.

How you show up for your students matters.

And together, we’re transforming education.

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