An adapted excerpt from Learning Through Academic Choice, a book by Paula Denton.
It’s social studies time in Karen Baum’s fifth grade class and the room is humming with activity. The class is finishing a unit on women gaining the right to vote, and the teacher has given students choices of ways to show what they learned during the unit. Some children are making a Venn diagram showing the rights of men and women during the era just before women’s suffrage. Others are creating comic strips telling of the events leading up to suffrage. Still other students are creating a magazine dedicated to the women’s movement of the time. A few children are writing letters referring to the suffrage movement from the perspective of people living during that era. The children are engaged and productive. They’re learning and enjoying their learning.
This scene is typical of Academic Choice in action. A key Responsive Classroom strategy, Academic Choice is a way to structure lessons and activities. When teachers use Academic Choice, they decide on the goal of the lesson or activity, then give students a list of options for what to learn and/or how to go about their learning in order to reach the defined goal.
Used well, the strategy breathes energy and a sense of purpose into children’s learning. When students have choices in their learning, they become highly engaged and productive. They’re excited about learning and sharing their knowledge. They’re likely to think more deeply and creatively, work with more persistence, and use a range of academic skills and strategies. In addition, research has generally found that children have fewer behavior problems when they have regular opportunities to make choices in their learning, a finding supported by anecdotal evidence from teachers.
Fourth grade teacher Sue Majka, thinking back to her first experiences with Academic Choice, says, “I loved looking out and seeing all these clusters of kids so busy and focused on their work, so happy with what they were doing.”
Planning, working, reflecting
Many teachers already give children choices of how or what to learn: Choose six of the following ten questions to answer. Choose a mammal to study in depth. Choose whether to write a report or make a diorama. But what sets Academic Choice apart from the choices that many teachers already offer—and what is essential to its success—is the three-phase process of planning, working, and reflecting that children go through in an Academic Choice lesson.
After the teacher introduces the activity choices, students plan what they’re going to do and sometimes how they’ll do it. In this article’s opening example, the students planned whether they were going to chronicle the events leading up to women gaining the right to vote, show what rights men and women had before women’s suffrage, or show something else they learned about the suffrage movement. Then they planned how to show their chosen content—by creating a diagram, comic strips, a magazine, or a letter.
During this phase, the children complete their chosen task. The opening vignette of this article shows students in the working phase of their women’s suffrage Academic Choice lesson.
After completing their chosen task, the children reflect on the work they did and the learning that occurred. This often consists of children presenting their work to the group and discussing some aspect of their product or process. But it can also consist of a private reflection through journal writing or a self-evaluation of their work. Whatever form the reflection takes, it allows children to make sense of their concrete experiences: Why did they make the choices they made? How did their work change the way they think about a topic? What helps them learn? What went well? Why?
This cycle of planning, working, and reflecting mirrors natural learning. According to educational researchers and theorists Jean Piaget and John Dewey as well as more recent brain research, children learn most effectively when they initiate activities based on self-generated goals, work actively with concrete materials, try out ideas, solve problems, are allowed to make mistakes and correct them, and have opportunities to stop and reflect on what they’ve done. Academic Choice and its planning, working, and reflecting cycle nurture just this kind of learning in children.
Not an add-on
“Great idea,” many teachers say, “But how do I fit Academic Choice into an already full schedule?”
The important thing to remember is that Academic Choice is not an add-on. Rather, it’s a format that can be used for many types of required lessons and activities. Academic Choice can therefore be incorporated into many portions of the day without adding to the schedule.
Academic Choice can be used for three broad purposes:
- To help children learn new skills or information
A third grade class is studying insects, and the teacher wants the children to get some basic information about these animals. The teacher gives children choices in how to get such information, including by reading a book about insects, listening to a recording about insects, interviewing someone who studies insects, or observing and recording insects’ appearance and behavior.
- To help children practice new skills
A first grade teacher would like the students to practice subtraction. She gives them a list of ten problems and lets them choose eight to solve. Then the children decide what they’ll use to solve the problems. They can choose from three manipulatives (stickers, counting blocks, or Cuisenaire® Rods), a computer program, and a worksheet.
- To have children demonstrate mastery of skills or content
A fourth grade class has just read My Father’s Dragon, and the teacher would like the students to demonstrate their understanding of the format of a heroic adventure story. He asks the students to create their own adventure story following the format of the book but to include their own original ideas. The students have an open-ended choice of characters, events, and resolutions. They also have a choice in how to present their story, from writing it, to performing a skit with puppets, to making a map showing where the major events of the story take place.
In each of these examples, Academic Choice is used to structure a core lesson, not as a supplemental activity.
How school should be
Academic Choice is a powerful tool for motivating students’ learning. When teachers use Academic Choice to structure lessons, children become purposeful learners who engage in an activity because they want to, not because the teacher told them to. They work with a sense of competence, autonomy, and satisfaction. This is essential to learning. This is how school should be.
Benefits of Academic Choice
- Supports children’s intrinsic motivation to learn
Academic Choice helps children meet their innate need to feel competent, to belong, and to have some degree of freedom or autonomy. This frees them to pursue constructive learning experiences.
- Encourages children to learn from each other
Academic Choice gives children opportunities to consult each other about their work, see each other’s finished products, and talk with each other about how they achieved their final result.
- Draws on different strengths, abilities, and interests
Having choices allows children to work from their areas of strength and personal interest. They’re then more likely to feel invested in their work and to draw personal meaning from it.
- Maximizes children’s learning
The planning, working, and reflecting process mirrors how children naturally learn. It allows them to generate their own goals, actively interact with concrete materials, and make sense of their experiences. This gradually broadens their knowledge and makes them more sophisticated thinkers.