This article was written by Michael Cocks — a History teacher from Australia who runs a educational History website, and is a textbook author, a fact-checker for the BBC History Magazine, and is a Microsoft Innovative Education Expert. Check him out on Facebook and Twitter.
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What if you gave students the choice of how to learn?
Last year I walked into my classroom with a new idea. During the first five minutes of the lesson I gave my students the necessary instructions and then for the next hour, they all worked quietly, diligently and enthusiastically. Rather than just standing in front of them and talking, I spent the time observing the students and working one-on-one with those who needed help. At the end, I asked the class how they enjoyed their lesson. Without exception, every single student said that they loved it and wanted to do it again. As I walked out of the classroom I was amazed by how simple and effective my idea had been.
What did I do? Simply put, I let my students choose how they would learn that lesson. However, this was not simply asking for a class vote which meant that the majority decided what everyone did. Instead, I let each student choose how they wanted to learn during that lesson and I let them do it.
So how does this work? First, let me tell you how I came up with the idea.
A new teacher’s experience
As a new teacher, I immediately assumed that once I knew how to teach a particular lesson, I could simply replicate that same strategy year-after-year. So, if I created a particularly interesting PowerPoint, I thought that I could use that same PowerPoint over and over again. However, after creating several lessons that worked extremely well in my first year, I was disappointed to find that that same lessons fell flat in my second year.
This frustrated and confused me. I pondered at length why this happened and it began to occur to me that the time of day that I delivered the lessons may have had an effect. I noticed that different teaching strategies were more successful at different times of the day.
To test my new theory, I changed my lessons to try and match my teaching strategies based upon what time of the day I taught it. I reserved direct teaching (PowerPoint, etc.) for the first lesson of the day, when students could maintain focus the longest. During the middle of the day I used activities that favoured participation and research. Later in the day I used activities that incorporated multi-media elements to encourage attention when their energy levels were low.
This meant that I had to make sure that students learnt the same information in a variety of different ways. As a result, I had to create up to five different ways of delivering the exact same lesson.
My hard work paid off and overall, students responded well to the kinds of activities I gave them at different times of the day. However, I noticed that even though this was effective for most students, I still didn’t see increased results across the board.
Digitising my classroom
After talking with some of my struggling students one day, I discovered that they did not like a few activity types I had been using. They preferred, and did better at, other teaching strategies which I had reserved for other times of day.
It then occurred to me that I could cater teaching strategies to individual students rather than basing activities upon the time of day.
But how could I have different students learning in different ways, all at the same time, in the same classroom? The answer: with clever use of student technology.
Luckily, every student in my class had a laptop. I decided to do a trial, allowing students to choose which way they wanted to learn in a lesson. Those who wanted to research, could. Those who wanted to do reading, could. Those who wanted to do source work, could. Those who wanted to engage with multi-media content could.
To facilitate this, I controlled which resources they used in their chosen activity so that I could be sure that no matter what they chose, they would all learn the required skills and knowledge.
To confirm that each student had completed the learning successfully, they had to pass a pre-prepared quiz at the end of the lesson. Therefore, no matter which learning style they chose, I could ensure that they had successfully completed the lesson.
A roaring success
Once I had my new idea in place, and once I had all the resources prepared, I ventured into the classroom on that fateful day to test it out. The scenario I began this blog post with outlined how wildly successful it was.
I have now used this idea across multiple year levels, across multiple topics and every time I ask my students for feedback, it has been universally praised. Furthermore, student outcomes on assessment pieces also show that they successfully learnt through this approach.
It must be said that the ‘choose your own lesson’ idea has been so successful mainly because I was able to make all of the lesson resources available digitally and my students could access whichever resources they need for their chosen learning style. You can see an example of one of my lessons here.
Advantages of a digital classroom
After six months of refining my new idea, I have come up with some clear positives to creating a ‘choose your own lesson’ format through a digital classroom:
- Students feel ownership over their learning when given the power of choice
- If they miss a lesson, they can still choose how to learn and access all the same digital resources at home
- Students could do multiple activities if they struggled with the content
- It freed me up to work one-on-one with students
- I can direct students to do particular activities to help develop areas of weakness
- Extension activities are readily available to students as they finish
Whilst I have been overwhelmed by how well received the ‘choose your own lesson’ approach has been, I have found that there are some limitations (as is true for any approach):
- Don’t do it for every lesson. Variety is the spice of life. If it becomes ‘the norm’, students will grow bored.
- Make sure students use a variety of learning styles, not just stay with one. Don’t let students take the ‘easy road’ every time.
Why not give it a go?
As teachers, we constantly seek ways to engage students and find ways for them to take charge of their own learning. For many of us, we want to help young people become life-long learners. I know that is what I want to achieve as a History teacher. The ‘choose your own lesson’ idea has been a winner so far and I will continue to explore how to use it in my classroom. Why not give it a go and let us know how it went?
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