When I visit Park classrooms, or talk with my colleagues, I see and hear the greatest excitement in moments when our students are driving their own learning. They have gone beyond just absorbing knowledge or skills and they are running with it – each in the way they have chosen to take it. Choice itself is fundamental to this – when students have the opportunity to choose, they make learning their own. They make it meaningful, and personal, and it lasts.
I reflected on this idea in this newsletter in my first year at Park, in March 2019, which compared the “teacher-centered” classroom to a “student-centered” model of instruction, noting that in the latter, “the table is turned and the student leads the inquiry, chooses the application, designs the outcome, and participates in the evaluation of the result.” As I’ve become all the more deeply rooted in the values that make Park “Park,” I know that this learner-centered approach, one in which each student is known and seen, and comes to know themselves well, is at the heart of our educational identity.
…I know that this learner-centered approach, one in which each student is known and seen, and comes to know themselves well, is at the heart of our educational identity.
Choice not only gives students the freedom to define paths of inquiry that excite them most, but it allows them to find the ways to expand and manifest their learning that best suit their learning style. The concept of “differentiated learning” sometimes feels like jargon, but when you consider that the choices students make set each of them on a path of growth and discovery, supported by their teachers, peers and mentors, it’s easy to appreciate the very individuated nature of learning at its best.
Opportunities for learner choice happen every day, at every grade level. Our PreK students, for example, explore inquiry in the PreK Learning Centers, moving from one rich area of discovery to another as their curiosity and attention compels. In Kindergarten and Grade 1, students can begin working on something that draws them, continue that work, or start something new at points throughout their day. In making the choice to begin something, or to walk away from it for now, they are giving their imagination and spirit of discovery so many opportunities to engage, consider, play off the ideas of their peers, and refresh their engagement – naturally.
By Grade 2, students have choices in deciding the topics they want to pursue through research. What do they find most interesting? Who do they aspire to learn more about? These projects reinforce the skills they are learning, build confidence, and engender a very personalized commitment to the knowledge they pursue and acquire. To be able to say, “THIS is my research, the person I chose” and to present it – that’s a moment of tremendous, individual pride. In Grades 3 and 4, students are making their own choices on how to present and demonstrate the learning and knowledge they gain through their studies of Indigenous Peoples and of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, and Heroines.
Tina Fox frequently highlights the ways in which choices inspire and develop self advocacy, personal accountability, engagement, ownership, and navigating skills. She notes that “Our youngest learners have fewer opportunities for choice, in general, so the choices they have at school are scaffolded so they can practice decision making, learn from their decisions, and appreciate the associated positive and negative consequences of those choices.”
Making good choices, however, requires practice. It requires empowerment. Our students need to feel confident in evaluating their options, and have the strength to choose their own paths – intellectually, as well as socially.
By Upper Division, there is so much choice. Shall I study French, Spanish, Mandarin, or Latin? Do I want to play soccer, join the play, or compete in Robotics? What about Elective classes? Will I join a club? Are affinity and/or alliance spaces an opportunity for me? All these choices, layered on top of the choices made every day in what to read or research or present in class, allow students to individuate all the more fully. As Ken Rogers observes, “Developmentally, choice is critical to crafting and developing identity — who they are and who they want to be.” He notes that “Choice allows students exposure — the ability to experiment and try, to polish, as well as the opportunity to commit and refine. All of these are essential along the path of lifelong learning.”
Making good choices, however, requires practice. It requires empowerment. Our students need to feel confident in evaluating their options, and have the strength to choose their own paths – intellectually, as well as socially. While students choose the world language they wish to study as they approach Grade 6 and stick with it through Grade 8, other choices are revisited again and again, providing multiple opportunities for experimentation and self definition. At an age when so much of one’s self image is often defined through peer relationships, it takes courage to decide to skip a season of basketball and try out for the winter musical, especially in the face of expectation from peers. But taking these risks by making these choices makes room for broader experience and new discoveries. That’s exciting, and it’s a joy to watch.
As author Heather Wolpert-Gowron shares, “We have, in our very classrooms, the brains that will solve the problems of tomorrow, but to give them training means we have to give their neurons a chance to solve the problems of today.” This is what our students get to practice, every day, with every opportunity to choose.
What choices did your child have the chance to make today?