“It’s important…to see your role as helping to guide student thinking, not trying to control the choices they make. This can be a hard balance to strike, especially if you crafted certain choices with specific students in mind. It can be tempting to try and sway their decision, but as soon as we start to lead students toward a certain choice, we erode their sense of control and may lose their trust….Instead, guide students’ thinking, helping them make choices for themselves.” (Anderson, Mike, Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn, pg. 100)
When I reflect on student choice, both in class and on homework, I find that Anderson’s words really resonate for me. I think I am pretty comfortable with making all choices available to students, even challenging options, especially when it comes to not limiting struggling students–for example, I create homework documents for the 7th grade team that guide students to a recommended homework choice, but I accept any work from my students that strengthens their understanding of the material in the essential question(s) guiding the day’s work, even if it wasn’t the “assigned” choice.
But I know I am guilty of strongly recommending that a student go a certain homework assignment, especially if I have written it as specific test preparation or if I know a given student is struggling with the material. I think, with a frank look at why, that I don’t trust students to know themselves well enough to know what they need to work on and practice! Time feels limited, homework time is at a premium, and I want, as the all-knowing teacher, to guide students to make their best choices….or at least to what seems to me to be their best choices. Anderson’s words remind me to be cautious in passing judgement from the outside:
…although you may craft certain choices with specific students in mind, these choices should be available to everyone. I have often been surprised at students who choose options when I had someone else in mind….Likewise, the specific students we’re thinking of…still need to be able to choose any of the options you offer….[A student] may have some very good reasons for making a choice that appears too easy, and you need to both trust her judgment and help her learn from the choices she makes. (Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn, pg. 88).
I find myself back at the question of time–when I have time (and routines) that allow me to talk with my kids, I have a better chance of getting the information that informs their decisions.
I have one particular high-performing student this year who is extremely driven. When I think about my personal wishes for her, I wish she could enjoy learning with a little less intensity about grades, but I also completely understand the need to feel that you have done your best work–this drove me at her age and continues to underpin all aspects of my work. I have worked with this student a few times to suggest if she would be ready to do some less-traditional practice, less focused on drilling herself and more focused on expanding her options. But I always need to tread lightly here. She is a student who will do what the teacher asks, even when it may not be actually “asked” (just suggested) and even when it may not be what she really needs.
This student is a competitive gymnast as well as a high-performing student across all subjects. It may be that she has chosen to spread her interests that way, across two areas of her life, and that she needs to keep her work at “skill/drill” in order to do both. I saw myself struggling at St. Paul’s in the same position–I needed way more time to be able to do the work at the level I wanted to perform for myself and I needed to be able to make choices about my non-academic life there. When those options were restricted, I lost my balance and couldn’t go forward on either front.
When I left St. Paul’s that summer, one thing I had learned about myself was that I needed to make life choices moving forward that allowed me to balance a range of activities in my life–academics, physical activity, church, social. That meant I still needed a study hall each day so that I could do the quality of work I wanted to do academically but that I would also have time after school to be at a church retreat for a weekend or be the stage manager for a play.
No one really talked to me about these things when I was in high school, but I know that some of those choices were deliberate and others were more evolved-as-it-happened. When I was working to redirect my life heading into senior year, I deliberately chose a college where I knew I could do my 100% on academics and still have time to do other things, because I had learned that I needed that balance and variety in order to be okay for myself.
When I look at my students, I remind myself to trust them to know where they need their own balance. Yes, some kids just aren’t motivated (yet) by the homework options or by putting in academic work. I get it. But I also think we need to work to trust our students (and talk to them about their choices) to find out why they are making the choices they are. Does my student sign up for Directed Study when possible because she wants some time in school to get a head start on her work so she can balance gymnastics and meet her personal expectations for her academics? If so, who am I to assume that I know why she is making the choices she is making? Who am I to tell her she can’t make that choice for herself?