Mason City Schools has been on a Personalized Learning Journey for the past two years where leadership and staff have immersed ourselves in the everyday challenge of creating meaningful experiences with students. While we wrestle with ambiguity and experimentation, we are guided by our belief about growing a learning culture that connects learners with one another and a commitment to the practical instructional shifts to grow a progressively learner-driven culture.
Mason’s definition of personalized learning has been adopted and adapted from Students at the Center by Allison Zmuda and Bena Kallick:
“A progressively learner-driven design where learners deeply engage in meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges to demonstrate desired outcomes.”
Choice-Boards Are One Idea Gaining Traction
Another practical PL-focused teaching move that teachers have tried this year are various types of “choice boards.” Simply put, “choice boards” can be described as menus or playlists of different learning materials.
Some thinkers in the world of Personalized Learning make some distinction between what constitutes a resource like a playlist, a choice-board, or a pathway. All of these approaches, however, have the commonality of curated instructional resources presented in a way that offers students choices amongst various materials.
Knowing the Choice-Boards are “sticky” with our district – teachers are using them, they like them, and students have responded well to them – how might we bring students into the process of designing them?
In general, choice boards (and playlists, etc.) put the teacher in the position of content curator. From this powerful position, the teacher populates the menu or board from a vast array of resources that may be self-created, found on the teacher forums, provided by textbook publishers, found on YouTube, created during conferences and PDs, and more from among many other sources. We truly live in a time of plentiful learning content. Students, in-turn, are placed in the role of chooser. They make choices amongst teacher curated materials.
Why Have Choice-Boards Become Popular?
In many ways, this teacher-curated approach makes a lot of sense. Most thinkers on personalized learning place some sort of value on students making choices. Consider these quotes from various state and national personalized learning guides below:
“We need to guide students to set their goals and work to achieve them, as well as give them choices so they learn how to make their own decisions”. – EdElements: Personalized Learning Guide
“The currency for success in the future is choice — the ability to survey options for personal and professional mobility.” – KnowledgeWorks: Navigating the Future of Learning
“Make choices about what content to learn when, or what type of learning experience they want to engage in to practice a skill or demonstrate mastery.” – Rhode Island Eduvate: Creating a Shared Understanding of Personalized Learning for Rhode Island
I don’t think you can emphasize the importance of choice more than calling it the “currency for success in the future.” In our world of plentiful content, you can easily see why teachers are making choice-boards as a way to get all of that great content in front of students. Having students make informed choices is so important! On the surface, enabling choice is just a matter of curating all of the “stuff.”
Thus, choice-boards are clearly a natural and valuable move. I commend teachers for trying these out! This move leverages a trifecta of positive aspects that make a learning environment strong:
- expert teachers with clear content strength
- a student body willing to try new things with their teachers
- a variety of easily accessible content sources
Knowing that we want to progressively put students in the driver seat, what can we do with choice-boards? In many choice-board implementations, we see teachers do a lot of the heavy-lifting. Teachers choose materials. Teachers map out, structure, and align the materials. Students make choices amongst those materials chosen by the teacher. As we continue to experiment, we should constantly reflect on our personalized learning definition, how might we shift the heavy-lifting from teachers to students?
Increasing Student Ownership
Giving Students a Seat at the Choice-Board Design Table
In recognition of this strong starting point, our next level of work is to help staff grow student capacity as co-curators for their learning. Jennifer Gonzalez argues on her Cult of Pedagogy podcast that curation requires some really deep and high-order thinking. If the teacher currently sits in the role of curator, is there some way to shift that important thinking to students? In order to shift toward being more learner-driven, can we ask “who is in charge of curating?”
Knowing the Choice-Boards are “sticky” with our district, how might we bring students into the process of designing them? Below is just one way we may give students a seat at the design table. In the ideas below, students and teachers engage in curation of materials together. The idea is that by having students engage in researching, sorting, and choosing content, they feel closer ownership.
Idea 1: Students and Teachers Co-Write Questions
From my experience coaching and designing with teachers, I find they often ask themselves a few key questions:
- What do students need to know? What does the curriculum/standards call for?
- What activities might my various learners enjoy?
- What is the appropriate level of challenge for my learners?
- What activities are available that I find manageable in my classroom, with my skill set, and in the given period of time?
Often these questions go unspoken, but remain persistent in the back of a teacher’s mind. They then use these questions to drive their curation of various materials to build a choice-board.
What if students were the ones with the driving questions first? When presented with a new topic of study, what questions might they create? For example, a teacher of sixth-grade math may tell her students they are going to learn how to divide fractions. What questions immediately pop into a student’s mind? What other questions may come up as they are given space to wonder about the topic. Some examples may include:
- Why do we divide fractions?
- How do we divide fractions?
- What are some examples where people divide fractions in their jobs or lives?
- Is dividing fractions similar to multiplying them? Adding them? Subtracting them?
Letting students brainstorm questions that may drive content learning is a bit scary for some teachers. Teachers can alleviate their fears by having their own questions ready to plug in should students not create the questions the teachers want to see. However, having students brainstorm their own questions, students begin to feel ownership of the learning experience. No longer are students learning because the teacher says they have to. Instead, learning occurs when they are chasing down leads about their own questions.
Idea 2: Students and Teachers Co-Research and Aggregate Content
Aggregation is a curation method that comes from social media and the world of blogging. Aggregators pull in content from lots of different sources and present it to a reader in a single area. In this case, our question-driven and research-minded students bring in resources from many different locations. The first step to curating our eventual choices is to pull all of these materials in the same place.
Teachers likely need to make a decision on the body of work from which students will curate content. Yes, this is a level of teacher curation. I think we can agree, however, that turning our youngest children loose on the wide world of the internet is not always the best move. Thus, a teacher may have to have some sort of body of material from which the students will curate their choices for the choice-board or playlist.
For older kids, the body of potential content could be as wide as the entire (appropriately filtered) internet. Books, videos, articles, magazines, apps and other material can be part of their content research. Younger students, however, may only end up exploring safe corners of the web as well as books, and materials in the classroom, local library, or in their own home. In our district, for example, some teachers use carefully monitored research tools Kiddle.com instead of Google. Teachers curate material collections like specific books and videos before letting their youngsters further dive into the works.
There are a number of tech tools that can help you and your team of students aggregate content.Google Docs, Padlet, and Wakelet can all create shareable documents where students can put websites, videos, articles, and citations from printed materials. Once you have collected an assortment of materials, it’s time to evaluate and sort those items.
Idea 3: Students and Teachers Co-Sort Content
Once content is aggregated (either by the teacher or through co-creative means shown in Idea 2), it is time to do some evaluating and sorting. It is powerful for a student to evaluate the quality of resources. The very act of evaluating the resources requires they have some strong knowledge of the content. “Evaluation” is a concept up near the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Engaging in this evaluative process early in the learning requires they attempt to backfill lower parts of Bloom’s. Think about how powerful it would be to have students engaging in content at that level. They build the knowledge through the evaluation process So teachers shouldn’t feel too obligated to guide their students into making a quality judgement on every instructional item found during this research phase.
As they sift through materials, they must constantly ask themselves whether or not the material they’re exploring can answer the driving questions asked in Idea 1. Teachers may find it helpful to institute some sort of analysis protocol or tool. A simple Google search turns up many ways students can identify “fake news” or other types of unreliable sources.
Idea 4: Categorization, Collaborative Filter, and Create a Choice-Board
Once materials are together, they can be sorted and categorized. Together, students and teachers can classify those materials and map it out on a choice-board of their own design. Students can then engage in a powerful tool that they helped create themselves. We are always faced with choices in life. Having the power to build those choices on our own opens up many doors to the future.
By no means is content curation the only way in which students and teachers can co-create. With reflection, creative thinking, and open minds, solutions are infinite. Hopefully this curation idea sparks other ideas for bringing another level of student ownership into choice-boards.
This co-creation and curation idea is just one way to increase student ownership in choice-boards. My colleague Tina Darling has pondered how we might use self-discovery as a way of increasing student ownership of the actual choices being made on a choice-board. She suggests ways we can ask students to reflect before making each choice.