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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Liven Up Your Lessons by Giving Students Choices

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Last summer, I went to the Fourth of July celebration at a lake in San Antonio, Texas. While my family and I waited on the shore for the darkness to signal the start of the fireworks displays, we were intrigued by an enterprising young man working his way through the people sitting in folding chairs and on picnic blankets.

He was a balloon artist, and his simple business plan was proving to be very effective. He would ask a child what he wanted, and he would create it for him. We watched, amazed, as he made flowers, swords, poodles, Spider-Man (it was awesome), scepters, and crowns. There seemed no limit to what he could create with simple balloons.

He had no want for customers, as they flocked to him rather than the other way around. He probably made enough money that night to cover much of his monthly living expenses!

Same Old Same Old

This experience got me thinking about another balloon artist I saw on television. On an episode of the sitcom My Name is Earl, the main character, dressed up as a balloon-making clown, is gruffly asking all the boys and girls at the party, "Do you want a snake, an eel, or a worm?"

It's clear that Earl was either unwilling to tie the balloons into the typical dogs, giraffes, and butterflies, or perhaps he didn't want to expend the effort, or maybe he didn't know how to create the shapes. So, instead, he just made long, straight balloons in a lame effort to give the children a choice.

In differentiating our instruction and student learning in our own classes, do we sometimes play the same trick? Rather than provide a rich variety of learning activities, do we simply stick with our favorite -- a tried-and-true strategy -- and maybe dress it up a bit by having students answer the odd-numbered questions in the book rather than the even-numbered ones?

If we do that, in essence, we aren't even asking students, "Do you want a snake, an eel, or a worm?"

Could it be that we don't know how to tie the balloons, or that perhaps we just don't have the energy to make them interesting? Heaven forbid that we might be reluctant to make the attempt, yet in many cases, I am afraid that some teachers praise the virtues of snakes, eels, and worms far too much.

The truth is that bookwork, copying notes, listening to lectures, filling in the blanks on worksheets, and coloring between the lines make up a large portion of the schoolwork in our classrooms. No wonder students are unimpressed when teachers try to engage them in these passive, uninteresting activities. Snakes, eels, and worms are boring!

Engage with Variety and Choice

Recently, I asked a 14-year-old student why he was struggling in school. He explained that it's because school is boring. To be blunt here, when I took five days recently and followed one student each in first grade, third grade, sixth grade, eighth grade, and ninth grade all day long through each of their classes, I was bored most of the time. I found it hard to sit still for so long, and I wondered how the students got through it.

I think you get the picture. As teachers, we need to start creating more elephants, giraffes, and swords -- and that awesome Spider-Man.

Let's say it's Monday, and the goal is to get students to read a textbook chapter for content and understanding. As a resource, textbooks have lots of information, but they are not the only source for information and learning.

I'd like to suggest that you offer something like the following selection for your students to choose from:

  • Create a slide show presentation to illustrate the major points of the chapter as if they were teachers teaching younger students.
  • Develop a newspaper article or a journalistic TV report about the chapter as if it were breaking news.
  • Prepare a debate on the chapter's main points and pose as either politicians or lawyers presenting their persuasive arguments.
  • Write a drama about the contents of the chapter and perform it to their peers and parents.
  • Construct an encyclopedic database of vocabulary, terms, and concepts included in the chapter, as well as prior knowledge that needs to be understood, and questions that are yet to be answered.
  • Design a virtual field trip to study topics and concepts to be learned based on the content of the chapter.
  • Invite experts to visit their classroom and ask them questions about their expertise based on the content of the chapter.
  • Use the contents of the chapter to devise an experiment to prove or disprove the assertions made in the chapter.
  • Fill the walls of the classroom with essential questions gleaned from the chapter and challenge the teacher and other classes to a content quiz show.

In each of these options, not once is it necessary for the teacher to say, "Open your books to page 37 and answer the questions at the end of the chapter." We want the students to love the content as much as we do, not to hate it. If we can get them to love it, then they will continue to learn.

Just as I saw the children's faces light up on the Fourth of July when they saw the balloons transformed into flowers or Spider-Man, I have seen students light up when the teacher takes a passive activity and makes it an active one.

Please share some ideas that you have found effective in transforming boring activities into energetic learning adventures.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

De'Aundrea Moore:

You successfully demonstrated why school sport programs get more attention than academic programs. They are fully engaging.

Thanks for the great example!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

[quote]I'm just wondering: But, what about the possibility of asking students how they think it would be most effective to learn this material. Of course, in order to answer your question they'll have to start learning the material. But, that's ok, right?

Andrew Pass

Current Events Blog[/quote]

Andrew:

I really like your idea! "Students we have to learn how to diagram a sentence. What way do you think would the be best way to learn how to do this?...I have some ideas but I wanted to hear yours first--Yours will probably be a lot more fun." Hmmm... I think it could work. It certainly sends a clear message to the students--

Thanks for sharing.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

[quote]I am new to the Edutopia Community! I love this blog and have always thought it boring to just sit and hear the same song and dance over and over. I remember sitting in a classroom in the mid to late 1980's and having to read a certain chapter in the textbook and answer the questions at the end. I longed for more excitement in my learning, which I did not recieve until I was in middle to high school.

When I graduated college and entered my first teaching assignment, I was determined to teach creatively and with excitement! My fist real "leap" was when I taught a lesson on fractions to my third graders. Instead of just standing at the board and teaching that this circle is divided into parts and so on, the class and I performed a skit called The Pizza Delivery Man. I went to Pizza Hut and got some pizzas donated and we performed a skit based on fractions. The kids got to write the script and I helped them to edit it to fit the lesson. In the skit, the delivery man delieved the pizza and went into a description of parts of a pizza. It went really well! The kids enjoyed it and they never had a problem learning fractions from that day forth!

In looking back on that lesson and many others that I have created since then, I see growth. If you are a new teacher, you can start small. Using puppetry is a good way to start off. I have a puppet I use in my classroon when I introdcuce a new topic. The goal is keeping their attention and allowing them to learn the concepts that they need to learn!

Please respond with questions or comments if you have them! Thanks![/quote]

Bret:

Can we clone you? These are great ideas for making learning memorable for students--that is really what we want isn't it? We want them to remember what they have learned. I have seen dedicated teachers do crazy things to help students stay engaged: singing, dancing, "wrap", dressing up in civil war costumes, playing the banjo, experiments, games and competitions...

That's how you do it.

Keep up the good work.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Trish's picture

Today's students are just so accustomed to being entertained 24/7 that I can see how school might seem boring to them. They have Nintendo's, iPods, Computers, Cartoon Channels, cellphones, and more to keep them constantly entertained while they are not at school. The information that they have to learn in school must seem tiresome after getting all the celebrity gossip, music videos, and talking with their friends that they can get at home. I think that, on top of creating differentiated instruction, finding ways to make the information relevant to students lives is an excellent way to engage them. For example, I have had to teach a lesson introducing Shakespeare to students in a grade 9 ELA class. Instead of talking about Shakespeares background, I began the lesson with some of the students favorite rap/ hip-hop songs. We discussed the lyrics and I had them try to figure out what each song was. Once that was done, the students were interested. I had them hooked. Then, I took several of Shakespeare's sonnets and famous lines from his plays and had the students intertwine these with lyrics from their favorite songs to make a new song or poem. They really enjoyed this lesson because it made the information about Shakespeare and his writing relevant to their lives. They could relate to what Shakespeare was saying because some of their favorite artists sing about the same things. Making the material we are teaching important, in some way, to the students is what is going to help us teach them what they need to learn. Combining that with differentiated instruction will lead to less boredom in class and less students asking when they will ever use this in their real lives.

Bob Gurung's picture

I always consider the kids as the updated version of us. They are new, fresh & with active minds. So, i think we should focus on creative studies. Times when i used to be in school were really primitive ways, like we have to by-heart everything without knowing it's uses in daily life. I am very happy with the kind of teaching techniques changing day by day in a good way. I teach my students in such a way that they don't feel that they are in a classroom, so it's fun and at the same time it's educational too.
Chrysalis School Montana

Lindsey's picture

Offering choices is something I find to be challenging at the Preschool level. Although I want to offer as many choices as possible to engage every child, one has to be careful with how many and what kind of choices we allow a 4 year old to make. At the preschool level, I think one of my jobs is to help guide the students as I offer choices so that we will be working towards specific outcomes.

Vanessa Hildebrandt's picture

In high school, I had a biology teacher who created a contract unit. This teacher used a rubric to outline what it would take to earn a particular grade. You needed to complete so many projects out of a list in each topic of the unit. Some projects required independent work while others were a collaboration with other students. As a student, I responded to this because I was given some control on how I learned the topic and what I earned as a result of my learning. As a young teacher, I have kept this method in my back pocket when the time is appropriate.

Julie's picture

I enjoyed reading your post and I do agree with you. The first obstacle a teacher faces when teaching is getting their students engaged in what they are learning. I'm an intervention specialist at the high school level where I was in full inclusion classes all day. I too found myself bored many times and vowed that when I would teach I would really take the time to try to "sell" what I was teaching to my students so that they would be engaged and "buy" into it. I will be teaching a freshman English resource room this year and will give my students choices in their learning. I think when students have a say in their learning or how they are assessed, then this holds them accountable for their learning and makes them more willing to participate since they were involved in the decision making processes.

Julie's picture

I enjoyed reading your post and I do agree with you. The first obstacle a teacher faces when teaching is getting their students engaged in what they are learning. I'm an intervention specialist at the high school level where I was in full inclusion classes all day. I too found myself bored many times and vowed that when I would teach I would really take the time to try to "sell" what I was teaching to my students so that they would be engaged and "buy" into it. I will be teaching a freshman English resource room this year and will give my students choices in their learning. I think when students have a say in their learning or how they are assessed, then this holds them accountable for their learning and makes them more willing to participate since they were involved in the decision making processes.

Jodi Null's picture

I agree that you need to give students options or they will get bored and not enjoy your class anymore.

I am working on different ideas of different types of Math assignments to give my students rather then just practice problems.

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