Interest-Based Learning

An Old School Teacher Experiments with Student Choice

June 8, 2017 Updated June 6, 2017

If you’re like me, you read posts about educational strategies and think, That’s so cool! Then, you think of all the reasons why it won’t work with your kids. Student choice is one I toyed with for years. When I taught first grade, students had multiple choices to make each day, but they were always fixed choices set up by me.

Two years ago, I moved up to teach third grade. I began by following much of what the teachers before me had always done, including the annual first big research project on an endangered species. The kids gained so many writing and inquiry skills through this activity. I knew this was one I’d continue as I began to put my own flavor on my instruction. But once their reports were complete, we moved on to other priorities. I was discouraged that there was little opportunity for students to continue practicing those new research skills.

This past school year, finding a way to reinforce those skills was on my mind. An additional concern was the variety of engagement, concentration, and work speed of this year’s group. Creating worthwhile activities for kids who finished early and finding the time for my slowest finishers was never ending. I wanted to find a constructive activity for students that was truly student driven, but age appropriate.

My teaching partner and I each had our classes read paired texts on trees and create their choice of products to demonstrate what they had learned. When the project inspired even reluctant workers, and some of the posters went 3-D, I knew I needed more student choice.

This year, once the endangered species reports were complete, I introduced my class to a new project. First, I had students individually brainstorm topics they were interested in. Then I explained that whenever they had spare time they could work on a personal learning project.

The topic was entirely up to them. I conferenced with a few children to help them narrow a subject that was too broad. Each child filled out a form listing their name, the date, their research topic, the sources they intended to use, and how they intended to share their knowledge with the class. Our district has one-to-one iPads. So, in addition to books, Epic, BrainPOP, and websites accessed by QR codes were all available.

The driving question became, “What do you want to learn about?”

At first, I scheduled time to work on our PLPs, as my third graders began calling them. This gave even my slow workers an opportunity to participate. I conferenced with students as needed, but most work was completed on their own. With no time limit, projects were completed on different days. It was never hard to find a few minutes for a student to present to the class.

Not surprisingly, several students started off by researching another animal, using some of the sources we had used for our previous report. As time went on, their areas of interest expanded. They researched sport teams, biographies, careers, other countries, rocks, and tectonic plates. Some kids took weeks to complete a project, while a few completed two or three each week. The depth and quality of the products varied with ability. While the pieces were less well organized than what my third graders produced with guidance, the content and creations were engaging and the learning was evident.

Most students preferred to create posters or infographics. Some wrote an additional report. A few chose to create a short video using Explain Everything, saved to SeeSaw and displayed to the class using the Reflector app. A couple of kids took their research home to complete their products with adult help. A girl and her mom created a model of the solar system. A boy and his grandpa built a two-and-a-half-foot tall house, for a project on home construction. Pets came to visit and artifacts were brought from home. After students presented to the class, their products were displayed in the hall for the rest of the school to see.

One day we had a class discussion about a Scholastic News article on tornadoes. When a student used his knowledge from a PLP to correct another student’s misconception that tsunamis were caused by hurricanes, I knew we were on to something special.

I can’t wait to see what next year’s class creates.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Student Voice
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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