Chocolate Ice Cream & Mario Bros.

Although I still consider myself very much a newbie when it comes to this whole teaching thing, I’ve found that one important tool in many veteran teachers’ arsenals is the use of choice. Providing students with options for assignments, goals, and learning tasks can be very important to them. Even if they want the computer lab lights on or off during typing time can be an impressive motivator. Perhaps it’s been the guidance of my terrific mentors that have helped me realize the power of choice, or my first principal, who was steeped in the knowledge and theory of Love and Logic. Whichever is the case, I’ve found that giving my students choices in their learning can be an even bigger motivator than the technology we’re using in class.

Case in point:

I’m currently reviewing with my third graders how to create a graph using data in Open Office Calc (similar to Microsoft Excel), and this time around I’ve decided to let them choose what data to collect. Usually I give the entire class some silly question like “what’s your favorite flavor of ice cream” or “what night of the week do you watch the most TV” and then take a poll of the class. We use that data for our graphs, and call it a day. But when I review I like to make creating graphing more about the process of crafting a question, coming up with choices, polling other students, and then working on the graph at their own pace. The kids are immediately hooked by the ability to ask other students questions about their favorite pets or colors, and then choose what type of graph they want to create (bar, pie, etc.). The level of participation and excitement over something as simple as the choices I give these students is overwhelming. The need to see their question, with their choices, on their graph is quite a compelling learning tool.

Too often I feel that computer labs are seen as the exact opposite of this experience. Teachers will walk their kids in (quietly! No pushing), sit them down, talk them through logging in, carefully explaining each step of the process. The lesson is some predetermined exercise or activity on a website in which the students must follow step by step instructions and all they really end up caring about is hurrying up to finish so they can go to their favorite game site and play an inning of math baseball or some other game. The spark for learning is nowhere to be found, just the drive to finish and go play. Too often this was the case in my early teaching with computers; do as I say, make sure you follow the steps, then you have free time afterward. I’m thankful that I’m learning from wonderful veteran teachers, so that the experience I had today of kids eagerly chatting away about their favorite video game character or ice cream flavor was a rewarding one for them and myself. In a way, it’s important to remember that students need choices on the computers just as much as anywhere in the school, just different choices than what game to play.


  1. Glad you feel that way too Ben. That’s something I fight all the time. Sure some parts of the lesson have to be highly structured but I feel one of the key powers of computers is their abilitiy to allow differentiation (without large expeditures of teacher energy to make it happen).

    It is suprising to me how little faith some teachers have in their kids ability to handle that though. You’re dealing with 3rd graders and I can’t get a teacher to allow a little flexibility with 8th graders. For me nothing kills a lesson faster than, step 54c- you will now insert clip art graphic smileyface.jpg into the upper right hand quadrant of your page.

    A little choice in content, images, or whatever can go a long way towards motivation and engagement.

    Great point.

  2. Oh man, you hit it right on the head Tom. The “insert clip art image into upper right quadrant” is exactly the way my computer literacy classes were taught (or rather not taught) in college. It really surprises me how willing teachers can be sometimes to meet the lowest common denominator in the classroom, when they know full well that studies and experience tells them that there should be an effort to differentiate the lesson in at least some small way.

  3. Ben, It’s great that you have discovered this early in your career. Allowing students to have a choice is things is a great thing, especially when you begin to see that if you give students enough choice and are open to ideas, they will really demonstrate what they understand. Having said that, sometimes you need to do the “All together” method to reach a general knowledge base. After that, you can allow students to work at their own level as long as the learning outcomes are met. I find that making assignments while keeping Gardner’s MI in mind helps me to focus on the understanding I want not on what the step-by-step formulation of the assignment. I’ve begun using wikis and blogs to get students to explore options for assignments and the podcasting, videos and graphic art is on the way. Keep at it!


Comments are closed.