Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide by Alfie Kohn
In my sociology course right now we are discussing how schools are agents of socialization and the impact that education can have on an individual and our larger social group. I gave them a piece from Alfie Kohn and we have spent some time discussing what it means to be well-educated, what all students should know, what are the best practices teachers have, what are the not-so best practices that teachers have, etc. When I ask my students what makes a great teacher, they often do not mention knowing your content, but instead say these common things:
1. Treat us with respect
2. Be laid back and fun, but strict when needed (my favorite one)
3. Be fair
4. Prepare us for the SAT, senior year, college, etc.
The reason I bring these ideas up after reading this article is because much of what Kohn is saying is what my students say to me at the beginning of every year. I believe that if I live up to the four expectations my students set up for me, I can easily bring in more student choice to my classroom.
What I greatly appreciated about Kohn's article was that he mentioned you do not always have to involve student choice. Choice can rotate from the teacher, to an individual student, to a small learning group and it can still work and help be a productive part of your course. One of the points that I found really solidified his argument to me was not only how this help to engage students in their learning, but he hit home at my pedagogy. On page nine he says "School is about more than intellectual development; it is about learning to become a responsible, caring person who can make good choices and solve problems effectively. Thus educators must think about ways of helping students to take an active part in decisions that are only indirectly related to academics." When asked to write our philosophy of education in college, I turned most to the book that I thought I would least reference. I remember seeing Nel Nodding's book about ethics and teaching caring in school. I remember being a young undergraduate thinking that this book was a "fluff" education book that would not lead me to any "real" learning. After finishing the book and reflecting on my best teachers and the adults in my life that have had the greatest impact, I realized that Nodding's ideas about education would become the cornerstone of my pedagogy. Teaching students to respect and have responsibility for each other (Thomas Lickona) will ultimately lead you to helping your students learn to care for one another. If our students can respect and care for one another, they can ultimately develop the sense of responsibility not only to themselves, but to others around them and to our greater society.
Another part of this text that I greatly appreciated was the solutions and questions that Kohn presents teachers to use in their classroom. On page ten he says, "What do you think we can do about this?" Whenever a student asks a question in class that I think can lead us to a greater depth of learning, regardless of it is directly connected with what we are discussing in class, I ask "What do you think about that?" This allows students to think out loud and share their thoughts with the class. Often times I will have students question each other's ideas and point out the areas where their argument does not work. Kohn's question "What do you think we can do about this?" has led me to some great projects that engaged every one of my students. At the end of last year, I ran out of time and did not create the project expectations and guidelines sheet, so I walked into class, worked with my students, and we created it together. I had my expectations, they had theirs, and we met somewhere in the middle (quiet honestly, more towards their side) and I saw some of the best products from them. This can work! It is hard to do, and challenging to give up the control, but our students can create their own guidelines, deadlines, and expectations. Not only will they meet those expectations, but they will far exceed them.