The Polliwog Journal

A weblog about teaching English & integrating technology

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The value of choice in student engagement

October 7th, 2011 · 2 Comments · CyberEnglish, Improving Education, The Art of Teaching


I was not a teacher when my children were young, and to be honest, I didn’t think about education and learning much. I was just trying to be a good mom. But now, as a 21 year high school English teacher veteran and as a grandmother fascinated by how children learn, I will often ask my grandchildren directly about what and how they’re learning. Many of these conversations have been catalysts for blog posts. The one this morning, at our kitchen table, was especially profound for me.

I also want to clarify that when I use the term “games” in this post, I am referring to any Web-based media experience, such as a video, a quiz, or an actual interactive experience where users manipulate elements to achieve a goal. Ella calls them all games, because she equates the lively colors, sounds, and user engagement to the experience of a game.

This post was delivered as a speech at the 2013 Great Lakes Writer’s Festival

The value of choice in student engagement


Ella, do you still go on the computers at school?

Not during playtime, but I do when I go to the library.

Why don’t you do it during playtime?

Because there is only one game. When I go to the library I can choose the games I want.

Don’t you like what the teacher chooses?

Ella shakes her head no. It doesn’t work. I type my name in, press play, and nothing happens.

After Grandpa took Ella to school, I couldn’t stop thinking about something she said: “When I go to the library I can choose the games I want.”  It bothered me.  At first, I thought it was probably just that one game didn’t work. Surely some of the teacher selected games have to work. But then I wondered if, after just one frustrating experience, Ella would try other games later? Would she give the teacher’s chosen game another chance on another day?  Or would she conclude that the computer isn’t fun anymore.

I have a feeling it might be the latter. When Ella told me that there was only one game, her nonverbal message was that being on a classroom computer is not as fun in first grade as it had been in Kindergarten. I know she will never complain about this to her teacher. Instead, she will simply internalize her disappointment. What her teacher will see is disinterest.

If the teacher sees disinterest in the faces of most of her students, she may conclude that her class doesn’t really like to work on the computer. As a result, she will probably offer them fewer computer experiences in the future, even fewer choices in learning modes.

Let me put it this way.

The teacher announces, “Boys and girls, we’re going to the new ice cream place today.” The classroom erupts in giddy enthusiasm. The students’ anticipation is great as they climb aboard the school bus and head off to the red and white striped ice cream parlor. When they step through the doors, the vivid atmosphere designed to delight the senses does its work on them. Their little noses press against the glass of the display case and they are wild with possibility. There are over twenty flavors and they must make a choice soon. So many swirling colors. . . . Then, in the interest of time, convenience, and fairness, the teacher decides, “we’re all having vanilla today.” Vanilla. Simply by eliminating choice, the teacher has diminished this experience for her students. This day, a fun day, suddenly becomes embedded emotionally in each child’s memory as the day the mean teacher made them eat vanilla ice cream.

She might conclude that the children don’t like ice cream as they sit there with their vanilla cones, sulking. But her conclusion would, of course, be wrong. Because she did not allow her students to choose for themselves, they were less engaged and less interested.  The same is true for all educational experiences from books and toys to computer games. Vanilla is good—it’s a wonderful flavor—but if there are 19 other flavors to choose from and I am only allowed to have vanilla, I am going to be disappointed. Wouldn’t you be?

What do we know about how children learn? We know that they need to experience a concept many times to remember it—some say seven times. We know that active engagement—hands on learning—is superior to “sit and get” experiences. We know that when students have positive emotional connections to the experience they are more likely to remember it, that negative emotions produce stress -induced chemicals that interfere with the brain’s ability to remember.

The importance of personal choice cannot be underestimated. When a child chooses an experience again and again out of interest—whether that experience is a book to read, a puzzle to assemble, or a video song about the days of the week—the lessons embedded in the experience will be reinforced. The positive emotional connection the child has to the chosen experience will magnify its value and make it easier to remember. What’s more, the experience will not feel like learning.  It will not feel like school.

When I first saw Ted Nellen’s CyberEnglish classroom in March 2000, the most striking aspect of the environment he created was the extreme high level of engagement. Each student in his class was actively engaged in some learning experience—an experience that the student had chosen (from a vast menu provided by the teacher). Some were revising their writing, some were emailing telementors regarding their work, some were reading text on the computer, some were reading text on paper, some were taking notes, some were consulting their teacher; they were all engaged differently, but they were all engaged. I knew I was seeing not only a profound shift in the classroom paradigm, but also a profound shift in what it means to be a teacher as well. Since that time, I have tried to emulate his model in my own CyberEnglish classroom, embedding as many choices for students as  I can.

For most students, school feels like a place where they go to do what the teacher tells them to do, a place where they have very little say in what goes on. Ella’s disappointment in not being able to choose the Websites she visits in her first grade classroom illustrates that children, no matter what age, desire to make their own choices.

I can write daily on my board eloquent objectives based on common core standards, concepts that some agree are most important for students to learn. I can be an intelligent, driven teacher who loves kids, but if I am the only one in my classroom interested in what is going on, the only one engaged in the experience, no learning will occur.

Giving students choices is not just a good way to approach curricular design—think diversity, think differentiation, think broad scope—it may be the only way to truly engage 21st century learners who are so accustomed in daily life and culture to menus. Contemporary life is all about making choices. Our image-saturated, media-driven, razzle-dazzle world requires nonstop decision making. Want an example? Just try watching television news. You will have to decide if you will listen to the anchor’s banter, read the fast-paced news scroll, notice details in the inset image,  try to decipher the sidebar data, or even, try to think about all of that simultaneously. There’s a lot of information to manage, a lot to choose from, but that’s the world our children live in.

What if, instead of offering one teacher-selected experience, the vanilla ice cream teacher had said, “All right children, it’s play time. You can go on a computer and choose any game (from a page of over 20 choices). You can choose a book to read. You can build. You can paint, draw, or mold clay. You can do what you choose. I’ll be here to help you if you need me. Remember, you can also help each other.”

She says play time, but what she means is choice time and what she expects is active learning. We have only to imagine ourselves again as students to know, in an almost visceral way, that we would be having a lot more fun in school if learning time was play time and not lecture time.

This begs the question: what does it mean to be a teacher these days? To me, the answer is simple. A teacher is a person is responsible for creating engaging learning spaces for all students. What it does not mean is to manage that learning space down to the last detail, including the choice of what to study, learn, or especially play with, which not only diminishes the learning experience for everyone but it may also turn students away from the idea of school altogether.

Certainly there are times when it is simply more desirable to give one message to all students at once. Laying foundation knowledge, building foundation skills, and setting the context for learning is generally something we present to the whole class at one time. However,  end learning goals for students beyond that point can be met in so many ways that for a teacher to choose one path for all is at the very least hubris and at worst malpractice.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Brendan P

    I’m not sure if this is the appropriate place to comment on this; however, I found this blog through Google and I have to say, I’m fascinated by the use of technology to foster education. I graduated from high school in 2012, and I was pretty disappointed with the quality of the education I received from some of my teachers. They weren’t engaged, nor were they engaging. I honestly think the only reason some of them were still around was because they had tenure, and the school board didn’t want to go through the trouble of getting rid of them. I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed some of my classes a lot more if I had a passionate educator such as yourself, instructing them. I think what you’re doing is great, and worthy of commendation. America needs more teachers like you, thank you.

  • Dawn Hogue

    Thank you so much for your comment, Brendan. I am disheartened by your high school experience, but it sounds like you might be a person the teaching profession needs to bring it energy. Perhaps you will become an inspiring high school teacher? Something to think about. We can learn from good examples as well as poor. Best to you, and thanks again.