Monday, July 25, 2011

EduKare: Choice is the rule of engagement...

Excellence, then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean, relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Aristotle 

flickr photo by Benimoto

Recently the folks over at #ecosys were discussing the issue of student engagement in schools. This issue is prominent in education circles everywhere. Few would debate the necessity to engage students in their learning, so the dialog is centering around how best to actually do it. As I was reviewing the #ecosys Twitter stream from the latest chat, something I've been mulling lately popped back into my head. Engagement is about choice.

Self-determination is key if kids are to find relevance in what they learn; nobody appreciates being dictated to without the opportunity to have input... which makes it difficult to understand why we don't begin offering any learning content choice to students until secondary school.

It has always struck me that much of what is done in elementary school would benefit secondary school kids, and much of what is done in high school would benefit elementary school kids. Interestingly enough, so many of the exemplary teachers I have met and worked with from both elementary and secondary school are the same ones I'd be inclined to complement by telling them they'd be awesome teaching in the opposite school setting. There's something about secondary school teachers that haven't lost their inner child... their ability to be totally in the moment and uninhibited with their students; the ones that haven't forgotten that school is always more engaging when it's fun.

Conversely, there's also something about elementary teachers who understand that choice is a vital element of engaged learning, and who strive to establish a teaching and learning environment that encourages kids to steer their own learning ship as kids in secondary school should be expected to. This element of self-determination is fundamental to Edukare school philosophy.

Good teachers can be engaging just because of who they are. Because of their personality, perspective and ability to connect emotionally with kids, they stand out as those who have that extra bit of with-it-ness. Good teachers also scour the horizon routinely for the latest teaching tools to engage learners, but I'm not yet convinced that all good teachers understand the efficacy of choice as a tool to engage students. Tom Whitby recently tweeted...

Tom Whitby
A good teacher can be effective with a dirt floor & a stick. Add tech knowledge & Tools and things, more often than not, get better. 
As one who values the inclusion of contemporary technology advantages in education, I agree with Tom, but I have to ask whether any tool, including technology in education as a generalized tool, can be considered ubiquitously good if no choice is provided to students who would be potentially benefiting from using it? Under dare I say "normal" classroom circumstances, the only truly engaging tool in education is the provision of choice to students. We understand this in secondary school, but not so well in elementary school. If we're going to help kids write their own learning stories, we need to consider seriously how choice can factor prominently into teaching and learning in the kindergarten to fifth grade set.

EduKare teaching and learning environments promote student engagement through choice, but they don't wait until kids are secondary school freshmen before leveraging the power of choice as it relates to promoting engaged learning. Secondary school students in a typical high school are expected to choose their academic stream, and also their optional courses, and middle school kids at least choose their optional courses, but as a former middle school counselor, I can say fairly confidently that neither cohort is completely at ease with the process.

EduKare schools establish elemental choice routinely and often for kids starting in kindergarten. EduKare teachers understand that there are many paths to successful learning, and many avenues for kids to display successful learning.  teachers EduKare provide a collage of choices correlating to curriculum that allow kids to craft their own learning paths. Choice in the context of an EduKare school is somewhat of a differentiation strategy to be sure, but one that places the onus on students to navigate curriculum related lessons correlating to their developing cognitive abilities, interests etc. It's more about the student showing us what she can do on her terms as opposed to ours. The responsibility of EduKare teachers is to provide a broad set of suggested paths to learning curricular outcomes, while maintaining a degree of openness to students coming up with their own strategy and manner in which they choose to display their understanding. EduKare teachers aren't the only ones responsible for making sure kids have choices though. As everything goes in an EduKare school, supports for students extend beyond the classroom via shared responsibility within a wraparound service provision model.

EduKare schools are about collaboration. In the important effort to connect school with community, and community with school, there are so many ways to turn strings of chain link into circles of chain link, with students in the middle. The links are school districts, community service groups, social service groups, community business enterprises etc. who all have a vested interest in the nurturing of solid citizens who know how to make good choices. EduKare schools bring these groups together using the school as a hub to support kid's growing abilities to make good choices.

One way school districts can support choice in elementary schools is to provide curriculum support personnel that can be shared throughout the district, but not just within the core subject areas. In Alberta where I teach, we have a CTS (Career and Technology Studies) course stream that begins in middle school. As an example of supporting choice in elementary school, why not implement a CTS curriculum support person to support learning in K-5 settings? Kids are innately curious about how things work and how that plays out in the real world (essentially what CTS is designed to address,) so we need to support this from day 1 in school. This person or group of people would travel to schools as needed to support the inclusion of technology in core curriculum, but also as an "option" that kids can choose to be involved in. Other curriculum support personnel could address different optional course studies addressing environmental issues, food, art, music etc... anything to engage kids in something that extends the core curriculum, or perhaps is completely supplemental to it, but most importantly providing choice that teaches them how to be more self-determinant about what they learn.

Field trips are expensive. EduKare schools understand that bringing the field to the school can be a great and less expensive option. Typically you would see social service supports already in place in an EduKare school, but there is a role for community service and business groups to play as well. I'm working on a partnership with a local pizza franchiser to provide support to my math class this year. The business owner has offered to come to the school to talk about how he runs his business; the choices he must make, finances, personnel, advertising etc. to show kids how math, and choice plays out in the real world for him. The layers of learning I anticipate are deep within this opportunity. There are a litany of service groups that are willing to come to the school to talk about an extensive range of topics and issues; we just have to make the effort to get them to our schools. Predetermining a schedule where optional course streams fit into our core timetables for elementary school kids on a rotating basis over the course of a year would establish a framework for these groups and what they offer to fit best.

So, if choice is good for secondary school kids, perhaps it would be equally as good for elementary school kids. The hidden benefit of offering more routine opportunities for kids to choose their learning paths in elementary school is they will likely be more equipped to handle the responsibility in secondary school and beyond. I can't think of a better tool to support student engagement than offering students choice. Kids can't learn how to make good choices if they aren't given the opportunity to make choices at all.

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