Sleeping Bear Dunes, Dan Pink, and Cranes: How to Use Student Choice to Improve Instruction and Assessments

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I spent last weekend camping with my advisory at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, and while Northern Michigan painted with fall colors left an impact on me (see above), what struck me even more was seeing my students outside of the classroom setting. Even though we do a trip like this every year, I always forget how different students can be once removed from the four walls of a classroom. I saw numerous students who are relatively passive during class sprint up and down the sand dunes, giving off intermittent yelps of joy, while other students who never speak during discussions captivated audiences in the bright glow of a campfire.

The lesson these kinds of trips always remind me of when it comes to my practice is that context matters. Different situations can cause the same person to behave in strikingly different ways, which is something we as writing teachers need to take note of when creating our assignments. While there are no perfect assignments, some prompts are better than others at inspiring our students to write well. And while there is no magic formula for what makes a strong assignment, there is one element that makes it far more likely that students will have the context needed to embark on papers that they are actually inspired about: choice.

Choice has become a popular buzzword in education recently, and there is a good reason for this. In his fabulous book Drive, Dan Pink makes a case that internal motivation generally leads to far better work (and far more learning) than external motivation, and that choice is a central factor to developing internal motivation. Or put another way, Pink states that humans are designed to be “players, not pawns” and when we feel like players–who have choices–we play (and learn) better. To back this up, he cites a host of studies that show that students with more autonomy generally have “greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence…higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being.”

Dan Pink’s TED Talk, which serves as a good crash course on internal vs. external motivation.

I don’t think most teachers disagree with Pink on the fact that choice is a powerful tool, but the trick is that we live in a world with state/district standards, SATs, ACTs, GPAs, SLOs, and a hundred other rubrics and acronyms. While I think nearly all teachers would love to give students lots of time to freely explore their interests, they also need to prepare them for these standards, tests, and a world that can be remarkably narrow and rigid.

Of course, the difficulty of adding choice to a rigid world doesn’t entirely get us writing teachers off the hook. In a lot of situations, even with standards breathing down one’s neck, choice can be added or increased without sacrificing content or under-preparing students for the assessments looming in their future. In fact, choice, if thoughtfully added, can actually speed up the learning of content and skills in many situations because students will care more and thus pay closer attention.

With that in mind, here are the steps I go through when creating new assignments that help me to have as much choice as possible in each assignment.

Step #1: Figure out what the assignment is assessing. If it is assessing skills, think about giving the students the choice of topic.

This might seem basic–and in many ways it is–but the first step to adding choice is having a really good sense of what the goals of a given assignment are. If the goals revolve around learning skills like argumentation, research, analysis, etc., then I generally think that you should give students the choice of topic. The reason for this is that they will argue harder for causes they love and research deeper if they are so interested that they can’t stop themselves.

This is why I first teach argument by having students find something they don’t like and writing a letter to someone who can help to change it (here is a link to the post with that assignment). It is also why when I teach students research skills, I allow the research paper topic be on anything the students want. I generally have strict guidelines for the research skills I want students to show, but the central topic is entirely up to them. Which movie has the most plausible method of time travel? Who is better: Tupac or Biggie? How to make the best chocolate chip cookie? All totally fine if they meet the writing/rhetoric/research criteria, and I find that the students almost universally throw themselves into their topics because they are so excited about finally writing about something that matters to them.

Step #2: If an assignment is assessing content knowledge, find interesting choices that exist in the content.

Not all assignments are assessments of skills alone, which means not all assignments can leave the content completely open-ended, but that doesn’t mean that those assessments don’t have areas where choice can be given while still accurately assessing student understanding of the content. In my last post on authentic audiences, I talked about how my The Bluest Eye paper asks students if the book should be banned. When my students read The Great Gatsby, we watch the Baz Luhrmann movie version and the students write a paper on whether it does justice to the film. In both of these, while students don’t have complete free reign, there is actually serious choice, as the students are allowed to express their real feelings concerning something that they often feel strongly about.

Step #3: Guide them towards something meaningful.

Many students are so used to doing work in school that doesn’t matter to them that they still choose things that don’t matter even when they have the option to choose something that does. I see this all the time when I teach personal narratives. More experienced narrative writers tend to understand that the first ideas that come are often not the best and hold out for something that matters to them, but new writers rarely do this. Instead they just jump at the first thought and stick with it even after it has clearly established itself as boring.

The way I guide students towards more meaningful choices is through doing robust prewriting. When students come up with multiple ideas, the contrast between them will help guide them to the more meaningful topic. Further, I also build in regular check-ins during the early stages of writing assignments so I can guide students towards their passions if they appear to be ignoring them.


To understand the reason that choice matters so much, I want to end with a brief interaction that I had this last week with a senior who, as far as I know, has never written more than the barest minimum on any assignment in any class until last week when his third paper for me came in at five of the most polished pages I’ve ever seen from him on an assignment that required only 2-3 pages. When I asked him why he wrote so much, he answered without missing a beat that it was because he got to write about being a crane operator, which has been his desired career since he was in kindergarten.  He then flashed a sideways smile and told me that I can expect the same type of length and effort from any other assignments where he can write about cranes, and then he turned around and walked away.

I’ve been thinking about that interaction a lot over the next week, and it has redoubled my goal to give students as much choice as possible because every student has their “crane”, and if we allow them to write about it, they will write more, write better, and increase the chances of them writing more and better in the future!

Your in teaching,

MattScreen Shot 2017-08-07 at 1.21.22 PM

 

 

 

 

 

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