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Choice - The Forgotten Basic Human Right

Dr. Kathie F Nunley

My son, Kole came home from school yesterday with a small styrofoam cup, with a lid, and a worm. The worm, presumably, was inside the cup. Honestly, I didn't verify it.

He spent the entire time of our drive home regaling me with the story of the worm. A man had come to their school that afternoon and gave them a wonderful informative lesson on worms and passed out pet worms. To a 6 year old, this is just about as good as a school day gets.

"So," I said, "all your classmates took home worms today?"

"No, not everyone," said Kole, "Some students didn't take worms."

"Oh," I said, thinking about the age group "you mean some of the kids thought the worms were too icky to take home?"

"No". He said nonchalantly, "Some of the kids didn't choose to do that work."

For parents whose children attend a student-centered school, like my son's Montessori school, statements like these are an everyday event. But this statement struck a chord with me yesterday in the car, with my son, and his worm, Fred.

Not all students are so lucky in their education. Not all children get to go to a school where the afternoon presentation is viewed as an option. Where some children who may find working the geography puzzle more appealing than worms can live out their desire without reprimand. Not all children have this opportunity to develop responsibility, creativity and a positive view of learning.

Choice. It's a basic human need. Not only is it a basic human need, it is a basic human right. Because with choice comes a sense of control. A sense that I have some input in my life and in what I do and in what happens to me. And because of that, I must also take responsibility for myself and my state in life. If I'm not learning, if this is not helping me meet my goals, I have the power to change my behavior and my course. The absence of this right is slavery.

I don't believe very many people (myself included) would advocate total freedom of choice for children and their education. Obviously they don't always have the ability to make good decisions and their long term planning skills are less than mature. But I do believe we need to look for more ways to add it into any traditional "teacher-centered" classroom.

In a strictly teacher-centered classroom the teacher makes all decisions -from where the students sit to what they learn, when they eat and even when they can go to the bathroom. Imagine a child spending 7 hours a day in an environment where all decisions are made by others. Now imagine this happening for 12 years, at which time we turn this person loose in society and wonder why he or she can't make good decisions, has no self control and doesn't want to take responsibility for their actions.

The most immediate benefit to running student-centered classrooms is in the reduction of management problems. People want some control. If you don"t give it to them, they will take it. This power struggle for control leads to 99% of classroom management problems. The easiest way to lessen the power struggle is to allow the students to feel they have some control somewhere.

Imagine as an adult if you were living in a world where all decisions were made by entities outside yourself. What if someone told you what subject you would teach, where you would teach it, what grade level, what text book, which pages you would cover on which days, what assignments you would give students, how you were to grade them, which projects you could assign, when you could use the faculty bathroom or worse yet, who you needed to ask to get permission to use the bathroom.

No doubt some of you look at that list and find some or many items that are in fact, controlled for you . Maybe you are assigned a school or a text. Maybe you do give department designed tests. Maybe you are told when you can leave your classroom. But I will bet none of us have ALL those things assigned.

My point here is that we can live with some things being "mandated". My district can mandate the curriculum I teach. They can tell me what text to use, when I have to turn in grades, what days we have school, when to show up and when to attend faculty meeting. But they don't dictate everything. I can teach the curriculum in the order I see fit. I can use the text and supplement it as I see fit. I can create my own projects, assignments and lectures. There is choice somewhere.

Students are no different. Students don't mind you telling them what they have to learn and when it is due and how it is to be graded and what days and times they need to be at school. But could they also have a little freedom within that structure to be the most creative learner they can be?

Look for small areas where choice could easily be added. Could they have some choice in the order in which they complete assignments, the seat they sit in for certain things, the problem sets to work?

Choice is a wonderful thing. Suddenly the student is in control. And with that comes responsibility, creativity and feelings of self-worth. When you offer choices you may find students doing what you would have had them do anyway, but now you have their interest and attention because THEY decided to do it.

*****

Fred the worm slept in his styrofoam cup in my son's bookcase last night.

"He likes the dark" I was told.

"Did you ask him if he likes the dark?" I asked. "Maybe he's not one of those worms that likes the dark. Did you ever think of that? Why don't you give him a choice about where to sleep?"

"Mom, he's just a worm".

Kathie F. Nunley is an educational psychologist, author, researcher and speaker living in southern New Hampshire. Developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction, Dr. Nunley has authored several books and articles on teaching in mixed-ability classrooms and other problems facing today's teachers. Full references and additional teaching and parental tips are available at: http://Help4Teachers.com Email her:
Kathie (at) brains.org

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