Taking Away Options?

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by aloshbennett

There are WAY more questions in this post then there are answers…I would love your thoughts.

I am a HUGE believer in personalized learning and think that our students should have opportunities to express their learning in many different ways.  I would say that this holds true with the majority of educators that I know.  The difference though is that do we often limit students to our version of personalization?  Do we only give them options that we know?  I have been very comfortable in my career encouraging students to share their learning in different ways whether I know them or not.  The exploration and problem solving that goes into the work that a student creates using an unknown technology may not be taken directly out of the curriculum, but will obviously have some learning “side-effects” that will benefit the child long after their time in my class.  Is this notion of exploration the norm though?

As the year has progressed, I have seen so many learning opportunities where “paper” has been the only option (always my favourite thing to happen in a session that discusses differentiated learning) and there is no digital component.  This is not only for reading what has been shared, but also creating content to deepen understanding.  Lyn Hilt wrote a fantastic post today giving some great options of what school administrators can try to further their learning.  She ends her post with this quote:

This learning and reflective practice, which needs to be embedded throughout any district or school organization, must be modeled. It must be visible. It must be continuous. If you’re a school leader, ask yourself what about your own teaching and learning methods needs to be transformed in order for you to grow your capacity as a leader. Then turn your insights into action.

I have always believed in the idea that we need to give all learners options and Lyn exemplifies this in her post with a great table of ideas.  That being said, I am wondering if this is a ‘suggestion’ will people jump in and try the “new” way (which I would say is better)?  Even if it isn’t better for that learner, as leaders, should we still not understand different opportunities for learning, especially if we are to be experts on the subject?  I wrote a post this summer that literally stemmed from my frustration of not been given the opportunity to have a digital component for my own learning at a “21st Century Conference” that was “paper heavy”.  I know we are supposed to meet learners where they are at, but, to be honest, this pushed me out of my comfort zone.  That being said, when we are being pushed out of that zone, shouldn’t it at least be a push forward?  I wonder what would happen if we came to a point where we would say to educators that we are only going to use digital resources for this meeting, this PD session, this learning opportunity?  Would they back down from the challenge or would they adapt and perhaps even transform their practice?  I love the idea of sharing a continuum as Lyn has done, but maybe we need to just cut off the ‘old’ option.  Can we really personalize learning for students if we don’t understand how to use emerging technologies?

We ask our students to be uncomfortable in their learning every day; do we embody that practice ourselves?

Last year, I spoke with John Carver and our conversation still resonates.  He said to me, “This is a printing press time in history; what are we going to do with it?”  In my opinion, we shouldn’t have the option to ignore it.




  1. I believe our collective goal is student happiness and success. Hence, collectively we should understand and be able to teach as many tools as possible to help students reach success–success in thinking patterns, problem solving, creativity, critical thinking and communication of learning and ideas. It’s impossible for one individual to understand all tools well, but it’s not impossible for a school staff to have expertise in almost all tools that give students access to successful, confident, motivating, meaningful learning experiences.

  2. I love this quote:

    We ask our students to be uncomfortable in their learning every day; do we embody that practice ourselves?

    We need more teacher with this mindset. What a great reminder to me to push my learning beyond the boundaries of comfort and familiarity.

    How do we inspire this in our colleagues?

  3. George, this is another fantastic post, and something that I've been thinking about a lot lately! I was usually big on giving students choices, but they were always my choices. Earlier this year, a student suggested a choice of a tool that I hadn't considered for a particular activity. I was about to jump in with a, "no," but instead I asked how she was going to use it. She explained, and I encouraged her to give it a try. It was great!

    Lately, I've been trying to give suggestions of tools to use for activities, but I've also told students that they can be creative and pick their own. Many have experimented both at home and at school, and the results have been great! They've thought of things that I hadn't considered before, and they even taught others in the class about new tools (and new ways to use old tools) that we've now incorporated into our program.

    George, you encouraged me to give students leadership opportunities, and to let students have control over their learning. I've become a different teacher (and I think, a better teacher) because of you! Thank you!

    Over the past year, I've also learned that if you know your curriculum expectations well and the goals of your projects and activities well too, then you know when the tool matters and when it doesn't. Most times, it doesn't, and giving students "real choice" produces far better results.


  4. Two thoughts:

    I share your frustration at our too frequent use of the term 'differentiation' as a synonym for 'stay in comfort zone'.

    In The World of Royan, the old option is not an option if it is impairing progress. In the world we live in however, I believe a person could literally submit a formal grievance against such a suggestion.

    Rock and a hard place?

  5. Great questions… I think this is a huge issue in education! So many kids are stifled in how they can demonstrate what they have learned, because the teacher's choice for that "product" is not what fits best for that child. So, if we say a child has not demonstrated mastery, is that really true- or did we just fail the child in providing options?

    Maybe I'm more fortunate than I'm even aware (and I think I know how lucky I am), but in almost every project in my class, my students are usually answering the questions THEY have devised and choosing how they will demonstrate their learning. One of my favorite parts of this process is that they often, in addition to learning about their topics, learn so much about which tool is the best option for that particular instance. Some times, they have (as they say) "epic fails." But what they're learning from those mistakes is incredible, and I so enjoy watching them tweak and adjust for the next time.

    Some of the options they have chosen – writing a song and recording, creating video, using an app to write a digital story, compiling a photo essay. The number of options they're choosing now have significantly increased over the past few months… at the beginning of the school year, they didn't know what to choose at all!

  6. This is a good bit, George — but I can honestly say that the options that I have to offer my students outside of paper-based expressions of their learning are incredibly limited simply because (1). I've got 2 working computers in my room and (2). our district hasn't even started to think about BYOD, 1:1 or computer refresh programs.

    7 years ago, I would have argued that teachers can still do wonderful things even in a classroom or school with limited tech access. Today, that same argument is out dated simply because our expectations for the way that our classrooms should be changing have risen.

    And honestly, I get tired of being lambasted for the lack of choices and differentiation and personalization in my instruction simply because I haven't got any of the tools and resources that can make that kind of customization at the individual student level possible.

    Any of this make sense?

    I guess what I'm saying is if you took paper as an option away from my classroom, there'd be no other options left!

    Rock on,

    • When you write comments like this my heart sinks. Isn't this more reason for administrators to see the power of technology for their own learning? If they saw how easy it is to connect and share across the world they may be pushed to find ways to get the technology into the hands of teachers and students so that they can prepare them for not only their future, but really their present. Keep making miracles man!

  7. George, I couldn't agree more with your post. A major challenge I see educators have in pushing themselves out of their own comfort zone is the long held belief that the teacher needs to be the expert. Being out of the comfort zone increases the chances of failure. I believe it's ok to fail in front of students but the reason I'm comfortable with this is because I've done it many times in the past. I'm also comfortable with failing in front of kids because I know im modeling for them the willingness to take a risk and try learning something new. Establishing positive relationships with student's and a supportive, respectful classroom environment goes a long ways towards the teacher's and students' willingness to be 'uncomfortable'.


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