I have a young teen in my house and sometimes I think our lives would go more smoothly if we had a monarchy and he could just listen and do what I say. But… I know better. If I want him to make good choices as an adult, then I need to give him the opportunities to make choices growing up. Kids will make good choices, great choices, so-so choices, and terrible choices. Mistakes can be opportunities to learn, depending on how guiding adults respond to them and learning is what we are seeking. If we want our children to find their own voice, then we need to give them opportunities to ask questions, use logical thinking, start coming to their own conclusions, and speak what they know. Here at Hillside, as our students engage in their learning, there is ample opportunity for personal choice, voice, and dreaming.
Project Based Learning (PBL) is a hallmark of our middle school program and student choice and voice are key elements of PBL. At Hillside, students are given varied choices within a framework of options. Some projects allow pure choice where decisions are completely student-led and other times, students choose from a variety of options. Frequently, students work within groups to design unique strategies and to creatively solve project goals. If the element of choice is missing in a project then it is not PBL.
In our History Alive project, students choose a time period in history, and then write and produce an historical fiction play within this era. As a teacher, I am delightfully surprised by the creative choices that emerge when students create and perform their own plays. This project gives pure choice within the framework of a time period in history. This quarter, students are considering the challenge, “What would it take for the United States to colonize Mars?” Middle school math students are working in teams to solve the problem of designing and building scale models for a Mars settlement. Both of these examples model real-world work that requires higher level thinking skills and group-work skills. Students are highly motivated with so many choices and opportunities to speak their mind.
We do not just throw kids into making choices. Instead, our classrooms develop a culture of independence valuing responsible choices. We gradually release responsibility for decisions and opinion. Sometimes, we have to limit choices but students are ultimately given an appropriate degree of autonomy. We provide support for success in decision making, such as co-created group norms, rubrics for effective teamwork, opportunities for reflection on decisions made, and goal setting for future decisions. Last year, our middle school participated in our in-house Destination Imagination (DI) project. In DI, students created teams around mutual interest and then allowed them to dream, create, and innovate to solve challenges. Teachers manage teams, but are not allowed to interfere and help in any way with the solutions. Responsibility is gradually released, and students decision skills are tested.
Life is full of decisions and we believe students will make better decisions in their future if they learn how to make them now. PBL allows us to teach decision making and internal motivation comes from making our own choices. Our students are highly motivated and excited about school because they have important choices to make in their learning. When students are empowered to make their own decisions and speak their voice, they have the confidence to dream about what they can do and be. I want my own son to dream and become who he would like but I have to give him choice and voice, even if it feels inconvenient at the time.