Note: I’ve broken this guide into three distinct parts. All of the resources shared in the examples section can be accessed for free, including those I used from NextLesson when you sign-up for a one-month trial. Other free resources are shared on my Remote Learning Hub. Please share your examples and resources in the comments!
Why Choice Boards? Why Now in Emergency Remote Learning?
Take a moment and think about your favorite learning experience ever. What did you enjoy about it? Why did you get so much out of this experience compared to the thousands of other learning experiences you’ve had over the years?
Chances are you had a great teacher, a safe environment for learning, and a special connection that put this experience over the top.
As teachers, we want every student to have their best learning experience with us in our classes, yet our problem is that we often try to find the “something special” that will be the same for all of our students.
That’s probably not going to happen.
Students (just like teachers and anyone else) learn differently. Some enjoy group work; others prefer to work alone. Some understand better through auditory learning, while others understand better through visual learning. The list of learning differences in students goes on and on.
As humans, we each have specific sets of circumstances that allow us to learn best. This set of circumstances changes over time, and although it is fluid, a teacher does not have much control over what is going to allow a student to learn best that day –
Unless we give choice.
One of the basic tenets of differentiated instruction is that it allows a teacher to reach many students at different levels of understanding. By differentiating what we teach, and how we teach it, we are able to reach the entire classroom instead of the small group of students who are going to follow along with direct instruction.
When we differentiate, we build the choices/options into our instruction, and conversely the learning process. That’s a lot of work for the teacher. It can be a lot of planning when we differentiate instruction. But what is our main goal for any learning activity?
Most would say our goal should be to have students demonstrate their understanding of the concept/skill covered in the learning activity.
For any learning activity, our goal should be engagement and empowerment.
Engagement vs. Compliance
We know the best learning experiences happen when the learner’s attitude, attention, and commitment to the process is at an all-time high. This combination is what Phil Shlechty calls “Engagement” in his fantastic levels:
The issue with engagement is that many of us were taught that a classroom should look like the “strategic compliance” level cited in the graphic. This is the “well-managed” classroom that many teachers strive to replicate on a daily basis, and the type of classroom that is often praised in classroom observations by administrators around the world.
When you first walk into a classroom that may be loud, with kids all over the room, using different learning tools, some in partners, some in groups, and some alone, your first thought may not be engaged.
If you’re not sure what engagement looks like, begin asking these questions:
- What type of attitude does the student have towards the learning activity? What is the evidence?
- What level of attention does the student have towards the learning activity? What is the evidence?
- What level of commitment does the student have towards the learning activity? What is the evidence?
When you ask these three questions, as a teacher or administrator, the answers will lead you to an understanding of student engagement, compliance, or withdrawal.
How Choice Impacts Student Engagement and Instruction
The reality of most schools is that certain content must be taught. Our goal is to figure out how to teach the same content through a student-choice of instructional experiences.
The key to this approach is getting all students engaged. That means all students must have high attention and high commitment.
One of the best and most manageable ways to do this is through choice boards, playlists, and learning menus.
As a teacher, I used the station-rotation model a lot, and I really believe it has the power to keep students engaged, moving, and working through different types of content.
However, when I asked my students about stations I sometimes received feedback that they didn’t like them. Why?
Well, many students said that they only liked a few of the choices and some of the other choices were boring to them. Interestingly, the options they liked and the activities they thought were boring varied widely depending on the student and class.
I had my “Aha!” moment about choice-boards during a fall football practice. As a coach, you want to make sure the players are not only engaged but also focusing on skills that pertain to their position and role on the team. During the station part of our practice, the quarterback and receivers went to one station, the lineman to another station, and the running backs to a different station.
I thought, Why can’t I do this in class?
The difference would be allowing students to choose which activities/stations they wanted to participate in, and giving them an opportunity to go deep with the content based on their preferred instructional activity.
When I brought this idea back into the classroom, my students were excited. They now had the power to choose, and from that choice came a level of ownership previously missing in station activities.
Developing Your First Choice Board
Here’s an example of what a “choice board” activity might look like:
First, you take the content/unit that is built into the curriculum. In this case, let’s use “photosynthesis” as our example.
Next, as a teacher, you have to decide what instructional resources and methods you are going to use to deliver this content.
Instructional Resources and Methods Options:
- Direct instruction (full class)
- Direct instruction (small group)
- Direct instruction (conference)
- Read material (textbook)
- Read material (articles)
- Listen to material (podcast or audio)
- View material (video)
- Listen/View/Read material (interactive presentation with audio)
- Photosynthesis online simulation
Traditionally, we’ll choose one or two of these methods and create a lesson plan or activity based on what we believe is the best way to teach this topic/content.
Sometimes, we’ll take four or five of these methods and create a station activity.
Here, you can pick five or six activities and let your students choose two or three that truly pique their interest.
It is important to note that there must be an assessment of some type that you are working towards. In this case, we’ll use a photosynthesis lab as our final project-based assessment.
In order for students to successfully complete the lab and analyze the results, they’ll have to understand:
- What photosynthesis is and why it is important.
- What the process looks like.
- Key terms and vocabulary for the content.
- How this connects to other units in science that you’ve covered.
The “Choice Board” activity provides this information in a variety of formats and experiences. As students choose their activities, you’ll get a better grasp of what types of activities work for them, and which ones they find engaging.
Throughout the activities, students should be recording what they are learning, and what they understand through a guided set of notes.
The end result is that all students should be prepared to successfully complete the photosynthesis lab activity.
Previously, in a traditional classroom setting, students may have not been engaged through a presentation or did not connect to the instructional delivery method. Here, they have the choice to go with what works best for them as a learner.
A Step-by-Step Guide for Your Classroom: Choice Boards
- Identify a unit/concept or skill and what you want students to know/do/make in order to demonstrate their understanding/proficiency.
- Create or choose an assessment/performance task that allows students to demonstrate mastery.
- List various instructional methods, resources, and strategies to prepare students for the assessment/performance task.
- Choose four-six instructional methods to turn into choice-board activities. Each activity should be a similar length in time and cover common material. Here is where you can add different types of technology or hands-on experiences to the learning process.
- Create a workflow for the students to follow. Have notes and formative checks as part of the choice-board design process. Allow for reflection during each activity when planning how long students will complete the activity.
- Introduce the different choices to students and describe what the goals of the activity are (as well as the assessment this is leading up to).
- Let students pick activities based on their interests/needs.
- As the teacher, a few of the activities/options might need more guidance than others. Make sure you aren’t just “managing” this activity, but instead truly acting as a guide and expert learner when the opportunity is available.
- Once the choice-board activities are complete, put students into small groups to “jigsaw” their reflection. Bring students from different activities together to reflect on their learning experience and share (this can be written, audio, or video reflections – think Flipgrid).
- Listen to reflections and check the formative pieces for each activity to see if students are prepared for the assessment. If not, feel free to go through one more activity together as a class or talk about any topics/concepts they did not understand during the activity.
- Give the assessment/performance task.
- BONUS OPTION: Make your assessment into a choice-board with multiple performance tasks that allow students to demonstrate an understanding of the content and skills.
As you can see, the process takes more time on the front end from the teacher, but you’ll know that students are prepared for a performance task by going through this activity.
When I began using technology in the classroom, these activities also turned into online experiences that could be done at any time. My ultimate goal as a teacher was to see my students succeeding and demonstrating their understanding of concepts and skills at a high level. The simple act of “giving students choice” changed how my students viewed our assessments, and how they prepared for assessments.
Examples of Choice Boards and Learning Menus
The Tic-Tac-Toe Choice Board
Here’s what Catlin Tucker has to say about the Tic-Tac-Toe Choice Board option in her article, “Designing Your Own Digital Choice Board” (she has fantastic resources on this approach):
The classic 9 square model is ideal for a tic-tac-toe approach to a choice board that requires students to complete any three activities in a row across the board. Teachers can organize a choice board so that each column focuses on a particular skill or standard. Elementary teachers, who are teaching all subjects, may combine reading, math and vocabulary activities on a single board. On the other hand, a secondary teacher might design a board focused on one aspect of their curriculum, like reading or writing.
As teachers consider what types of activities to design, it’s important to keep differentiation in mind. Teachers can choose to differentiate by allowing students to decide:
- what they will produce.
- how they will engage with the information (learning modality).
- which level of complexity they are ready for.
- which activity appeals to their interests.
Some teachers choose to color code the squares and encourage stronger students to tackle more challenging activities. While others prefer to assign points to each box based on how challenging that activity is in relation to the other options.
Here are a few different examples for subjects and grade levels of the tic-tac-toe choice board:
You can also use varying technology tools and resources when having your students do activities on the choice board. I love Catlin Tucker’s example choice board where the activities are tied to various high-tech and low-tech options for learning, curating, and creating.
And here is a great example of what this might look like in 6-12 from Kasey Bell (who also has amazing resources available on choice boards and learning menus):
Learning Menu Choice Boards
Learning menu choice boards are different because they provide options in a specific order (like you would have when ordering a few courses from a menu).
The teacher directs the menu process, but the student is given control over his/her choice of options, order of completion, etc.
Here is an amazing example from Tom Spall, with a rubric, and the ability to modify the menu.
Tom and his team take this menu idea a step by developing five different choice boards that could work in any classroom once edited and used with your content/skills/activities. Check out these three examples and Tom’s article on his blog for all the links to resources and templates!
YOUR Choice Board Examples
The Epic Guide to Student Ownership
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