Unfortunately, we as teachers often feel the need to make nearly every decision for our students. We feel the need to decide where they will sit, what they will write, what they will write with, what they write about, when they will eat, when they will not eat, when they can drink, when they cannot drink, when they can go to the washroom, when they can ask questions, when they can speak freely, when they must line up (as if they are in the military), when they are free to meander to their destination, when they must be very quiet, and when it is OK for them to speak at a volume they feel comfortable with …
With the encouragement of my mentor teacher and the work of Selma Wasserman, I gained a great appreciation for the power of student choice. With time, experimentation, and thought, the complexity of my understanding of student choice is deeper.
This past year I had the privilege (in retrospect) of teaching four grades in a single classroom. I taught my K’s for the first time, my 1′s for the second time, my 2′s for the third time, and I was returned a handful of grade 3′s that I had not taught since my first year of teaching (so we might as well count that as I had never taught them … haha?). It was an interesting experiment and through it I gained a deeper understanding of child development and an appreciation for the progression of the curriculum. I learned to make difficult decisions when it came to my philosophy, educational outcomes, and needs of my students. Most importantly, I truly learned the value of teaching children to make good choices. In the past, I felt that I had done a fairly good job teaching decision making: I had provided my students with opportunities to choose, to practice choosing, to experience the consequences of their choices, and to mend anything damaged (objects, feelings) by their choices. Although I felt this essential, it wasn’t until I was returned my grade 3′s, who had not had as much experience/teaching in making decisions, that I felt the full impact of and great importance in the teaching of decision making.
The ability to make good decisions is a learned skill. Children who do not learn to make good decisions turn into adults who are are also not capable of making good decisions. As a teacher, I have had many conversations with teachers who can’t comprehend why or become frustrated when their students make poor choices. Often, we as teachers can’t seem to comprehend why children would waste their time during writing chatting rather than getting their work done. We assume that they understand the consequence of their decision to chat. We assume that if we tell them that they will stay in during recess (if they don’t refocus) that they will immediately get down to work. I have not found this to be the case with children who have not had enough practice with decision making. In order for children to “refocus during writing time” so that they do not have to stay in during recess, they must have plenty of time practicing making good decisions, dealing with the consequences of their decisions, and reflecting on their experiences. Honestly, I have not found the traditional style of teaching to provide enough opportunities for students to practice decision making. Traditionally, the only opportunities that a child would have to make decisions would be in a scenario like I described above. And this, this is menial. In my opinion, it might as well not even occur. Children must encounter large periods of open ended time, play, and learning to experiment with making decisions. Also, the teacher must facilitate the teaching of decision making. The teacher must create environments and opportunities that enable and encourage decision making. In the beginning the teacher must guide a student directly in the steps to making good decisions: they must help a child see the potential choices, speak about the possible opportunities, the possible consequences, and the possible rewards. In the end, you simply have to step back and reap the rewards. It is magical to watch a student reflect on their past experiences in order to make a good decision. That is one of the true joys of teaching decision making.
I have nature play to thank for the perfect environment for children to practice decision making, to experience consequences, to play around with trial and error, to experiment with their own boundaries and with the boundaries of the materials they play with, to make mistakes, to experience important owies, to overcome pain, and to reflect on their decisions in order to make better decisions next time.
For younger children this experimentation usually comes in the form of jumping off of fallen trees, tree stumps, or rocks. Sometimes, it comes in the form of crawling across a thick stump over a creek, swinging on a tree branch and then finding a way to get down.
For older children, the experimentation begins to include climbing trees. Tree climbing is a perfect analogy for making good choices, for taking risks, and for discovering ones boundaries. First, a child must be confident in oneself to even entertain the idea of climbing a tree. Then, a child must find a tree that matches their height and weight: they must be conscious of their physical abilities and size, they must decide if the tree is big/small enough, they must decide if the branches are thick enough, they must decide if the branches are close enough together, they must decide if they can climb crooked branches or if they need to find a tree with straight branches, they must also ponder their ability to get down, they must decide which branch to step on first/second/third, they must decide which branch to grasp with their hand, they must decide how high they will go, and all along they must test each branch with their weight … with patience they reap the reward of the best view in the forest: a bird’s eye view.
Decision making never ends.