I have tried many things to give my students choice and voice in the classroom. This is important to me because I think it helps foster higher thinking skills, creativity, engagement, and intrinsic motivation in the classroom. I do this in many ways, but I was recently inspired by a post by Josh Stumpenhorst at his blog Stump the Teacher. He ran an experiment based on Dr. Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall theory of learning. He wanted to test Mitra's theory that kids learned best in a small group of four around a computer. In order to to this he split children up and asked students to create a research question based on standards. The group then needed to choose a method to gather information and create learning evidence. I was struck by the amount of autonomy he gave groups and how much control he gave them to learn what they wanted within the standards. With this in mind I recently designed a lesson that gave students complete choice and freedom and the results were stunning. I didn't concentrate on groups of four, but rather on the amount of freedom I was going to give students.
A couple nights ago I was trying to come up with a lesson for Women in Medieval Europe. There seemed to be so many routes I could take and I was stuck trying to figure out how my students could discover this. After reading Josh's post, I decided I would let my students decide. The next day in class we broke down the standard and I modeled a question. It was "What was marriage like for Medieval Women?" I told my students that they could group up and ask any question they wanted about Women in Medieval Europe. They would then be responsible for answering their own question. They were jazzed and the questions were great. One group wanted to investigate hygiene, one education, and another early witchcraft. We went to the computer lab and they dove right in. It was even better as I just showed my students how safari will read highlighted text for them. This made some of my learning different students excited for the web research as reading material was much easier.
Beside the great questions they asked, I was equally excited by their thought processes and engagement. One group started to ask me about women's rights in general and suddenly they wanted to change their focus to a comparison of women's rights then and now. I told them it might be tough given the timeline for the mini-project, but nevertheless they went for it. That question calls for tough analysis and I was simply awestruck on how they decided to attack it (these are seventh graders, mind you!). I also saw students wrestle with tough vocabulary words like grandeur and inferior. Instead of me dictating a definition to them, they ran up and asked me what it meant. Imagine that! They were dying for the answer. I even had to help explain supply and demand to a group because they needed it for understanding the economic chances for women. The bottom line was that I was merely a facilitator of knowledge. All of this and not one mention of a grade. They found motivation in something other than the grade; they found motivation in their own learning. They were doing the work and it was important to them. Why? Because the questions were relevant and they found worth in answering them.
So if you are ever wondering what to teach a class, just ask them?