I really want my kids to be able to make up their own minds about things. I want them to check out the evidence, verify it, set it against what they already believe to be true, listen to what other people have to say, add a bit of direction thanks to their moral compass and then make decisions. How do we teach them to do this?
When I taught grade one and two I had a vigorous discussion with a parent because I was not ‘leveling’ the books that his son was bringing home to read each night. The practice was then, and still is in many schools, to classify books according to a set of rules about difficulty – sentence complexity, vocabulary, conceptual levels, they were all taken into account. Children were then tested to determine an appropriate level and they were required to select their reading from that level. I didn’t like this process one little bit.
Research has shown that children may initially select books that are too hard or too easy for them, but in a fairly short time they will develop the ability to self-select the books that interest them and are within their ability.
I wanted my kids to understand their own reading ability, to be metacognitive learners who could regulate and adjust their learning. This begins by knowing which books are too hard. I wanted them to take charge of their own learning by giving them the freedom to select a book with lots of really hard words and long sentences but about something that fascinated them. I wanted them to choose for themselves to struggle with something simply because it was worth the effort.
I had fallen in love with some books in my childhood because of the illustrations, the feel of the paper, the smell of the cover, and I wanted my kids to experience that kind of love affair too. My passion for some of these books had nothing to do with the length of the sentences or the vocabulary, nothing to do with the subject, but something about the heft of the book in my hand, the feel of the cover when I ran my fingers across it. These books would have been way outside my ‘level’.
I wanted to give my kids the experience of making choices so that they could get better at it.
When I became a principal I was able to have some influence over curriculum planning. In one school my staff created unit planners that were wonders to behold. They were created on huge sheets of paper and offered these primary level kids choices about the areas of the topic they would focus on, the primary learning styles they would use, the levels they were working in in Bloom’s taxonomy, the ways in which they would record and then share their learning. With oversight from the teacher, the kids would track their own choices to make sure they were stretching themselves and not stuck, for example, in only visual learning, written presentations, recall and description and working solo. They were being helped to be metacognitive learners who understood and regulated their own learning.
When teaching at tertiary level I have given students the opportunity to write their own exam questions. The only advice they were given was to write questions that would demonstrate how much they knew, and the more they knew (obviously) the higher the grade they could earn. Assessment was something they were doing for themselves rather than something that was being done to them.
How do you organize your teaching so that children are taught how to be metacognitive learners who understand their own learning and can make their own informed choices?
Why would we expect young people to make good choices if we haven’t taught them how?