I have three kids ranging from older elementary to high school. Each one of them is handling distance learning differently. My daughter, who is also the youngest, initially felt overwhelmed at the list of assignments that popped up each Monday and the scheduled meetings twice a week. However, once we walked her through the process of breaking down tasks and estimating work time, she was able to create a weekly schedule for herself. I even taught her about the planning fallacy and why we should take our initial estimation of time and multiply it by 1.5 to get a more accurate sense of how long things will take. My middle son decided to do as much of his work on Monday and Tuesday as possible to free up time later in the week. Meanwhile, my oldest son has chosen to go the “deep work” approach by focusing on one subject each day.
Their favorite parts of school have varied as well. My daughter loves her virtual meetings. My middle son prefers working asynchronously and enjoys it when teachers create tutorial videos and let students jump ahead if need be. Meanwhile, my oldest is working his hardest in his engineering class where they are doing a PBL unit based on a design challenge. Here, he is working on his computer while he has FaceTime open for hours as he talks with his friend.
Seeing distance learning through the lens of my own children is a reminder that each child is different. There is no single right way to do distance learning — an idea I explore in this video:
While there is no instruction manual for distance learning, there are some universal ideas that can guide us as we design distance learning experience. One of these core ideas is student voice and choice. One of the best things we can offer students in this time of social distancing is a sense of autonomy and control over their learning. If you look at the following diagram, there is a progression in student agency where they move through compliance to engagement to empowerment as they have greater choice and control over their learning.
Note that too much choice can be a problem. Students can feel overwhelmed when things are too loose. Children need expectations, which is why agency and compliance still have a place. Moreover, choice can be overwhelming. As Barry Schwartz wrote in the classic Paradox of Choice, “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.” We do a disservice when we provide “unlimited possibilities” because it is simply too much choice for our brains. For this reason, it can help to create structures for student choice. One option is through the design of a choice menu.
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Four Approaches to Choice Menus
Choice menus have been around for years with different names, including “choice boards” and “learning menus.” Regardless of the terminology, the idea is the same. Create structures that provide choices for students in their learning tasks. However, as mentioned before, choice often exists on a spectrum from teacher-directed (less autonomy) to student-directed (more autonomy). The following graphic is a continuum of choice menus with four different levels.
I want to point out that these do not to be sequential or linear. You don’t have to start at a Level 1 and then move to a Level 4. But there is this idea that you may want to start at a more teacher-centered approach to get students used to the idea of choice and then move toward a Level 3 or 4 over time.
Level 1: Embedded Choice
With this first level, students all work on the same main assignment or project. Here, every student is working on the same learning targets and tasks for the majority of the assignment. The entire class has common grouping (individual, partners, or small groups) and generally works at the same pace. However, within this assignment, the teacher provides options on a sub-task.
So, in a language arts class, students might all do the same reading and answer similar questions but they have a menu of options for how they present their answers. They might record a podcast, make a slideshow, do a sketchnote, film a video, or write a blog post. Another variation of this might be that every student is writing a blog post but they have a list of topics they can select. So, they don’t have a choice in the final product but they do have a choice in the topic.
In a math class, students might have the same set of word problems but they select from the menu. Or they might work on the same word problem but have a menu of options for how they solve the problems. For linear equations, this might include graphing, creating a table, or using an algorithm. Another time, they might all solve the same problem but they have a choice in how they share their answers with classmates.
The core idea is that most of the assignment is the same but there is one element where a choice menu is embedded. This is ideal when you first introduce a concept or skill and you want to make sure every student has the background knowledge they need before moving on. It can also function as a way to introduce choice to students without overwhelming them. Later, they’ll move toward higher levels of choice and autonomy until they end up with something like a Genius Hour.
Level 2: Simple Choice Menu
This builds on the last idea with a key variation. Instead of having a common assignment and embedded choices, students have a common objective but a choice in assignments. This might include choices in grouping, choices in topics, and choices in the products they create. So, students might do independent reading with whatever novels they choose to read. Afterward, they can select any number of book report prompts that the teacher provides. If you’re interested in trying these out, I have partnered with Presto Plans to create a set of alternatives to book reports. Each one has a sketch video and a set of handouts. They’ve already been optimized for online and distance learning classroom.
The simple choice menu is ideal for a classroom where students are all mastering the same standard. If the standard is is skill-based but topic-neutral, students have leeway in choosing their own topics (or choosing from a list of topics) but less freedom in the skills they practice. For example, with Wonder Day, every student engages in research, reading, and writing. Other times, the standard might be topic-based and conceptual but there is more freedom in the skills students master and the products they create. Here, students might learn about World War II but the simple choice menu could include making a comic book, creating a virtual museum, or doing a diary of a soldier.
If you want to create this type of chart, I would recommend putting this onto a Google Document and using the icons from Flat Icon. You can hyperlink the icon and use the same hyperlink under each icon. Using the internal Bookmarks and link functions, you can have one single document that has each of the assignment options below it. You can then submit this an attachment on the common assignment in Google Classroom. Another variation of this is the Tic-Tac-Toe option which Catlin Tucker and Kasey Bell have both done a great job demonstrating. Here, students select an assignment in each row to get a “Tic-Tac-Toe” for a completed assignment.
The key idea is that there is a common learning target but freedom in everything else.
Level 3: Advanced Choice Menu
Advanced choice menus take the last idea another step forward by having students self-select the standards or learning targets. The following is an example of an advanced choice menu. Students begin by selecting their grouping (partners, small group, or independent). Next, they select the specific learning targets. This is ideal for students who need additional review of certain content. It functions as a built-in intervention. After deciding on the learning target, students find related resources that they explore connected to the learning target. These might be tutorials, examples, articles, podcasts, or videos. Finally, students select from options in how they will present their learning. You can find out more about it here. Here’s a table that spells out how it works:
In a math class, you might have a student choose to work with a partner. Both partners decide to work on dividing fractions. When they look at the list of curated resources, one partner chooses to watch a tutorial video while another partner chooses to read an online tutorial. Next, they complete a task where they are dividing fractions and then they select the video option where they show how they solved the problems together. Although they are working miles away from each other, they are able to share their videos with one another and with the teacher on Flipgrid.
While the table works well for this option, a more advanced variation would be to do it as a Google Form, with students selecting an option that leads to a new set of options. So, in science they might choose a learning target on adaptations. When they click submit, it takes them to the specific resources on adaptations. Once they select their resource to learn about adaptations, they click submit again and go to the form with the options for how they will share what they learned.
Note that this option works best with secondary students who have a solid background knowledge of their topics or a solid understanding of the skills. This type of choice menu can easily overwhelm students, which is why I would recommend using one of the first two options before moving to this one.
Level 4: Independent Project
Independent projects require a shift from choice to freedom. Instead of relying on teachers for to provide a menu of options, students select the grouping, decide on the topics, ask their own questions, engage in their own research, find their own resources (rather than selecting from a curation), and ultimately create their own products.
One option is a Genius Hour project. Based on Google concept of 20% Time, the goal is to provide students with 20% of their class time to learn what they want. They choose the content while also mastering skills and hitting the academic standards.
With Genius Hour, students own the entire journey. They choose the topics based upon their own geeky interests. It doesn’t have to be a traditionally academic area. They might like fashion or food or sports or Legos or Minecraft or deep sea creatures. They can then match these topics with topic-neutral standards. Students ask the questions and engage in their own research to find the answers. Along the way, they design their own plan of instruction. They decide on the resources and activities. Each student sets goals and engages in self-assessment. They work at their own pace and set their own deadlines. Students decide on the grouping. Some work alone. Others work in pairs or small groups. In the end, students figure out what they will make and how they will share their learning with the world.
A word of caution: It’s not a free-for-all. The best Genius Hour projects have systems and structures that empower students to reach their full potential. I find it helpful to break Genius Hour into phases and have students document it with a Genius Hour Journal. This could be done on a Google Doc or it could be done as a podcast or video. I love this quote from Austin Kleon:
In some cases, students might not finish their Genius Hour projects. They might even hit failure. But failed projects are also a learning opportunity:
Here’s a video you can use with your students.
Another option would be something like a Wonder Day project, where students can choose their grouping, choose their topics, create their own questions, engage in research, and ultimately create either a podcast, video, slideshow, or blog post where they share their findings. Here’s a chart you can use to help walk students through the choices.
If you’d like to download the Wonder Day or Wonder Week (a deeper dive) project, you can check them out for free here.
Even so, there will be mistakes. You’ll have to experiment.
Ultimately, student choice is a long journey. We are in the midst of social distancing and experimenting as we go. Some students might be at a place where they can only handle the first or second levels of choice menus — and that’s okay. The important thing is that they are seeing how much you are honoring their autonomy and agency. In the end, when we provide students with choice, they are empowered to be be self-directed learners, engaging in creativity and critical thinking. In other words, they own the learning.
This next week, I’ll be running a webinar taking a deeper dive into this subject. Together, we will explore four different choice menus you can do in your online classroom. I’ll walk you step-by-step through each type of choice menu so that you can craft a practical choice menu for your students. You can sign up here.
Distance Learning Toolkit
If you want to learn more about distance learning, please check out the toolkit and eBook below.