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Baskin Robbins offers 31 flavors. The rotation changes each month, so I’m guessing there are probably hundreds if not thousands of flavors that they create. If you’re looking for choice, this is place is it. And there’s a good chance you’ll find something that you like at the store. If you can’t, you might want to reconsider your life . . . or at least your love of ice cream.

However, if you are looking for something very specific that nobody in their right mind would offer, you might need to go to Cold Stone Creamery. Here, you can order a hot fudge peanut butter and pretzel ice cream. Nobody else is choosing that flavor. It’s yours. There’s a good chance you’ll get the exact ice cream that you want.

And yet . . .

If you want to own the entire process, you need to go to a frozen yogurt place. I know, I know, it’s not really ice cream. It’s “yogurt,” which is a code word for “ice cream that pretends not to be ice cream.” At the fro yo place, you get to decide which flavor you want. There are fewer options than what Baskin Robbins offers. However, you get to decide on the exact amount you want. You also get to choose the toppings, selecting not only which ones you want but how much you want of each topping. You own the entire process.

The Three Approaches to Student Choice

When we talk about choice and differentiation, the conversations often revolve around the Baskin Robbins model. Give kids a choice menu and let them choose. On some level, it works. As the teacher, you get to do quality control on the content and on the process. However, it can feel exhausting to create thirty-one new flavors over and over again.

Sometimes, we shift from differentiated to personalized. This is when the Cold Stone Creamery model kicks in. Here, students move from choice to freedom in the content. Here, they are not selecting from a list of choices but rather stating exactly what they want. There is more agency and ownership. Engagement increases. However, the teacher still owns the process and it becomes exhausting.

However, when students own both the content and the process, they shift into the fro yo model. Here, they decide what they want to learn by doing it themselves. They might actually have fewer choices, but they have more freedom and a higher level of autonomy. The teacher is still present as an advisor and an architect of the master system. However, students are working in a self-directed way. If Baskin Robbins is differentiation and Cold Stone Creamery is personalization, frozen yogurt is empowerment.

I’m not sure if this will make sense, but here’s where I sketched out this thinking in my journal:

pic from my journal

Start with Genius Hour

So, you have this frozen yogurt mindset and you want to make it work. You want to empower your students to be self-directed in both the content and the process. But how do you pull that off?

Seven or eight years ago, I read a book about the founding of Google. I fell in love with the idea of 20% time. (Quick side note: 20% time is on the decline at Google) Here, workers spend 20% of their time on independent passion projects that may or may not actually benefit the company. Some of the best innovations at Google began with these small passion projects that eventually grew into full-blown Google products. -explain

This idea sounded great. I would embrace the frozen yogurt mindset and students would be self-directed in their 20% time (also called Genius Hour). Unfortunately, I ran into a few snags along the way:

  • Students didn’t know how to own the process. They simply hadn’t experienced that kind of choice before.
  • I wasn’t sure how to assess it and I quickly learned that people value things less when we don’t assess them.
  • I couldn’t easily align the work to the standards, so I struggled to communicate it to my leadership. I had a hard time proving that they were doing “real work” and not just having “free time.”
  • Certain students got frustrated, gave up, and started goofing off. It became a classroom management nightmare.
  • I wasn’t sure how to get the right materials to the right students and this led to frustration.
  • It was too open and so some kids treated it as a study hall time to get homework done for other classes. Some of my best students were actually the worst participants in Genius Hour.

Over time, I figured these issues out through trial and error. Yet, three or four years into it, I still had major issues. I lacked the systemic framework to pull it off effectively. In other words, our class Genius Hour projects were supposed to work like a frozen yogurt shop but instead they were a mess of melted yogurt and mismatched candy strewn everywhere.

That was around the time when I met AJ Juliani. As I got to know him through our collaborative work, he began sharing practical tweaks that I could take our Genius Hour projects to the next level. AJ has a way of making complicated systems relatable, practical, and easy to implement without dumbing down or oversimplifying anything. As a result, Genius Hour started to actually work for me.

If you’re interested in starting a Genius Hour at your school or in your classroom, you should check out this self-paced course he is about to launch. The course includes a ton of practical resources, including lesson plans. It’s perfect both for the beginner who is just getting started with Genius Hour or for the teacher who has used Genius Hour but wants to take it to the next level. If you use the coupon code SPENCER, the price drops from $125 to $99.

All Three Models Are Necessary

There is nothing wrong with any of those previously mentioned models. There are times when the entire class needs to work together and there are very few options present. They might be engaging in a debate or analyzing an article together and the lack of choice is precisely what keeps the community unified. To borrow the ice cream metaphor, there’s nothing wrong with having the entire class share ice cream sandwiches together.

But there are moments when you might want to provide student choice. Here, the Baskin Robbins way works. The entire class might need to have a shared process but they can have multiple options in content. This is where differentiation kicks in.

Other times, though, you want to provide something specific for each student. Here, you shift from differentiation to personalization. It takes extra work on your part, but it’s worth it in the long run. You are meeting with students one-on-one and conferencing or tutoring. You are finding specific things that might engage specific students. You can’t pull this off all the time, but when this happens, students can feel valued on a personal level.

However, there is also a time for a frozen yogurt mindset. Here, you allow students to own the process and the product. They are self-directed, choosing the topic, the themes, the product, the ideas, and the questions based upon their own desires, passions, curiosity, mastery.

Each approach is necessary. Note that a Baskin Robbins class doesn’t really honor student agency but a frozen yogurt class can be so individualistic that you lose the sense of community as a group. But when you employ all three models, you honor student agency while also developing a cohesive classroom community.

Empower Your Students with Voice and Choice

Want to get started with student ownership? Check out this page with free articles, videos, and resources. Also, check out the Empower Blueprint and Toolkit below.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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