Classroom Stories

Empowering Students through Creativity in a Choice-Based Classroom

One group of students is practicing code on an app so they can create a painting with a robot. Another group is learning what types of objects are conductive to create a closed-circuit game. One child is individually designing each pixel for a video game creation, while a pair of students watch flipped classroom videos from an agency choice board of how to create sgraffito with paint. The rest of the students are heavily engaged with an assortment of tasks, including building, experimenting, designing, and planning.

Students in the foreground are designing a movie set and characters and using technology to sync the photos together into a stop motion film. Their set consisted of recycled materials and figures made out of modeling clay or found objects.

Students are designing a movie set and characters and using technology .
Students in the foreground are designing a movie set and characters and using technology to sync the photos together into a stop motion film. Their set consisted of recycled materials and figures made out of modeling clay or found objects.

While this may sound like an ideal 21st century classroom focusing on the trending “Four C’s” (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity), many educators might find this student-centered classroom a challenge, and with good reason. With so much at stake: grades, testing, and approval from stakeholders, it’s no surprise that some educators find comfort in a teacher-centered classroom. However, there are great benefits to moving from direct instruction to facilitating learning.

In a student-centered classroom, students practice coming up with problems to solve, ask big questions, and see possibilities in the world around them (an important skill as screen time for this generation increases). These skill sets help students to engage more deeply in their learning, and will promote greater social skills, academic achievement, and potentially foster an appreciation for lifelong learning.

In a choice-based classroom, students direct their own learning based on their interests. This helps them to ask big questions, see possibilities in the world outside their classroom, strive through challenges and build trust in themselves. Some other benefits of a choice-based classroom include:

  • • Students learn best and work harder when they are engaged in their learning.
  • • When students work on different things, there is less of a tendency for comparison, increasing confidence and celebrating the achievement of other students.
  • • Increased student-led scaffolding through inquiry, self-pacing, and developing specific skills needed to complete their individual tasks.
  • • With smaller groups and independent learners, the teacher is free to work more closely with the students, as well as help differentiate for individual student needs.

That said, here are three important things to remember as you shift into the role of facilitator and allow for individualized learning.

Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together. Your classroom is all about critical-thinking and problem-solving, but you can’t do it alone. Be transparent in your understanding if a concept or technology is new to you, and don’t be afraid to reach out to colleagues or students for help. Students will be more than happy to oblige in sharing their technology know-how.

Removing the stigma of failure from the classroom can cause tremendous shifts in student participation, and provide a rich environment for growth and collaboration. Not to mention, transparency and honesty helps foster student trust and improves their identification with both the teacher and their peers.

When I brought a borrowed Makerspaces Kit back to the classroom, I wasn’t sure how to use most of the technology in it. I was surprised how eager the students were to ‘play’ alongside me and try new things. They offered to come in and help out during any of their free time, including lunch. The engagement was priceless, and they often came up with ideas related to the content areas I was trying to match that I may not have thought of! They appreciate my honesty and sense of wonder, and enjoyed practicing being the one delivering instruction. Not to mention, you can never go wrong with having an ‘expert’ or two on a particular media in the classroom.

A student designs a game by manipulating pixels on a board.
A student designs a game by manipulating individual pixels by hand, then recording the image onto a tablet. Frames can be strung together for a fully playable game.

Student learning comes first. You have an obligation to teach a set curriculum at a certain pace, and student test scores are reflected in evaluations. However, from an instructional standpoint, you also recognize the inherent importance of the parts of education that can be more difficult to measure: social and emotional learning, complex problem-solving, and critical thinking. Technology can actually help to synthesize these classroom needs more effectively.

In order to provide the best environment for today’s learners in tomorrow’s workforce, we need to provide them with challenges and a variety of learning opportunities. Have conversations with your administrators about best grading practices, and the flexibility that age banded competencies provide for student growth. Develop a toolkit of programs, blogs, and resources that you find valuable. Your enthusiasm and ability to solve problems and learn from mistakes will be contagious in the classroom. The growth and research you do should be shared with the students.

Stay Flexible. There is no one-size-fits-all learning approach. You know your own classroom, abilities, and students, and sometimes a combination of different approaches will work best. Technology is a tool that can enhance the classroom experience, but it need not overwhelm, avoid using it just for the sake of using it. Develop your ideas in bite-sized pieces, and be comfortable with learning as you go. Search out PD, attend trainings, contact your REMC representative or District Technology Specialist, and seek out the help of other teachers or Professional Learning Communities.

We are in a very exciting time in education as we prepare our students to create, innovate, and explore as responsible citizens on a global level, and we should feel proud and empowered to help them develop these skills. Enthusiasm and vigor are contagious, and as teachers, we understand the beauty of lifelong learning; let technology be a tool to strengthen your pedagogy, and allow for creation and constructivism to play an integral role in your classroom.


Sarah Bedford (@AltmansArt): Sarah teaches Creative Arts classes at Thunder Bay Junior High in Alpena, Michigan. She loves working with both students and other teachers to explore new ways of learning, and strives to keep her classes engaging, energetic, busy, and fun. You can connect with her on Twitter at @AltmansArt.