Tic-tac-toe menus, 2-5-8 menus, baseball menus… when I first started teaching, I was convinced that choice menus were an essential tool for differentiation. After a decade or so, I developed a new perspective: menus led me to make lots of underdeveloped tasks.
Let’s break it down.
- Choice ≠ Differentiation
- Nine tasks is a lot of work
- Why nine?
- Menus left my kids confused
- Pick one and make it fantastic!
I now think that “choice” was one of my biggest misconceptions as a new teacher. Just because there is student choice doesn’t (necessarily) mean there’s differentiated instruction.
As I wrote in another article:
If my class reads about Saturn and then I let them create either a poem, a presentation, or a skit, there is no differentiated instruction happening. Some students are just making a different product.
It’s not differentiation if my kids are all doing the same thinking about the same information and then just restate that information in a different way. Offering choice isn’t a substitute for developing high-quality tasks that push advanced kids’ thinking to a new level. Differentiated instruction would mean my more advanced students were working with advanced resources, that I was asking them more sophisticated questions, and that they were thinking about the topic differently from other students.
If you had asked me “Ian, how are you differentiating?”, I would have said, “Oh, my students get to choose which task they do.” That kind of choice is not bad but it’s also not inherently differentiation.
Now, it is mentally draining to create just one high-quality task for advanced students. You’ll need to plan for:
- high levels of thinking (analysis, evaluation, and synthesis)
- thoughtful scaffolding to help students reach those levels of thinking
- clear modeling by the teacher so kids can see how to do the task
- an exemplar to analyze and a non-example to critique
- appropriately advanced resources (books, videos, experts) to support the thinking (which are also accessible to students)
- a culminating product that shows off students’ thinking without being mere fluff
- oh and it all needs to fit into our schedule
That. Is. Not. Easy.
So why (why why why) did I think I could create nine tasks to fill up a tic-tac-toe menu!? Even now, after many years in the field, there’s no way I could create nine great tasks for one topic.
Which has to make you wonder…
So, if one task is hard, why did I think I needed to come up with exactly nine tasks? (Oh ok, eight tasks plus the weak “scholar’s choice” I’d put in the middle.)
Did I pick nine tasks because research shows us that nine choices are optimal for student learning? Have scientists discovered that students suddenly reach that next level of thinking when faced with nine choices?
I created nine tasks because that’s how many spaces are on a tic-tac-toe board! No other reason! I’m pretty embarrassed to type that out loud. That’s a terrible reason to go through that much work. Sometimes, I’d end up with a couple of options I knew were not-so-great just to fill up the grid.
My menus led to confused kids and frustrated Mr. Byrds. Why? Well, I didn’t exactly do a grand job of teaching students how to complete the tasks. Here are (a few) of my problems:
- No directions. My menus typically had just a sentence or two describing each task — since that’s all that fits in a tic-tac-toe box 🤦♂️.
- No modeling. I didn’t show students how to properly complete any of the tasks — since modeling nine tasks would take an eternity.
- This means that I didn’t even fully work through the ideas myself — so there were lots of obvious problems my kids ran into right away
- I didn’t show an exemplar of any of the tasks — so they didn’t have a clear picture of what a finished version should be like
- I didn’t warn my students of common mistakes — so every kid made every single one of those common mistakes
Take a look at this menu I made back in 2009. This is all I gave students to go on. No instruction. No modeling. No samples. Just a couple of sentences per box.
It’s no surprise that the work they produced was no where near their potential. I skipped teaching and rushed to give choice.
Now, there are definitely some interesting ideas on that menu. If I had used my time to make my best idea even better (and dropped the other eight), my students would have been less confused, their thinking would have gone deeper, and I would have felt less frustrated.
So let’s take one task from that menu. It’s interesting, but incredibly under-developed:
Build a playlist of three songs showing a characterʼs growth during a story. Explain how these songs show the characterʼs change over time.
Since this was one of nine tasks, that’s literally all my students had to go on. So, here’s what I’d do now:
- Break this up into checkpoints. Checkpoints are opportunities for me to quickly look at a student’s work and either allow them to move along or to stop them and ask for improvements. This lets me catch problems early, limits the initial scope so kids aren’t overwhelmed, and also gives me a chance to push my advanced kids who aren’t giving it their all. “I think you can do better, Jimmy.”
- But they’re not just going to jump in, because I’m going to model this whole task first and they’re going to watch me do it. In my early days, I’d skip the modeling section in order to “save time” — but that is simply bad teaching. We must model. Imagine a chef who doesn’t let the chicken cook all the way through in order to, um, “save time.” Don’t be that chef!
- I’d also work through a non-example. This is an anti-model. An example in which everything goes wrong! These are super fun because you get to exaggerate all of the problems you’ve seen in the past. I’d write incomplete sentences, use no evidence, and write arguments like, “He is sad because he is so sad so he is sad.” Kids would laugh, but they’d also avoid those mistakes. This works very well.
Does this take more time than giving kids two sentences? Yes. Will the results be 100× better? Yes. Your choice.
Buffet or Fine-Dining?
With my nine-task menus, I created a buffet-style experience for my students. Nothing was particularly great, but there sure was a lot of it! Nowadays, I want each task I give students to be like a dish at a fine-dining restaurant. I want to do fewer things but do them better.
PS: Now, if I carefully taught students how to work through, say, three of those tasks throughout the first half of the year, I could absolutely allow them to choose from those tasks in the back half of the year. I’d work up to choice through careful teaching, rather than dumping nine underdeveloped tasks on my class in month one!
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