Tic tac toe menus, 2-5-8 menus, baseball menus… when I first started teaching in gifted education, I saw menus as a core tool for differentiation. I made many of them. I even tried to make an app to generate them.
But now, after a decade plus in gifted education, I have a new perspective: menus lead to lots of low-quality tasks.
1. Choice isn’t (inherently) that great.
Just because there is student choice, doesn’t mean there’s quality differentiation. I wrote once before:
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 – Read more
Differentiation must be about students’ thinking not the product they create. When I would give a bunch of choices to my students, those choices tended to have the same low-level of thinking and then finish with an option to restate already-known information as either a song or skit or poem.
Choice can be great, sure, but a high level of thinking should be our focus.
2. One is hard, but let’s do nine!
It is very hard to create just one high-quality task for advanced students. I do this full-time for Byrdseed.TV and end up tossing probably two-thirds of my initial ideas because they’re just not good enough.
High-quality tasks must incorporate high-levels of thinking plus thoughtful scaffolding, and advanced resources (that are also accessible to students), plus a culminating product that shows off students’ thinking without being mere fluff, and they need to fit into our limited time-frames!
That’s not easy.
So… why on earth did I think I could create nine ideas to fill up a tic-tac-toe menu?
Now I know that I’m always better off focusing my resources on my one best idea and tossing the rest into a “maybe later” pile. Read Essentialism for more on that.
One task is hard. Don’t try to create three, six, or nine.
3. Arbitrary requirements.
So, why did we choose nine tasks? Is it because we know that nine tasks is what’s best for student learning? Have researchers discovered that, when faced with nine choices, students suddenly reach a new level of thinking?
I made up nine tasks because that happens to fit in a tic-tac-toe board. That’s a terrible reason to create that much work.
Filling up a menu with nine tasks is arbitrary. Instead, let’s use what we know about learning to develop high-quality lessons. Let’s build on Bloom’s Taxonomy, depth and complexity, and quality scaffolding to create one great task before filling up a grid for no good reason.
4. Buffet or fine-dining?
I look at my old extension menus now and think, gosh there are maybe two seeds of good ideas. But the rest? It’s all just filler.
I created a buffet-style experience for my students. Nothing was particularly great, but there sure was a lot of it!
Imagine if I had, instead, used that time to take the best idea and flesh it out. Add scaffolds. Find fantastic resources to support student thinking. Create high-quality examples (and low-quality non-examples) to guide students.
Nowadays, I want each task to be like a dish at a fine-dining restaurant. Every element should be carefully thought through. Pieces that aren’t so great get improved or simply tossed out.
Focus on one idea.
So. My advice: focus on creating one outstanding task rather than banging out many mediocre tasks to fill up an extension menu. That one task can certainly include (high-quality) choice, but choice isn’t our goal. Our goal is to get students thinking.
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