Choice menus are a method to offer, yes, choice to students through a variety of tasks. As a beginning teacher, this seemed like an essential tool for differentiation. But, after a decade or so, I’ve developed a new perspective: choice menus led me to emphasize quantity over quality.
Here’s why I’ve been rethinking choice menus!
- Choice doesn’t mean 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 I offer students choice doesn’t mean there’s differentiated instruction.
As I wrote in this article about student choice:
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 then just restating that information in a different way. Offering choice is not a substitute for developing high-quality tasks that push students’ thinking.
If I’m really differentiating, my more advanced students are working with advanced resources, I’m asking them more sophisticated questions, and, most importantly, those students are thinking about the topic differently from other students.
Now, it is a lot of work 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 choice menu!? Even now, after many years in the field, there’s no way I could create nine great tasks for one topic. Why did I add so much work to my plate?
My choice boards always 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 choice 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 nowhere near their potential. I skipped instruction and just gave a bunch of choices.
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 blurb is 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 second half of the year. But I’d work up to choice through careful teaching, rather than dumping nine underdeveloped tasks on my class all at once.