Conclusions and Implications
The main goal of my study was to examine what happens when student choice is used to differentiate instruction in elementary math learning stations. Specifically, I wanted to examine how offering students choice within the context of stations would help me address the diversity of my students in terms of their readiness, learning styles, and interests. In my classroom, learning stations were a collection of math activities that engaged students in different learning processes and exposed them to a variety of mathematical concepts. In some stations, students played games or quizzed each other, while in other stations, the focus was on reading or completing worksheets. Over time, the stations even came to include student-initiated activities such as designing board games or creating word problems. Every time the students visited the stations, they were given the opportunity to make choices about what stations they went to, where and with whom they worked, and when to move to another station. These choices (and the students’ feelings about them) were documented primarily through the use of surveys, exit cards, and interviews, which were analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively.
As I analyzed student data throughout the course of my study, several themes emerged that were relevant to my research question. A mid-year survey revealed that the students valued choice and autonomy in mathematics learning stations, particularly when it came to making choices about the types of learning activities in which they participated. Choices about what station to visit and when to move to another station were given higher rankings of importance than choices about physical workspace and peer interactions. This result suggests that the kinds of choices typically offered to students (where to work and who to work with) are actually less important to them than choices about how they engage with the content. It also supports the use of teaching models which allow students to make content and learning process choices, as such models can “increase the motivation of students to engage in and do the work, [and] reach more students by presenting a variety of ways to learn and demonstrate learning,” among other benefits (Heacox, 2009, p 84).
An analysis of students’ station choices revealed their preferences for stations that offered variety, competition, and peer interaction over stations focused on worksheets or independent work, or that had unclear expectations. Stations that integrated the preferred elements, such as Math Quiz Game Show or Math Games, received high enjoyability ratings by students and were visited frequently. Stations like Math Art and File Folder Activities, which were characterized by vague expectations and/or more traditional worksheet-based activities, were visited much less often and received far fewer positive enjoyability ratings. The stations that received moderate ratings and a mid-range frequency of visits (Fact Practice and Math Magazine) also offered many of the preferred elements, though these elements were not intrinsic to the activities and instead were added-on as student innovations to the stations. Overall, the students gravitated towards stations that inherently offered variety, competition, and peer interaction, rather than stations that could be modified to include these elements, or stations that didn’t include them at all. The implications for lesson design are discussed later in this section.
When comparing students’ mid-year feelings about math class to their feelings at the beginning of the year, the results were similar. Some students reported improved dispositions toward mathematics, particularly students who entered my classroom with very negative dispositions at the beginning of the school year, while others maintained the same positive or negative dispositions. While these results are not directly attributable to the students’ experiences with learning stations, there is evidence to suggest that working in stations was a positive experience for many students. On the mid-year survey, more than eighty percent of the students agreed that stations were their favorite math class activity, that stations have made them like math more, and that stations have made them a better math student. While it was encouraging to see so many students reporting positive outcomes from engaging in learning stations, it is important not to ignore the minority of students who felt differently. For these students, stations fell short of providing consistent opportunities for mathematical growth and enjoyment. Therefore, other avenues to these ends must be integrated to ensure an equitable education for all students.
Finally, the variety of choices and activities offered to students during learning stations contributed to more successful and manageable differentiated math instruction. The stations themselves varied in terms of content, process, and product, and students exercised much control over these three areas, as well as over choices about their learning environment. Together, these four elements represent Tomlinson’s key elements of differentiation, all of which can be modified to address students’ readiness, learning profiles, and interests. Based on exit card and survey data, the students were frequently engaged in tasks at their “just right” readiness level, meaning that the tasks were not too easy or too difficult. This is important because according to Vygotsky, tasks that are too easy or too difficult fall outside of the students’ Zone of Proximal Development and as a result, learning does not occur (Drapeau, 2004, p. 13). Differences in learning profile were addressed by having station activities that integrated multiple learning intelligences (e.g. visual, kinesthetic, interpersonal, etc.), and the choices students made about the stations they visited were natural extensions of their personal interests.
I attempted to differentiate my learning stations the previous year by making all of the choices about content, process, product, and learning environment for my students based on my perceptions of their readiness, learning profile, and interests. The process was overwhelming, ineffective, and frustrating. Releasing most of the decision-making to the students this year resulted in better outcomes for all of us, and I look forward to maintaining this shift in responsibility during future experiences with learning stations. In addition, I look forward to expanding student choice to other areas of instruction to foster positive outcomes like the ones discussed here.
David Sousa (2008) states, “Improving motivation and engagement in students requires only that teachers add one simple thing to their classroom-choice” (p. 143). However, student choice is not analogous to unrestricted freedom, and educators have many factors to consider before implementing elements of choice into their classroom. Time, resources, student behavior, classroom configuration, and even one’s own comfort level with shifting responsibility to the students are among the many realities that impact a teacher’s decision to utilize student choice.
Once the decision is made to include choices for students, teachers must then support the students in learning the necessary skills to make productive and reasonable choices. Alfie Kohn (1993) warns that “a democratic classroom is not one where the teacher has less work to do. There is no zero-sum game in which more responsibility for the children means less for the adults. Helping students to participate effectively takes talent and patience and hard work” (p. 12). Modeling, negotiation, discussion, and the establishment of clear expectations help the students make the most of the choices they are offered and help teachers ensure meaningful learning experiences. In my learning stations, students were offered choice in four specific domains: what station(s) they visited, when to move to another station, where they worked, and with whom they worked. Offering students choices in these areas helped them to connect more deeply to their work and ultimately led to the positive outcomes described in previous sections.
The decision to implement student choice in my classroom was based on both practical and philosophical factors. Practically speaking, giving students choice in the four domains outlined above meant that I no longer had to make these choices for the students myself, which was the exact opposite of what I had done (and struggled with) the year before. In theory, this also meant that I would no longer have to hear students lament over with whom they were partnered, about a task being to easy or too hard, about having to sit at their assigned desk, or about being done with a task and having nothing to do, because now they were in control of all those decisions.
Giving students choice about who they worked with allowed them to seek out the friends with whom they were already comfortable, but also branch out and form new relationships when they were ready to do so. It allowed struggling students to work with advanced students, boys to work with girls, groupings to form based on common interests, and other types of configurations that may not have emerged had I been the one to make all the arrangements. Letting students choose where they worked helped to naturally manage the flow of classroom traffic and keep students comfortable and on task for longer periods of time. Most importantly, allowing students to choose the stations they went to and when to move to another station enhanced their motivation, strengthened their ability to self-regulate, and enabled them “to capitalize on their strengths” (Heacox, 2009, p. 72). The results of my research suggest that student choice is a worthwhile and manageable way to meet the needs of a diverse population of students, and can be used to address any or all of Tomlinson’s four areas of differentiation without sacrificing the quality of instruction.
Integrating student choice into elementary classrooms necessitates a new framework for lesson design. Rather than developing discrete lessons around the traditional sequence of anticipatory set, direct instruction, guided practice, and independent practice, which offers little opportunity for choice, teachers would benefit from seeking students’ input on how they would like to interact with the content and demonstrate what they have learned. Similarly, planning for learning stations requires more than identifying a learning objective and designing a single activity that will help students meet that objective. For teachers who are interested in using student choice to differentiate instruction, or in implementing mathematics learning stations, asking the following questions may help with the initial planning process:
Student choice/differentiation considerations:
- What kinds of content choices can I offer to my students?
- What kinds of process choices can I offer to my students?
- What kinds of product choices can I offer to my students?
- What kinds of learning environment choices can I offer to my students?
- How will the choices address differences in student interests?
- How will the choices address differences in student readiness levels?
- How will the choices address differences in student learning profiles/intelligences?
- How will I guide students in making productive and reasonable choices?
- What types of organizational tools will I use to monitor the choices students are making?
- How much of my lesson/day/week/unit am I comfortable with devoting to choice activities?
- How will I hold students accountable for the choices they make?
- How will I respond to unreasonable or unproductive choices?
Learning station considerations:
- How many and what kinds of stations will I offer?
- How often will students visit the stations?
- How will my stations be unified? (by subject, topic, some other characteristic?)
- Where will I get ideas for the stations?
- How can I differentiate station offerings to meet the needs of all students?
- How will I communicate station directions, goals, and expectations to students?
- How frequently will I change/update station offerings?
- What materials will I need and where will I store the materials?
- Will the stations be in fixed locations or can they be used anywhere in the room?
- How will I manage station traffic flow?
- How will I keep track of the stations students visit and the work they do there?
- How will I assess and hold students accountable for their learning?
- What kinds of choices will my students make about their stations work?
- What kinds of choices will I make for my students?
Although there are clearly many important aspects to consider before implementing student choice and/or learning stations into an elementary classroom setting, I have found that all of the hard work behind-the-scenes truly pays off when it comes to student engagement and motivation. In the cases of both student choice and learning stations, a bit of planning and a strong organizational system go a long way toward preventing any issues that may arise from encouraging students to take more control of their learning. These two elements, combined with a teacher’s willingness to trust his or her students, can result in a student-centered environment in which all children are engaged in meaningful experiences that support and develop their academic, social, and emotional growth.