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What does a choice-driven classroom look like?

Student choice goes beyond simply picking an item out of a menu. It’s about self-directed students taking charge of their own learning. Here are some of the ways students can own the learning process:

  • Students select the course text. They get to decide about what to read or what videos to watch or what podcasts to listen to.
  • Students choose what topics or themes to explore.
  • Students ask questions and determine which questions are truly “essential.”
  • Students figure out what strategies they will use as they read, solve problems, research, debate, etc.
  • Students decide what type of grouping works best for them.
  • Students have the option of going quieter or louder by having the option of wearing headphones.
  • Students get to decide where they want to sit. They can sit or stand as they work independently.
  • Students select which type of scaffolding they will use based upon their individual needs.
  • Students own the intervention and enrichment process.
  • Students decide how they will share what they are learning.
  • Students choose where they will publish their work.
  • Students decide what they will create. They can own the entire process with design thinking.
  • Students engage in frequent self-assessment in order to make adjustments and figure out where to go next.

This can feel daunting. So, where do you start? Here are a few ideas.

#1: Start with just one project.

It can feel overwhelming to completely overhaul your pedagogical approach. It takes time to develop the systems and structures for things like student-selected intervention and enrichment or student self-assessments. Besides, there are tons of great lessons that aren’t choice-driven and you don’t want to abandon everything. For me, it has been a decade-long shift into a choice-driven classroom and I’m still continuing to evolve.

This why it helps to start out with one choice-driven project. This allows you to spend some time planning and reflecting while also spending time teaching in a way that feels comfortable. It might be a two-week unit that you try out.

You could do a Geek Out Project. Here students choose a topic they geek out about based upon their own personal interests. They ask questions, engage in research, and ultimately create something in the end. I’ve had the best luck with Geek Out Blogs. Students write posts like “Ten Surprising Facts About the History of Skateboarding” or “The Top Five Fantasy Novels of the Last Decade.” They get to be the expert. They can also create their own Geek Out podcasts or videos.

If you want to go fully independent and long-term, you can try a Genius Hour project. Here students spend an allotted time each week working independently on a project that they design from the ground up. My good friend AJ Juliani, an expert in Genius Hour, has created this self-paced course he is about to launch. The course includes a ton of practical resources, including lesson plans. It’s perfect both for the beginner who is just getting started with Genius Hour or for the teacher who has used Genius Hour but wants to take it to the next level. If you use the coupon code SPENCER, the price drops from $125 to $99.

However, if you prefer having students work interdependently with structured creativity, you might want to go with a design thinking project. I helped develop the LAUNCH Cycle, a k-12 framework to design thinking that provides a structure where student choice and creativity can thrive.

#2: Collaborate with a trusted colleague.

When I first started shifting toward a choice-driven classroom, I felt alone. I became risk-averse because I didn’t want to look like the “odd one out.” I made huge mistakes and I had no one to share my frustrations with, because I knew I would hear things like, “you were too idealistic” or “maybe kids shouldn’t have so much choice in their learning” or even “too much choice will make kids selfish.”

However, in my second year in this shift, I met a new teacher named Javier. He and I became close friends and trusted colleagues. We regularly shared what worked and what failed. We were able to be vulnerable. And slowly, we started collaborating on projects. It was easier to take creative risks when I wasn’t alone.

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#3: Do a choice audit before deciding procedures.

I mentioned this before, but it can help to do an audit of every classroom procedure with the driving question, “What am I doing for students that they could do on their own?” This not only empowers students but it also frees up the teacher to spend less time working as a mid-level manager and more time as an instructional leader.

It can help to close your eyes and imagine yourself as a student. Go through the entire class period or school day in your classroom and imagine what you, as a student, would want to do on your own. This sense of empathy can be eye-opening. When I did this, I realized that most of the class procedures had been designed to make things easier for me, as the teacher. They weren’t oriented around students. However, when students owned more of the process, things actually became more organized and less chaotic, because students weren’t having to figure out how to comply with an external system.

#4: Communicate to stakeholders.

Sometimes student choice can seem like negligence to parents or to principals. You can appear as the “fun teacher” to is “letting kids get away with everything.” I remember the sting of hearing a student say to another teacher, “That’s Mr. Spencer. We can learn whatever we want in his class.”

I realized that I needed to share why we were embracing student choice as a class. So, I talked to students about choice and ownership. I shared data with parents about how student choice could increase motivation and engagement. I wanted people to understand that this wasn’t simply an issue of letting kids do whatever they felt like doing. We still had structures and rules and expectations.

This is why I love the word “pilot.” Seriously. Go try it out. Leaders love it. Say something like, “I’m going to pilot Genius Hour projects.” Or say, “We will be piloting the use design thinking, a framework used in the arts, in business, and in engineering.” Share that with your administrators and with your parents. Chances are they’ll see choice as more than just letting go and having fun.

#5: Model it.

This was the hardest part for me to get. After a few years of designing structures for choice, I had to remind myself that students weren’t used to the sheer amount of choice we had. I had to teach students how to select the right intervention and enrichment, how to access the scaffolding, how to manage their own projects, and how to make decisions when they felt stuck. I had to provide sentence frames for inquiry questions. I still needed to walk through our first design thinking project in a sequential, step-by-step way that required a little more direct instruction.

At first this felt like I a cop out or a compromise. A “real” choice-driven classroom wouldn’t need so much initial support from a teacher. And yet, gradual release makes sense. When you’re learning a skill for the first time, chances are you watch tons of videos. You copy other people. You listen to experts. You are risk-averse. You wonder if you’re doing it right.

The same is true of students who are owning their learning for the first time. They need a vision for how it can look and you, as the teacher, can provide that to them by modeling. Sometimes you will have to give permission when you assume they already know it. Sometimes you will have to model the metacognition needed in self-assessment.

The modeling doesn’t always have to be whole class. Some of the best modeling happens when teachers do one-on-one conferences with students.

Take the Leap

Student choice can feel scary. It can be hard to give up control — especially when you are on your own in a system that thrives on compliance. But it’s worth it. Engagement skyrockets. Students think critically. The class culture changes into a place where students feel ownership over the learning. However, none of this happens if you don’t take the leap into the unknown.

It won’t be perfect. The process will be riddled with mistakes. But that’s how innovation happens.

Empower Your Students with Voice and Choice

Want to get started with student ownership? Check out this page with free articles, videos, and resources. Also, check out the Empower Blueprint and Toolkit below.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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