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Over the last month, I have been sharing practical ways that we can empower our students to own the learning from day one. This is the core idea that AJ Juliani and I wrote about in our book Empower. It’s a journey I began in my second year of teaching middle school and continued for a decade. Each year, I experimented with new strategies, new ideas, and new protocols. For the last seven years, I’ve continued this journey as a professor with my students and watched as they implemented student-centered learning in their own classrooms. I’ve had the honor of leading workshops, giving keynotes, and doing in-depth coaching with teachers around the world and I continue to gain new insights and learn new strategies from them as well.

I’m still learning and growing in this area. Sometimes I give too much guidance and support. Others times, I don’t provide enough scaffolds. It continues to be a messy process and now, coming up on twenty years in education, I am feeling okay with the idea that this process will always be messy. Growth often happens as we learn from our mistakes. Today, I’d like to share one of my epic fails and how I modified my approach.

Sometimes choice is overwhelming. It can help to take an incremental choice. Listen to the Podcast

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The Shift Toward Student Empowerment

Right now, coming out of the pandemic, I’ve noticed that one of the biggest challenge teachers are facing isn’t student engagement so much as student empowerment. Many students are struggling to be self-directed learners who can self-start and self-manage.

Self-direction Venn DiagramSelf-directed learners they don’t simply wait for an opportunity. They don’t hope to be called on. They don’t expect an instruction manual. They are self-starters who turn an idea into a reality. They write their own rules. They know what it means to experiment and to test new ideas, even if it seems difficult. They are driven by the question “why not?” 

Students need to be self-starters.

It doesn’t end there. Starting something is one thing. However, many great ideas fizzle out within when people lose interest.

There’s an often overlooked gritty and difficult side of self-direction that shows up every time you hear people use the phrase “It’s a grind.” Whether you’re a social activist or an artist or an engineer or an entrepreneur, you will have moments when you have to push through the challenging parts and keep going. In these moments, you need to be a self-manager. If being a self-starter is all about sparking innovation in the midst of chaos, self-management is all about knowing how to stick to deadlines and routines.    

Students need to be self-managers.

To be self-directed, students will need to be self-starters who can take the initiative to own their learning but also self-managers who are able to finish tasks and push through when things get difficult. However, this requires students to own their learning.  The following video explores what happens when students own their learning.

If we want students to be creative, self-directed learners we need to go beyond student engagement and into empowerment. You can imagine it as a continuum of student agency moving from teacher-centered to student-centered.

Continuum of student agency from teacher-centered to student-centered. It goes from compliance to engagement to empowerment.Compliance is what happens when you do something because you have to do it. Engagement happens when you do something because you want to do it. Philip Schlechty defined is as both high attention and high commitment. Empowerment occurs when you do something out of a greater sense of buy-in. All three are necessary at different times and I learned the hard way that going toward empowerment from day one can lead to chaos and confusion.


My Epic Fail! Why Too Much Choice Can Feel Overwhelming

In my fourth of year of teaching, I read about Google’s 20% time and decided to implement personal passion projects. Later, I learned that there was an entire community of teachers doing Genius Hour (or 20% Time). Genius Hour begins with that same simple premise. Give your students 20% of their class time to learn what they want. They choose the content while also mastering skills and hitting the academic standards. With Genius Hour, students own the entire journey: They choose the topics based upon their own geeky interests. It doesn’t have to be a traditionally academic area. They might like fashion or food or sports or Legos or Minecraft or deep sea creatures They can then match these topics with topic-neutral standards. Students ask the questions and engage in their own research to find the answers. Along the way, they design their own plan of instruction. They decide on the resources and activities. Each student sets goals and engages in self-assessment. They work at their own pace and set their own deadlines. Students decide on the grouping. Some work alone. Others work in pairs or small groups. In the end, students figure out what they will make and how they will share their learning with the world.

Sounds great, right? Give students 20% of the time to work on passion projects and let them loose. See what kinds of amazing projects they’ll create. Watch them dive into new ideas and learn new skills. Get out of the way and watch them thrive. Except . . . actually, getting out of the way was the worst move I made.

It was the second week of school and my students had already chosen the class norms, negotiated the procedures, and worked through various team building activities. When students arrived that day, they looked up to the board to see the warm-up to read the single line, “Follow your interests.”

A brave student raised her hand and asked, “What does that mean?”

“You decide what you learn today,” I answered.

“But what are we supposed to decide?” another student asked.

I then launched into a description of 20% Time and explained that we would be doing our own version called Indie Fridays. Students could learn a new language, make a work of art, study up on some geeky interest, or design a product. Students seemed excited at the possibilities. But as we shift into our first official Genius Hour, I noticed that few of the students actually used it as intended. High achievers pulled out their homework and treated the period as a Study Hall. Others sat in in circles and talked about sports or tv shows or video games or the latest hallway gossip. They didn’t research anything, create anything, or learn anything new. It was a social hour.

In the next week, I asked students to choose their Indie Project topic and begin working. But, again, we had a repeat of the week before. After a third week with similar results, I quietly abandoned 20% Time. Looking back on it, this was too much choice and ownership without any actual guidance. I had failed to provide a vision for these projects or a road map for how we would get there. I hadn’t set out any parameters or guidelines. We didn’t have phases or stages in their projects. We had no rubrics, much less assessments of any kind. We had no accountability built into the process. I hadn’t provided any sort of accommodations for exceptional learners. It was too open and students responded to this openness with a sense of overwhelm and confusion.

The next summer, I reflected on our failed 20% Time experiment and realized that students actually needed some boundaries. In fact, constraint could function as the very starting point for creativity:

I also realized that voice and choice might be overwhelming to students who are used to a more traditional schooling approach. After all, I had spent a few years on this journey toward student empowerment but this was brand new to many of my students. For this reason, I shifted toward a Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) approach to student choice.

Developed by Pearson and Gallagher (1983) the GRR model is a process that begins with direct instruction, followed by guided practice, and eventually independent practice. It’s often simplified in the idea of “I do, we do, you do.” This GRR approach helps move students through the Zone of Proximal Development. (A quick correction on this video. I stated the wrong date of Vygotsky’s theory by quoting the first journal articles I found that were actually published after his death).

While we tend to think of GRR as a process for traditional teaching, the same can be true of student choice. We can begin the year with some choice but also scaffolding, parameters, and guidance from the teacher. As the year progresses, we release more personal responsibility and student agency to the students.

This is why I created Geek Out Blogs when I was a middle school teacher. With Geek Out Blogs, students pursue their own topics but they do so in a more structured way that supports reading, writing, and multimedia composition. Along the way, students learn information literacy, media literacy, and digital citizenship. They’re also developing vital soft skills, like communication, curation, collaboration, and critical thinking.

Geek Out Blogs work well as a get-to-know-you activity at the start of the year. However, they also work well as project you can do at the end of the year, where students get the chance to apply reading and writing skills they’ve learned in a way that ties into their personal interests. With Geek Out Blogs, they engage in a structured project with clear parameters (templates for blog posts, processes for research, guidelines for the project) while pursuing their own interests. This works as a trauma-sensitive way for students to get to know each other. Moreover, it’s a strength-based mindset because students begin from a place of their own unique knowledge as they work on multimedia composition.

Notice that this project began with a GRR approach. It was the first project of the year and was thus more teacher-directed and structured. This Gradual Release approach works well at the task level. This is true when students do research, where students might follow the teacher’s process initially and then move toward something more choice-based later. At the same time, teachers might take a Gradual Release approach to choice in general as they plan their entire year.


Taking a Gradual Release Approach for Individual Tasks

In a design thinking project, students might need some additional support with the research process (Ask Tons of Questions and Understand the Process or Problem). For this reason, I started with a more guided approach at first and shift toward more student autonomy with each consecutive day. On day one, I used sample sentences and sentence frames to help students come up with research questions. On day two, I guided students in evaluating and improving their questions. As they shift toward online research, I modeled finding facts and examining bias in sources. Here, I demonstrated how to find information and evaluate the accuracy of a source:

Together, we selected a single source and students practiced the 5 c’s of critical consuming together. They then added information in a graphic organizer from the same shared article that the entire class read. This was very teacher-directed.

On day four, students would practiced those skills from a list of curated online resources I had provided. They continued with the same graphic organizer. Here, each group chose which sources they wanted to read. So now they had more choice but they still had to choose from within the resources I had curated. On day five, I reviewed the process of searching for sources and selecting relevant information. Students then did their own online research in pairs within their small groups. Again, they added to the same shared graphic organizer (in the form of a Google Doc) but they had freedom in finding their own articles to read.

While this process was highly guided, students ultimately had the opportunity to ask their own questions and answer them through student-centered research. In our next two design thinking projects, I pulled back the scaffolds and shifted toward more student choice. Check out this table as an example of what a middle school STEM class might do over the course of a semester with three design thinking projects.

Note that each project is built on student voice and choice but the initial projects are more structured and more teacher directed. They have more direct instruction, use more templates, and break tasks down into more manageable chunks for students.

Or consider choice menus. Choice menus have been around for years with different names, including “choice boards” and “learning menus.” Regardless of the terminology, the idea is the same. Create structures that provide choices for students in their learning tasks. However, as mentioned before, choice often exists on a spectrum from teacher-directed (less autonomy) to student-directed (more autonomy). The following graphic is a continuum of choice menus with four different levels.

I want to point out that these do not to be sequential or linear. You don’t have to start at a Level 1 and then move to a Level 4. But there is this idea that you may want to start at a more teacher-centered approach to get students used to the idea of choice and then move toward a Level 3 or 4 over time.

Level 1: Embedded Choice

Choice Level:

Mostly Teacher-Directed


With this first level, students all work on the same main assignment or project. Here, every student is working on the same learning targets and tasks for the majority of the assignment. The entire class has common grouping (individual, partners, or small groups) and generally works at the same pace. However, within this assignment, the teacher provides options on a sub-task. In a math class, students might have the same set of word problems but they select from the menu. Or they might work on the same word problem but have a menu of options for how they solve the problems. For linear equations, this might include graphing, creating a table, or using an algorithm. Another time, they might all solve the same problem but they have a choice in how they share their answers with classmates.

Level 2: Simple Choice Menu

Choice Level:

Somewhat Student-Directed


This builds on the last idea with a key variation. Instead of having a common assignment and embedded choices, students have a common objective but a choice in assignments. This might include choices in grouping, choices in topics, and choices in the products they create. So, students might do independent reading with whatever novels they choose to read. Afterward, they can select any number of book report prompts that the teacher provides. If you’re interested in trying these out, I have partnered with Presto Plans to create a set of alternatives to book reports. Each one has a sketch video and a set of handouts. They’ve already been optimized for online and distance learning classroom.

Level 3: Advanced Choice Menu

Choice Level:

Mostly Student-Directed


Advanced choice menus take the last idea another step forward by having students self-select the standards or learning targets. The following is an example of an advanced choice menu. Students begin by selecting their grouping (partners, small group, or independent). Next, they select the specific learning targets. This is ideal for students who need additional review of certain content. It functions as a built-in intervention. After deciding on the learning target, students find related resources that they explore connected to the learning target. These might be tutorials, examples, articles, podcasts, or videos. Finally, students select from options in how they will present their learning. You can find out more about it here. Here’s a table that spells out how it works:

In a math class, you might have a student choose to work with a partner. Both partners decide to work on dividing fractions. When they look at the list of curated resources, one partner chooses to watch a tutorial video while another partner chooses to read an online tutorial. Next, they complete a task where they are dividing fractions and then they select the video option where they show how they solved the problems together. Although they are working miles away from each other, they are able to share their videos with one another and with the teacher on Flipgrid.

Level 4: Independent Project

Choice Level:

Entirely Student-Directed


Independent projects require a shift from choice to freedom. Instead of relying on teachers for to provide a menu of options, students select the grouping, decide on the topics, ask their own questions, engage in their own research, find their own resources (rather than selecting from a curation), and ultimately create their own products. This would be something similar to a Genius Hour project.

Again, you might start with Level 1 the first time you do a choice menu and then end with a Level 4 menu.


Taking a Gradual Release Approach for the School Year

While we often take a Gradual Release approach toward student choice at the task level, we can also take the same approach toward voice and choice in general. Here, a teacher might implement student ownership in phases throughout the year as students shift from being predominantly compliance focused toward being more empowered in their learning.

Here’s an example of what this might look like in a single quarter for a middle school STEAM class. Note that this is a semester-long course and the second quarter will likely build on the voice and choice set up in the first quarter.

Week 1

  • Students help negotiate the norms and procedures
  • Students share their geeky interests in a show and tell activity
  • Students learn how to self-select the scaffolds, tutorials, etc.
  • Students own the problem-solving process in a divergent thinking mini-project
  • Students have embedded choice within their warm-ups (3 options)

Weeks 2-3

  • Students get a choice in their topics through the Geek Out Blogs
  • Students use sentence stems to ask questions via Google Forms during a lesson
  • Students own the self-assessment process with a self-reflection survey

Week 4

  • Students own the inquiry process by doing a Wonder Day mini-project
  • Students use choice menus that are more advanced

Week 5-7

  • Students own aspects of the creative process through the first design thinking project
  • Students own the collaborative process by creating group contracts, group norms, and the conflict resolution process
  • Students own the assessment process by trying new self-assessments
  • Students get to select which protocols they use for research and ideation

Weeks 6-8

  • Students own the project management process in their second design thinking project
  • Students own the peer assessment process
  • Students help develop the design thinking project rubric

This process will likely be slower with younger grades; likely an entire year rather than a single quarter. It will also look different depending on the subject area. A math teacher, for example, might build up in choice from a simple menu to an assignment where students look at a scenario and pose their own questions that they then answer. However, that teacher might do peer assessment and peer explanations of math processes in the first or second week of school.

Entire schools can build on this notion of GRR within ownership by engaging in vertical collaboration where teachers at each grade level answer the questions:

What does choice look like at my grade?

What are students capable of doing?

What supports do we need to provide?

From there, they can plan collaboratively as grade level groups to take a larger GRR approach throughout the entire K-12 student experience. When this happens, students develop critical, life-long skills that help lead toward self-direction.



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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