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My kids participate in an amazing hands-on learning experience every summer. It’s called home. It’s where they write stories, paint pictures, go on expeditions, visit parks, read books, and build things with duct tape and cardboard.

For the entire summer, they own the learning process. There are no tests, no benchmarks, no curriculum maps, and no bell schedules. It is an educational anarchy, where they tear down the walls between ideas and subject areas as they make and tinker and explore and curate the learning on their own terms.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not perfect. Just yesterday they were at each other’s throats over “creative differences.” They have had moments where they complained about boredom, only to discover, minutes later, that boredom actually leads to creative breakthroughs. They have had days where they walked away from a project in frustration and binge-watched Netflix.

And yet . . .

They are developing into life-long learners. They already view themselves as geeks who can figure out anything over time. They pursue creative work with passion. Yes, that passion sometimes leads to arguments. Our home vacillates between looking like Phineas and Ferb and VH1 Behind the Music. But most of the time, it leads to a state of flow, where they are lost in their work. Most of the time, it looks more like Phineas and Ferb. 

In a little over a month, they will return to school with the bell schedule and the benchmark tests and the prep packets. While I realize that schools cannot operate under the educational anarchy of summer, I can’t help but wonder what it would look like to empower students with more choice and agency in their learning.

Ten Ways to Incorporate Student Choice

Student choice is more than simply choosing a topic. It is about empowering students through the entire learning process. This is especially true in classrooms that embrace creativity, design thinking, and project-based learning. Here are a few of the ways we can incorporate student choice:

  1. Let students choose the topic. When I first had students blog, I would post a writing prompt on the projector. However, when I had students explore real blogs, they pointed out that outside of school, bloggers write about topics they care about. So, I told them to choose a topic or theme. They could create foodie blogs, sports blogs, gamer blogs, etc.
  2. Let students ask the questions. I believe students should question answers as often as they answer questions. This is why inquiry is such a critical component of design thinking. Students need to move from awareness to curiosity in a way that will fuel their creative thinking.
  3. Let students decide the content. I love sustained silent reading. I get it. It’s old school. It won’t make the list of trendy new maker space learning. However, it works. A few years ago, I taught 8th grade self-contained. The school librarian and the upper grade teachers had cultivated this love of silent reading. So, when we went to the library, it was like going to a candy store.
  4. Let students pick the materials and resources. In design thinking, students work through an ideation phase and then begin building a prototype. I love the idea that they guide not only the concept of what they will create but they also figure out what materials they will use in order to build their prototype. This goes beyond physical products. In digital content, they can choose what applications they will use and what type of media they will work with. When designing an event or a service project, they can determine the venue, the materials, and the resources.
  5. Let students choose the strategies. When I think of the most tedious things kids experience in school, there is a high likelihood that they don’t get a chance to choose the strategies. Take close reading. The rigid approach says, “use these symbols and follow this recipe.” Students focus on doing things the “right way” and they fail to make sense out of the actual text.
  6. Let students choose the scaffolding. I remember requiring students to use a set of scaffolding for the research process. A handful of students loved it because they needed it. The rest of the students viewed the scaffolding like a cage. I should have treated the scaffolding as an optional resource that they could access when they found it necessary.
  7. Let students choose the format. When possible, allow students to choose the format for their creative work. It might be a video, a podcast, or a blog post.
  8. Let students choose the audience. When students define the audience, they are able to clarify what they are doing and how they are going to do it. This honors student agency.
  9. Let students choose the groups. This is the most controversial. People will often point out that in the real world, you don’t always get to choose your groups. I get that. But when you work on a cool, voluntary collaboration, you often get to choose your groups. In my experience, our most functional groups were the ones where students worked with their friends. At first, they were too social. But then the challenge and the excitement of the tasks kicked in and they were able to tap into their mutual trust and go deeper in their work. While this might not be necessary for every project, it is something teachers can try out.
  10. Let students manage the projects. This was the hardest thing for me to let go of. However, I believe that project management is a powerful, transferrable skill. Students need to learn the art of project management. Over time, I have learned to allow students to own the project management and to build their own systems to monitor their progress.

Should students choose everything?

For all the talk of the “guide on the side,” the truth is that guides are still guides. Even in a student-centered classroom, the teacher is still the expert. There are times when limiting choices actually increases creative thinking. Students work within the constraints to find solutions that push divergent thinking. Moreover, there are times when students don’t have as much prior knowledge in an area and you, as the teacher, will expose them to new ideas, approaches, and content that they might have otherwise ignored.

However, when we incorporate choice, students own the learning process. We honor their agency and empower them to become the life-long learners we want them to be. At some point, they will leave the classroom and they won’t have a guide right there by their side. They will have to take charge and make decisions about their own learning. This is why student choice is so critical.

Burning Questions

When I embraced the idea of student choice, I had a ton of questions:

  • What about the standards? What about the curriculum map? What about the test?
  • Do I have permission to do this? What will my principal think?
  • What are the dangers in student choice? What about the whole idea of the “paradox of choice?”
  • If I embrace student choice, won’t things get crazy? How do I manage all of this chaos?
  • How do I assess the learning if students are choosing to do such different things?
  • Should I try something like a Genius Hour?

Over a decade later, I am still thinking through those ideas. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. However, I plan to share what I’ve learned along the way in a series on student choice.

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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