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Our students will inhabit an unpredictable world. With machine learning and other advanced forms of AI, students will need to become really good at what AI can’t do and really different with what can do. They will need to be adaptable as they navigate the maze of an uncertain future. But this requires a mindset of self-direction, where students act as self-starters and self-managers. As educators, we can prepare students for this future by empowering them in the present:

In today’s article, we explore how we can get start with student choice.

What do students learn when they engage in collaborative projects? (a sketchnote) - topics include a growth mindset, empathy, rebels, exploreers, higher engagement, iterative thinking, better collaboration, the learning sticks, and students are self-directed problem-solvers

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What does a choice-driven classroom look like?

Student choice goes beyond simply picking an item out of a choice 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 for students and teachers alike. Back in my second year of teaching, I began this journey from student engagement toward student empowerment and I assumed that students would embrace the freedom, autonomy, and responsibility of student ownership. I quickly realized that many students were anxious and overwhelmed with choice. I realized that I had to include structures and protocols. I needed to be clear about expectations. I had to revise my assessment processes so that students could experience the freedom to make mistakes. I had to model what choice looked like and even scaffold the process through a gradual release approach.

In other words, I jumped straight to student choice too quickly and made a ton of mistakes. So, with that in mind, I would like to share a few tips for getting started with student choice. These are the big ideas I wish I had known 18 years ago, when I began this journey myself.

7 Tips for Getting Started with Student Choice in the Classroom

The following are seven big ideas for getting started with student choice.

1. Start with just one project.

As a teacher, it can feel overwhelming to completely overhaul your pedagogical approach. As mentioned before, student choice requires structures and protocols. However, it takes time to develop the systems and structures for things like student-selected interventions or student self-assessments.There are so many great protocols to use for student collaboration and project management.

Furthermore, there are tons of great lessons that aren’t choice-driven and you don’t want to abandon everything. While, it’s important to embrace student empowerment, there’s a time and a place for focusing on student engagement and even compliance. In teaching reading, you might use a compliance-driven, systematic focus on phonics and blending but embrace empowerment with choice based silent reading. In the following continuum of student agency, all three approaches are valid at different times.

Continuum of student agency from teacher-centered to student-centered. It goes from compliance to engagement to empowerment.

So, if there’s a significant learning curve in student choice (and I’m still on this learning curve nearly two decades later) and there are great practices we don’t want to abandon, then the best first step might be to start off small. Ask yourself, “Where am I already empowering students and how can I build on this?” Or perhaps, “What is one small change I want to make?”

You can think of it like a video game. You don’t fight the ultimate boss on level one. Instead, you start with smaller challenges and learn the process as you go. So, you might start with a few student reflections or self-assessments. You might do a single choice menu. You might empower students to choose their scaffolds by switching up your small groups to be opt-in workshops, where anyone can self-select into the workshops and join you.

If you want students to ask questions, you might start by taking a quick break in direct instruction and have students jot down as many ideas as they can come up with. From there, they ask questions to a partner before doing a stand-up, hand-up, pair-up activity where they ask questions among the entire class.

One of my favorite first steps is with a single choice-driven mini-project. You could do a two week 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.

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. If this feels overwhelming, start out small with a design sprint instead.  Unlike a longer mini-project (typically 1-2 weeks) or a larger PBL unit (3-5 weeks), a sprint lasts 45-90 minutes.

Sprints are shorter opportunities for creative work that often focus on one key area of the creative process. Students might focus on brainstorming as they generate novel uses for random items in a divergent thinking challenge. They would then engage in rapid prototyping:

Note that this sprint doesn’t include any audience clarification, any research, or any larger launch of the project. By contrast, you might want students to focus on asking questions, engaging in research, and presenting their findings through something like a Wonder Day project.

You might also have students engage in a problem-solving sprint. For example, in a math class, they might solve the problem of making baseball faster with a challenge like, “What could be done to make MLB games last less than 2.5 hours?” Students would then analyze a curation of baseball statistics before pitching their solutions in the form of a podcast.

These sprints tend to be quick and flexible and you can use them to introduce a new idea, to dive deeper into a current concept, or as a culminating activity at the close of the unit. They can also function as a single-day stand alone on days where multiple students are absent (like the last day before a break).


2. Take a Gradual Release of Responsible (GRR) Approach

When you start out small with a single strategy, mini-project or sprint, student choice becomes more manageable for you as you make adjustments and reflect on your learning. It can feel less risky to start out small. But this also has a benefit for students who are also moving through a learning curve as they embrace choice and agency. Starting out small can ease students into voice and choice. This approach is especially helpful for students with anxiety or for high achievers who are used to a compliance-based approach to learning. From there, you can take a Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) approach to choice by building more and more choice into the process.

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.

This is a continuum of student agency from teacher centered to student centered. Level 1 has the least choice with embedded choice, followed by simple choice menus to the right of that, then level 3 is advanced choice menus and ultimately independent projectsThese 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.

If students are doing research, you might start with a set of teacher-curated resources and build in more voice and choice as the unit progresses:

  • Stage 1: Students read from a shared article that the teacher chooses – they answer questions
  • Stage 2: Students read from a shared article and they ask their own questions and fill out a graphic organizer
  • Stage 3: Students select from a list of 5 articles (curated by the teacher) and fill out a graphic organizer, they ask questions to a partner
  • Stage 4: Students select from a curated list of 10 articles and choose from 3 graphic organizer choices, they ask questions to a partner
  • Stage 5: Teacher models how to do an online search, students practice it, they choose one article from the list and they find one online
  • Stage 6: Teacher models again how to do an online search, students give feedback on their search process to one another, they do independent research
  • Stage 7: Students do online research and modify one of the graphic organizers of their choice
  • Stage 8: Students do online research and create a graphic organizer of their own / choose the process entirely

If you’re using design thinking, you might increase the student choice in each new project throughout the year. Check out this example from a STEM class.

3. Model It

This was the hardest part for me to get in my own journey toward empowering students. 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.

4. Be Mindful of Cognitive Load

Ever noticed that you tend to forget most information when you cram for a test? Perhaps you remember those college days when you slammed a few Red Bulls and stared, glassy-eyed at the highlighted text you were re-reading (a strategy that turns out to be largely ineffective). The next day, as you stare at the multiple choice exam, you find yourself wondering if it made any difference. You’re tired, irritable, and your brain feels fuzzy. Or have you ever struggled with certain confusing diagrams or with with long, complicated verbal directions? You stare at the schematics but struggle to figure out what you’re supposed to do.

In each case, you’re dealing with the challenges of cognitive load. I created the following sketch video as a brief explanation of Cognitive Load Theory:

Dr. Sweller, the founder of Cognitive Load Theory, suggests that when students learn new content through a project, they can experience cognitive overload. Students have to divide their attention between learning a new concept, practicing a new skill, and planning a project.

As we think about student choice, we need to recognize that some students will experience cognitive overload. This happens when a student looks at a problem and says, “I don’t even know where to start.” This is often a sign of extraneous cognitive load, where they are expending too much mental energy on the systems and processes rather than the learning outcomes. This can happen with any student but is more acute among students with executive function challenges.

In other words, the problem with the “minimal guidance” of student choice is that it can be too minimal. Students who need scaffolds and supports don’t receive the help they need. Students who lack background knowledge fail to go deep enough in the content because they don’t have the prerequisite knowledge. Students who feel overwhelmed by all of the options can experience the “paradox of choice,” where they end up choosing nothing at all.

The following are some ways we can minimize cognitive overload:

  • Use consistent terminology
  • Use the same choice-based protocols for multiple activities
  • Integrate consistent visuals to reduce the mental processing involved in a choice-based assignment
  • Provide students with exemplars. When students can see examples, they have a schema for own work, which, in turn, reduces the risk of cognitive overload.
  • Include adequate skill practice within an assignment.
  • Vary the grouping so that there is internal and external processing. When students work alone or in pairs, they move into the necessary rehearsal and retrieval processes that allow the knowledge to move into long-term memory.
  • Break larger projects up into segments with deadlines and guideposts. This helps students focus on the immediate learning in front of them instead of constantly thinking about future tasks.
  • Categorize Choices. Group similar choices together. This helps students process information more efficiently by recognizing patterns or theme
  • Limit Options. Offer a manageable number of choices to avoid overwhelming students. Too many options can lead to decision fatigue.
  • Integrate prior knowledge. Connect choices to students’ prior knowledge or interests, making the information more relatable and easier to process. Part of why Geek Blogs work is that students are already experts in their geeky interest and they spend less time thinking about new content as they practice the new skills.

It will never work perfectly because cognitive load is so personal and contextual. But if we are intentional about it, we can help reduce cognitive load while still empowering our students with voice and choice.


5. 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.


6. 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.


7. 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.

Student choice will require resilience and productive struggle. For some parents or guardians, it might look like you are not helping their child. This is why it helps to explain how student self-direction will help their children become life-long learners and critical thinkers. As a teacher, you might create a community meeting to talk through this ideas and include the key takeaways in a newsletter you send home.

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.


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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