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When I first transitioned from using writing prompts to doing thematic blogs, I attempted a middle ground. I offered a list of three writing ideas and a fourth described as “free choice.” To my surprise, only a few students chose the free choice option. Students seemed more engaged, but there was a cost. Several students began to say things like, “I just don’t know what to write about,” or “I can’t decide” or “could you just tell me what to write about?”

That’s when I made a subtle shift. Everyday became a free choice blog. And those writing prompts? Well, they moved to an online collection that students could access at any time when they were looking for inspiration.

The key difference here was student agency. Instead of saying, “I’m giving you choices and I’ll let you make your own if these aren’t good enough,” I said, “I trust you to write about what you want to write about, but if you are looking for more inspiration, check out this website I made.” A month later, I had students creating their own writing ideas and submitting them to me.

An interesting thing happened. I never heard, “just tell me what to write” from a student again. Roughly half of the students chose the visual writing ideas I had created but the other half chose their own topics.

The Greatest Barrier to Choice is Fear

We’ve all been there. You provide your class with choice and suddenly you students are resenting you for it. They tell you that they prefer having someone else make the decisions for them. Some students will beg for more direction. Others will sit there, paralyzed by the sense that they don’t know where to go and what to do.

I’ve seen the same indecisiveness when students work on projects. When we first incorporated design thinking, I had students say, “just tell me exactly what you want me to do.” I responded with, “It’s not my decision. It’s yours.” Even now, in teaching at the university, I have had pre-service teachers say, “Can you tell me exactly what you want?”

Choice can feel overwhelming.

When a student says, “I don’t know what to choose,” it is often a code word for “I’m afraid right now.”

A student might be afraid of being wrong or of taking a creative risk or of earning a low score. After years of focusing on the “right way” of doing things (the right way to write your name on a paper, the right way to solve an equation, the right way to get in a line) it can feel jarring to hear, “just go your own way.” Yes, I did just quote Fleetwood Mac.

While it’s often a fear of doing things the wrong way, students also experience a fear of missing out. For example, when I had students select books for silent reading, my most motivated students were often the least decisive. They weren’t worried about grades or social pressures. They were worried about missing out on a good book.

In The Paradox of ChoiceBarry Schwartz describes this trend in a supermarket. You walk down an aisle with so many types of mouth wash that it feels overwhelming. Instead of being happy with your choice, you are left with a lingering sense that maybe you chose the wrong mouth wash. Schwartz warns of this maximizer mindset, where you constantly worry about making the best choice. As he puts it, “if you seek and accept only the best, you are a maximizer.”

Limiting the Fear of Student Choice

After my last post, Peter Newbury shared these concerns about student choice:

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I think Peter is onto something here. A part of this is the sense of knowing how to choose wisely (something I plan to explore in a future post). But another part is this fear that often leaves students floundering.

#1: Start with student interests.

I used to start each school year with a “Geek Out Project.” Instead of a traditional get-to-know-you activity, students started with something they already geek out about. They would then do research, writing, and multimedia composition in their themed blogs. Here, the choice felt natural, because they already knew a ton about the subjects. They were the experts. But also, they were creating work that connected to an area where they had already been making decisions.

#2: Switch to standards-based grading.

Traditional grading pushes risk-aversion, because students are punished for learning things slowly. When you average your grades, students internalize the message that speed is more important than challenge. So, when they are then given the freedom to choose, they take a risk-averse approach out of a fear that they will make a costly mistake.

By contrast, the standards-based approach sends students the message that mistakes are okay. Go ahead and choose something challenging. Make your own decisions. If it’s wrong, you can always revise it. That’s the beauty of a mastery mindset. You have the freedom to make mistakes, because you have all the time in the world to reach mastery.

#3: Embrace student ownership.

Sometimes when a student says, “I don’t know what to choose,” what he or she really means is, “I’m afraid you won’t like it.” This is why ownership needs to go beyond merely choosing from options. It cuts to the core of why a student is doing the work and who they are creating it for. Students are more likely to fear choice when they still feel that they are doing your assignment. However, when they feel a sense of control over the process, they are more likely to feel comfortable making the decisions.

In the blogging example mentioned earlier, students felt as though they had to choose from one of my options and they wanted to turn in something that I would like. But when it shifted to topical and thematic blogs based upon their own geeky interests, they felt a sense of agency and autonomy. Instead of writing prompts, they accessed writing ideas. It’s a subtle distinction. Writing prompts are meant to require writing. Writing ideas are meant to inspire writing.

Instead of having to opt-in to the independent option, they began at a place of independence and reached out for help only when they felt uninspired.

#4: Treat mistakes as part of the learning process.

Visit a skate park and you’ll notice people making tons of mistakes. It’s a part of the learning process. It’s what makes skaters less risk-averse than most students. True, some skaters are indecisive. Some struggle with what to do and where to go. However, choices aren’t quite as scary, because mistakes are allowed. There’s always a do-over button.

It has become a cliché to speak of “failing forward” or “embracing failure.” But sometimes there is a kernel of truth in the cliché. When students see mistakes as a natural part of the process, student choice isn’t quite so scary. A bad choice is simply a failed hypothesis. It still sucks to make mistakes but it isn’t something permanent or soul-crushing.

This is why the revision phase of design thinking. Students see mistakes as an expectation. If you don’t make any mistakes, you weren’t taking any creative risks.

#5: Provide a structure for choice.

Freedom can be scary. It can be too open, too chaotic, and too confusing. So, it can help to use structures that allow for this freedom to thrive. It might mean modeling the decision-making process. It might include using choice menus. However, it might also include designing units where choice is a necessary part of the learning. For example, in the PBL model, voice and choice are critical elements throughout the project. In the design thinking model, student choice drives the awareness, the inquiry (where they ask their own questions), the research (where they find their own route), the ideation (where they brainstorm and develop a plan) and ultimately their prototyping and revision. However, both PBL and design thinking require structure. It’s never a free-for-all.

This is one of the things I love about AJ Juliani’s approach to Genius Hour in both Learning by Choice and Inquiry and Innovation in the ClassroomHe demonstrates how the structure actually fosters student agency and incorporates voice and choice. It sets the parameters where creativity can thrive. This, in turn, reduces fear and risk-aversion. Students can embrace choice as a vital part of the learning process without being worried that they are “doing it wrong.”

You can listen to the whole thing below:

Empower Your Students with Voice and Choice

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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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