The power of student choice


Rosie Byrnes


We’ve all seen the power of choice in action: offering kids the opportunity to choose can eliminate defiance and dissolve power struggles instantly.

To some degree, most teachers today know that giving students more choices can lead to more engaged learning.

We’ve all seen the power of choice in action: offering kids the opportunity to choose can eliminate defiance and dissolve power struggles instantly. When we tell kids to do their work, they might meet us with resistance; but when we ask them how they want to do their work, they’re more than willing to get started.

So what is it about giving students choice that makes them so much more willing to learn?

It seems that the answer lies in empowerment. When we invite students to make choices on their own, we’re giving them a little bit of agency over their own lives, rather than holding all of that power ourselves. And a little bit of empowerment goes a long way.

Gone are the days when being a “good student” meant sitting quietly and taking notes on every word the teacher says; when memorization was the pinnacle of human intelligence, and the teacher decided how every minute of every day in the classroom would be spent.

In today’s classrooms, we want to see kids making, problem-solving, and doing. We expect to hear noisy conversation and see spectacular messes. We want our students asking questions, taking risks, and getting things wrong.

And now more than ever before, we want kids to own their learning.

We know now that people learn best when they are intrinsically motivated, and the best way to cultivate intrinsic motivation in your students is to offer them some personal agency.

When students are making choices in the classroom, they’re personally invested in the outcome of their own learning, rather than simply going through the motions of school activities because they’re “supposed to.”

In short, they have the power of choice.

Most teachers understand that choices do have real power in our classrooms. Many of us actively look for ways to allow our students more choices throughout the day. But when it comes to the kind of choices we’re offering our students, many of us are still coming up short of making real, empowering change.

It’s easy to offer students the choice between a poster or a PowerPoint project. It’s easy to tell them they can choose whether to use crayons, markers, or colored pencils for an activity. But these are small choices, and in the course of their education, can be relatively insignificant.

When it comes to student learning—the real reason we’re all working together in the classroom at all—who is making the big choices in your classroom?

  • Who decides what skills students should learn?
  • Who decides their learning objectives?
  • Who asks the questions, and who finds the answers?
  • Who decides how students will go about learning a topic or skill?
  • Who decides what tasks they’ll complete, and how much time they’ll have?
  • Who decides what tools they will use?
  • Who makes the rubrics, and determines what “good” work looks like?
  • Who decides how student work is graded?
  • Who evaluates student learning?
  • Who decides when they have mastered a skill?

When it comes to the decisions that really count, teachers are still the ones with most of the power.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Throughout the history of education, teachers have been the ones responsible for making decisions on behalf of their students. But now that we know the power that autonomy can have on our students, our responsibility has shifted: instead of teaching kids what we think they need to know, we should be teaching them the self-awareness to make those decisions themselves.

This might mean that students are moving at different paces, working toward different goals at the same time. It will be messy, and it will be difficult for many teachers to relinquish control and put this much trust in their students.

But the alternative is to keep doing what we’ve been doing all along: teaching the same skills to all of our students at the same time, grading them on the same one-size-fits-all criteria, and moving forward at the same pace—which inevitably results in some students getting bored and losing their enthusiasm for learning, while others fall behind.

Autonomy can appear in different ways, and to different degrees.

Here is one example:

In my 6th grade creative writing class, we are approaching the end of the semester. Students will need to turn in a writing project that demonstrates the skills they have mastered in this class. As the teacher, I get to decide how much autonomy to give my students over this project.

No autonomy:

I look over their past work and determine that, on average, most of my students need to work on poetry a little more. I create a review packet that covers all of the poetry topics we’ve discussed, and assign them a final project that involves writing five different forms of poetry.

I provide examples of each form, as well as a rubric of what I expect their work to look like. The style and format of each student’s project should meet the project guidelines I created.

Limited autonomy:

After determining that my students need to work on poetry, I provide them with a review packet of all of our previous poetry topics.

I explain to students that for their final project, they will need to complete five poems, each in a different form—but that they are free to choose which five styles of poetry they’d like to write.

High autonomy:

I spend time looking over students’ past work individually, and determine which writing skill each student needs to work on. For some, it’s poetry; for others, it’s playwriting, narratives, or creative nonfiction.

I meet with each student individually and give them their final project topic, along with a list of possible resources they could use to research it. They decide what their final project will look like (a collection of poems, a short story, a comic strip, etc.) and the tasks they need to complete along the way. We come up with a timeline together, and I check in with them throughout the project.

Full autonomy:

Students spend time evaluating their work from the year, and decide which skill(s) they still need to master. They decide on an objective for their final project, and meet with me to determine the best course of action to complete it.

With my guidance, students create their own project rubric, and continue to evaluate their learning throughout the process. Some students are writing poems and short stories, others are writing comparative essays about famous written works, and still others are writing screenplays or blog posts or a rich backstory for their novel’s main character.

Students work toward different goals, and at different paces, according to their individual needs and interests.

But wait. What about…?

While most educators are aware of the power that choice can have on student learning, many of them still have their reservations about offering more and more autonomy in their classrooms.

And their concerns are certainly understandable; after all, a classroom where students are in charge of most of the decision-making is radically different from any classroom that most of us have ever experienced. But that doesn’t mean it can’t work.

What about the teachers?

When talking about full student autonomy, the first question many people ask is this: “If students are making all of the decisions, what will the teacher be doing?”

It’s a fair question. To some, the image of a fully autonomous classroom is one that very closely resembles total anarchy: students running amok, choosing to do whatever they please, while the teacher sits there powerless because they’ve delegated away all of their decision-making responsibilities.

But in reality, a teacher’s job was never supposed to be crowd control. As educators, it should be our job to facilitate learning, and to teach students how to be good learners on their own. This can be done through the power of choice.

We should be there to guide our students in the right direction, to support them when they get stuck and to inspire them to keep moving forward. And in an autonomous classroom, we finally have the freedom to do just that.

What about the curriculum?

True, the standards and curriculum tell us what students need to learn. But they don’t tell us how they need to learn these skills, and they don’t tell us what students can’t learn, either.

In education, we tend to think of the curriculum as a kind of recipe; if we follow it step-by-step, adding all the right ingredients at the right time, we’ll end up with a perfect result.

But that’s not how learning works. Kids learn in different ways; they’re motivated by different goals and inspired by different curiosities. They understand the world in a way that is uniquely their own, and so their learning process can never be predicted by a system designed for the “average student”—because the average student does not exist.

Instead of thinking about the curriculum as a recipe for perfect learning, we should be thinking about it as a map for student exploration.

If we want kids to own their learning, why not give them the map and let them use it to forge their own way ahead? If given the chance, kids can—and will—reflect on their own understanding, and evaluate which skills they still need to master.

Standards and curriculums are tools to guide student learning, and they can be just as useful in the hands of our students as they are in the hands of teachers.

What about decision fatigue?

Decision fatigue is the negative effect that making too many choices in a row can have on the brain, and it is a very real concern for teachers looking to increase autonomy in their classrooms.

When our brains make too many decisions, it can negatively impact our ability to make good choices; in some cases, in order to circumvent the decision, our brain just decides not to make a choice at all.

As teachers, we know this feeling all too well—we make so many choices about our classrooms every day that decision fatigue can feel like a regular afternoon ritual. But this also means that we need to be mindful of how many choices we’re asking our students to make each day, so that they don’t reach that point themselves.

Here are three ways to help your students avoid decision fatigue:

1. Offer limited choices instead of open-ended ones.

Reduce the complexity of your students’ decision-making by getting the process started for them. Rather than telling them, “You can write about anything you want,” give them a short list of interesting writing prompts to choose from.

2. Make not choosing an option.

When students are already feeling the effects of decision fatigue (sometimes due to choices they’re making outside of school, too) they may prefer to put the choice in your hands. While giving students choice empowers them to own their learning, we should also trust them to know when it’s best to let someone else take the reigns.

3. Give students choices that matter.

Decision fatigue occurs as a result of making too many choices. When giving students the power of choice throughout the day, remember that some choices are more powerful than others—so it’s best to prioritize the decisions that will have a direct impact on student learning.

What if kids make the wrong choices?

Make no mistake—they will choose wrong sometimes. We all do.

But that’s part of what school is all about; to provide a safe environment for kids to make mistakes on the path toward learning something new.

True, if teachers are making all of the decisions for their students, then students can’t possibly choose wrong. But odds are they aren’t learning much in that situation, either. And I’m willing to bet that teachers get it wrong sometimes, too.

We’ve said it to our students a million times: mistakes are opportunities to learn. All we have to do now is have the courage to let our students make their own choices—and their own mistakes—and be there to guide them back to the right path when they do. Give your students the power of choice.