5 Ways Student Choice Impacts Learning

This is the first post in the “Innovative Teaching Challenge” series. Get each challenge delivered to your inbox by signing up here.

I spent a lot of time as a teacher figuring out new ways to inspire and motivate my students. Sometimes it worked, but often I would fail to reach all of them. Then one day I gave my students choice. Not some “fake choice” assignment where they could pick one topic out of a box of topics…but REAL choice. You know what happened? Students were inspired and motivated to learn by themselves…and by each other. And they did a much better job at inspiring then I ever could. Choice gives students the ability to go above and beyond our curricular limitations…try to give as much choice as possible and watch your students innovate.

That choice came in the form of the “20% Project“. They could learn whatever they wanted to learn in my class…with no real limitations. It was extremely difficult for some students, and for others it was very natural. However, the real magic happened when the students began exploring and learning about their “choices” during class time.

As a teacher I noticed some ways that choice impacted the learning process. Normally, we tell students what they are going to learn, then give them resources and materials to learn (sometimes created by us, sometimes created by others), then check for understanding, and provide feedback and help as needed.

This project was different because:

a) Students picked their learning topic and end goal

b) Students pre-defined what they would consider a successful learning outcome

c) In most cases I knew nothing about the topic they chose (i.e. I’m an English teacher and they chose to rebuild a car engine)

I was no longer the person with the most knowledge on the subject in the room, so I had to act fast and help in other ways. Pointing them in the direction of strong research and mentoring opportunities. Giving feedback on their blogging. Helping in the learning process (I was learning as well). And finally, giving them a final push towards some type of making/creating/building aspect of their project.

There were five specific ways student choice impacted the learning going on in my classroom:

1. Choice improves student buy-in

In the beginning of the project it was a challenge to get every student to actually choose a topic. Some wanted me to just give them a worksheet and tell them what they needed to do. However, once we got past this obstacle…the buy-in was already there. Students cared about what they were doing because they CHOSE what they were doing. If they wanted to complain about their topic, I would let them switch to a new one so the buy-in would always remain the same.

2. Choice puts the responsibility back in the students’ hands

At the same time, the students knew that I was not the “expert” on their chosen topic. I didn’t know much about learning sign-language so my responsibility as a teacher changed. Students could no longer come to me expecting an answer, but had to come to me expecting help in finding the answer. I was still the “lead learner” in my class, but I was learning alongside my students and not doing it for them. The learning responsibility was firmly on their shoulders.

3. Choice allows for flexibility

If you’ve ever done a “passion project” or wrote your own story, song, etc….then you know that things change. The idea we initially started out with gets reworked and twisted into something completely new. Because I did not give requirements and deadlines with what they needed to complete…this project allowed for complete flexibility. Choice drove the students’ actions and gave some room for lots of little (and sometimes big) changes along the way.

4. Choice embraces current and new passions

To be honest, I didn’t expect so many students to have no idea what they were interested or passionate about. However, this project allowed students to find new passions and new interests—as well as embrace their current passions. This is important because they did not need to start with base knowledge…but they also could start with base knowledge. That meant for many students they were just beginning to learn about this topic, and for others it was something they had been doing for many years. Choice put students on very different learning continuums during the project, but as we saw with the final presentations…this did nothing to limit the overall learning.

5. Choice leads to growth

Ultimately, choice consistently lead to growth. Because of the above factors, choice became a way for students to create their own learning path…and assess how much they had learned. Almost every student came out of this project saying they had not only learned something new, but also been excited to grow through the process.

It was not always easy for the students, or for me as the teacher, but choice brought out the best in all of us.

Innovative Teaching Challenge #1: Try to find a small way you can give your students choice in their learning this week. It does not need to be an entire project, but instead can start with a daily activity. Give your students choice and see how they respond. Ask them about the difference in learning something they chose versus something that was picked for them. Let us know how it goes in the comments!

Photo Credit: Darren Shilson via Compfight cc

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  • Thank you A. J. As you may know, I embrace the Genius Hour concept and related practices. Choice is inherently differentiating and personalizing. Students must be given opportunities to bring informal learning experiences into formal learning settings. (http://goo.gl/6VQM3E)
    Additionally, these types of projects change the students’ perspective of work outside of class time from boring “homework” to engaging, extended “genius time”. If attendance wasn’t required, would students still show up to work on their chosen projects? My guess is absolutely, they would! Thank you for sharing your perspective on this exciting topic. “Vigor, not rigor.”

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks Robert! Yes, I agree that these types of projects change students’ perspectives of work outside of class time…and actually ties that world to their school life. We need more of that!

  • […] A.J. Juliani: 5 Ways Student Choice Impacts Learning (5.5.2014) […]

  • […] my focus for this blog is the innovative teachers challenge’s first task.  Which is to look at how offering our students choices in their learning can be helpful in […]

  • […] 5 Ways Student Choice Impacts Learning – A.J. Juliani […]

  • Love it!! Thanks for this post. When I first heard of google’s 20% time I was so excited and thought ‘that’s how it should be EVERYWHERE’. I intend to do this with my new classes next semester and go on the learny curvey journey with them.

    But today I gave my students choice and it worked!! I noticed they had been disengaged the last few sessions with an ongoing ‘free choice’ major project (where they choose what building they want to design but have to follow the design process – at the time of designing the task I thought this choice would be ‘enough’) So, today as they came in the door I spoke to them individually for only 20-30 second each! Just ambushed them with excitement “I have noticed that you haven’t been on task – are you really into this assignment? Be honest. What part of it would interest you? What do YOU WANT to do?” They ALL came up with a specific part of the project they wanted to do – some went straight to building the model, some to creating it in google sketch up, some wanted to draw….I looked around and for an entire hour 20 students worked in near silence completely engrossed in what they were doing. This is an incredible ‘win’ in my school. I’m still on a high 🙂

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Wow, this is so cool! Thanks for sharing with us! It’s not just a win for your school, it’s a win for the students and all of us that are fighting for choice in our educational system. Keep up the good work, and keep sharing!

  • Barry Dyck says:

    Excellent post. I’ve shared the same experiences with my students.
    I’ve written a companion piece sharing some of my experiences from a teacher’s perspective on what a teacher may expect when providing students with choice.
    http://blogs.hsd.ca/barrydyck/?p=577

  • Michelle says:

    Great post – AJ. I’m intrigued and interested in pre-ordering your new book through Amazon. I see at least one teacher here referenced “choice” as effective in the classroom….of 20 students. Honestly, can this work in my class of 33, with a wide variety of abilities and challenges and no support people other than the volunteers who are sometimes available? I have given up the notion of teacher and fully embrace the idea of “facilitator” in my classroom but wonder how manageable it is with such a huge class. Ideas? Thoughts?

    • Hi Michelle, Yes 20 students is much more manageable than 33 but I think the principle still applies – if your students have choice, especially developing their own projects such as 20% time, then they are more likely to engage in their work. Another apporach is Sugata Mitra’s SOLE – Student Organised Learning Environment which should work with any number of students – the more the merrier. You can read more and download a guide here http://www.ted.com/pages/sole_toolkit I would love to know how you go as I will be trialling this for the first time next semester.

      • Thank you Belinda! I appreciate hearing about the SOLE as well and will check out the download. Reading AJ’s book as part of a teacher-choice summer reading option. Teachers on our staff will be reading a variety of books and sharing the ideas in the fall like a “jigsaw”. Thanks again!

  • Francesca Mellin says:

    Excellent thoughts! A project of this kind is also an ideal opportunity to partner with the school librarian/media specialist, who can suggest all kinds of resources.

  • Bill Keilty says:

    I designed and directed a program, and now it is a school. for 12 years. We learned a great deal about how to engage students. We imbedded choice throughout the student experiences. They embraced it and took off. Choice is critical to engaging students. We use Inquiry Learning as our core and the kids continue to surprise us with the quality of work they deliver. It is called the Lighthouse School, in Spring Lake Park, MN

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