How Long Will We Wait to Give Students Choice?

By AJ Juliani, 6 comments

Mohini was a regal white tiger who lived for many years at the Washington DC National Zoo. For most of those years her home was in the old lion house—a typical twelve-by-twelve-foot cage with iron bars and a cement floor. Mohini spent her days pacing restlessly back and forth in her cramped quarters. Eventually, biologists and staff worked together to create a natural habitat for her. Covering several acres, it had hills, trees, a pond and a variety of vegetation. With excitement and anticipation they released Mohini into her new and expansive environment.


But it was too late. The tiger immediately sought refuge in a corner of the compound, where she lived for the remainder of her life. Mohini paced and paced in that corner until an area twelve-by-twelve feet was worn bare of grass.  – Tara Brach on the Tim Ferris podcast

When I first heard the above story on a podcast, I immediately stopped and listened to it again. The analogy hit home.

We spend so much time preparing our students and slowly giving them choice and voice in their learning. We build up to the idea that when they finally leave our K-12 institutions they will be free and well prepared to take on the world and find their way in a new environment.

And yet, it’s not easy to stop doing things the way you’ve been doing them your entire life once you get some choice. I’ve seen this firsthand as someone who almost failed out of college by my sophomore year (I had a 1.3 GPA). I changed my major six times debating on “what I wanted to be” when I left school. It took me five years of college to find my way into teaching. Mostly because I didn’t spend any time scratching my itch in high school.

This is not to say that I didn’t love my school experience. I did. Especially the extra-curricular and social aspects of school. But, I rarely had the opportunity during school to navigate choices, create my own learning path, and break free from the game of school.

Student Choice
Graphic created by Bill Ferriter

And this was not only my dilemma. I’m sure you faced similar challenges towards the end of your K-12 experience. All these existential questions start coming up like, “Who do I want to be?” and “What do I want to do with my life?”

My students felt the same way at first when I presented them with choice in the 20% project. Other students find this to be the most difficult aspect of Genius Hour or other choice and inquiry-based learning experiences.

When they have the choice to make their own learning path and create something they are interested in, many students feel trapped like the tiger Mohini.

My question (and it’s not rhetorical) is, “Are we waiting too long to give our students choice and voice in their learning?”

When I see stories like Jason Seliskar’s class having a student edcamp, I think about the potential bottled up in many of our students.  When I watch videos of Caine’s arcade and the global cardboard challenge I get excited that the pendulum is swinging towards voice and choice at an earlier age. It’s the reason I’ve been such a huge believer in the power of Genius Hour and 20% Projects to give our students the freedom to choose what they learn, what they make, and how they share it.

And yet, I know how hard my first-grade daughter’s teachers work to help her learn to read and write, understand basic mathematic principles, and guide her through the standards. I get the enormous pressures put on teachers to follow curriculum, prepare students to be successful on standardized assessments, and cover (instead of explore) specific content.

This is the reality of our situation.

So what can we do to make sure our students don’t stay confined when given the opportunity to explore, make, and create on their own terms?

It’s simple, really: Make the most of every opportunity.

  • That half day where you don’t truly get anything accomplished? Give students a Genius Hour.
  • That day before break where students have parties and often watch movies? Let students Make something.
  • That lesson you got through quicker than expected? Challenge your students to solve a problem together.

Or maybe you can schedule one day this year where your students can make, build, design, and create!

We are hoping thousands of teachers join us on April 26th for the Global Day of Design to do just that. 

John Spencer and I have even created a free Maker Challenge series of lesson plans to get you started. Fill out your info below to get the FREE 5 Lesson Maker Challenge: Create Your Own Sport. It’s fun, based on design-thinking, and will have your students being problem-solvers and makers in no time!

I know we all can’t completely change our current circumstances and give choice all of the time. That’s ok. But let’s take the steps to give our students a voice in their learning any chance that we do get.

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