How Long Will We Wait to Give Students Choice?

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 the curriculum, prepare students to be successful on standardized assessments, and cover (instead of exploring) 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 May 6th 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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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Hello A. J.,
    I response to your question, “Are we waiting to long…”, I believe so. In reading research from folks like Stewart Hase and Lisa Marie Blasche, (Heutagogy Community of Practice)
    we are born to learn. Newborns, toddlers, and young children make choices pertaining to their experiential learning every day. Often these choices are focused on skill acquisition, walking, talking, coloring, playing music, and making things. I find it appalling so many schools stifle creativity by stripping away student agency year after year. The tiger in the corner is an interesting and sad analogy. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this matter.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks for sharing Bob. Yes, where does the student agency go? We have to fight for it to not only stay but increase as the years go on in k-12!

  • Hi AJ – I’ve recently started a writing series exploring my school years to try an pin down where/when/how this feeling of helplessness came from that had me acting like that poor tiger by the end of it all. I’m beginning to move again now and it’s amazing how so much of this feels like reverting back to my natural, happy, learning state as a child. On with the journey!

  • Keith says:

    I’d like to make the distinction between this choice (which I favour) and the kind of choice that allows – inadvertently, most times – a student’s experience of the world to be narrowed too early. A quick example: if we allow students at age 10 or 11 to choose not to learn about the world through arts, or languages, or technologies (a choice they make based on their preference/ experience in primary school), are we doing them a disservice? I propose that this kind of elective system is, on balance, restricting our students’ experience of the world and their *future* choices at an age when their ability to consider such things is usually not well developed.

  • Morgan says:

    This post hit very close to home for me. I taught kindergarten for 3.5 years. When I was in college getting a degree in Early Childhood education it was drilled in us over and over that kids learn through play, which includes making the choice of what they want to play and how to play. When I got into my school system there were desk, yes desk, in my kindergarten classroom and no toy or signs of play anywhere. I was shocked and confused. How are these little 5 year old suppose to learn when they don’t have the choice to go and play.

    Now as a third grade teacher I see the lack of choice even more. For writing they are told what to write about. In math they are told which strategy to use. There is no choice at all. I decided to bend the rules a little and did a writing assignment on which President was more influential to our Country, Lincoln or Washington. My students had the hardest time picking their choice and kept asking if they could do both, or asking me which one they should do. I was shocked that 8 year olds had such a hard time with making a choice on their own without being told what choice they needed to pick. This made me think back to my Kindergarten classroom and I realized the reason my third graders have a hard time with picking a choice on their own, is because they have never had that experience before.

    I love the quote, “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.” When I read that quote, right away I thought of my students who finally had the choice to pick something and they had no idea what to do with it, like it was a trick (or a trap) that I was giving them.

    How do we fix this? How do we get states and counties to allow play and choices in school.

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