The Choice Manifesto: Why We Need It In Our Schools

Learning By Choice Book

When I was 5 years old I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I still didn’t know at age 17. And guess what? I’m still having trouble figuring it out today. At 17 years old I was exploring my interests and having fun with life. I played varsity football and basketball. I was in the school choir. I loved computer programming. I was in a band for six years called the “25th Hour” (before Spike Lee stole our name for a movie). I was student council president my senior year…which turned out badly. I worked as a busboy most of high school. I got in trouble, made mistakes, and kept going.

When it came time to graduate I didn’t choose West Chester University because it was a great place to become a teacher (although I was lucky it was). I changed my major six different times while I was at college…which is my excuse for stretching my four-year program into a five-year plan!

Since becoming a teacher I’ve been in three districts, ten different school buildings, taught six different grade levels, coached two sports, sponsored three separate clubs, and my recent jobs focused on innovation and technology-integration…two things I never received a degree for…

And I can say I’ve found lots of success over the years while experiencing many fails. I am continually “scratching my own itch“, working on projects I care about and learning more about what I’m interested in. Sadly, I don’t see many students having the opportunities I was given during high school. And I don’t see many young people having the same experiences in their careers.

Why? Our definition of choice is a bit backward.

Finding Success Through Choice

We tell ourselves that students have a variety of “choices” when it comes to their learning path. And this is partially true. Especially when they go to college and/or a post-secondary institution, students have a wide array of things to learn and try out (although for some reason we still force college students to take ‘Gen Ed’ credits).

The K-12 learning experience is a different story.

Think about this: We force our middle and high school students to take seven years of Language Arts/English, History/Social Studies, Math, and Science. During those seven years of learning, we sprinkle in Foreign Language, Health/Physical Education, Business classes, and then a collection of electives.

We’ve set up this system to make sure our students know the “basics” that standardized tests cover, but also give them our version of “choice” along the way while picking electives. When you ask students what their favorite class is, you’ll most often get the same response: Whatever class they are “best” at. It could be a Math class they have an “A” in, or an elective they love…but they’ll usually have success in the classes they like.

Then what happens?

A student loves Algebra class and experiences success, so of course, next year we throw them into Geometry (why do we do that?). Or a student has a blast in a Video Production elective, so of course next semester that elective is not available and they have to take something else.

This is not always the case, but when you look at how secondary schools (and their schedules) are constructed, it often inhibits students to continue learning what they enjoy and where they have found success. We are taking away opportunities for students to keep working on something they may love doing for a living. What can we do to stop this from happening?

The Research on Loving What You Do for a Living

I love what I do for a living. It’s exciting, it provides fresh learning opportunities, and it still gives me many ways to grow and get better at my craft. But many of the adults I know complain about their jobs constantly, wish they had another career, and often do what they do for a living, just to get by or make money. While many people will say, “these people need to figure out what they are passionate about, and go do that”, it’s actually surprisingly bad advice.

Cal Newport, author of the book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, gave a talk on this exact subject, and comes up with three ways people end up loving what they do for a living:

    1. Don’t follow your passion
    2. Be so good they can’t ignore you
    3. Go Deep

I’ve written a lot about passion-based learning opportunities, and while it may seem that Newport’s advice is contrary to what I believe, instead, it reinforces it. You see, when I was 17 years old I didn’t have “one true passion” that I could follow and find a career. Instead, I spent time “scratching my itch” and exploring a bevy of interests until I began to stumble onto the #2 on his list.

I had great success in coaching and working with young people in camps and tutoring. I found out in college that I really enjoyed writing (especially when I decided on the topic) and reading. And early in my career as a teacher, I found success using technology in our school’s “Classrooms For the Future” program. Each of these successes allowed me to get hired as an English teacher out of college, and to start working with tech-integration in my next role.

But none of this was planned.

It wasn’t because I “followed my passion” but instead I allowed for passion to enter my life as a student and later when I began my career. All those years of “scratching my itch” were opportunities to do #3, “Go Deep” in my learning and experiences.

How Does This Apply to Our Students

When I look back on my best learning experiences, most of them came outside the realm of traditional schooling. I was able to choose what I wanted to learn. I was invested in the outcome of my learning process. And the experience was centered around the types of learning I do best. In short, these were all student-centered learning experiences…and I was the student. There are many people calling for school reform, and having all different types of agendas and plans on the table.

I believe our schools needs to change in one single fundamental way: We need to let students choose as much of their learning path as possible. Maybe this sounds crazy, but I don’t think it is as big of a shake-up as we make it out to be.

That’s why I wrote the book, Learning By Choice.

This book identifies 10 ways that any teacher can transform their classroom into a student-centered experience. Each chapter provides actionable steps for students to take charge of their learning path and be engaged and motivated by choice.

The 10 chapters focus on real ways we can let students choose their learning path in any school and how you as the teacher can foster this experience in your classroom:

  • Choice in what students learn through content selection.
  • Choice in how students learn through various forms of instruction and activities in the classroom.
  • Choice in how students demonstrate their understanding and academic abilities through a variety of assessment formats.
  • Choice through differentiation and how a teacher can reach every student on his/her level.
  • Choice in communication between students, student-to-teacher, and connection home.
  • Choice in what types of technology students use and how they choose to present their learning.

All of this can happen in any school. You don’t need to rip up the curriculum, you just need to think about it differently. It’s the type of conversation we should be having in education because it is a change that “can happen” and “has happened” already in many schools. So, let’s start with a conversation, and see what path it leads you down.

Your students will thank you.

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