Choice -> Ownership -> Empowerment -> Deeper Learning

Students continue to fall into the same trap year after year with traditional schooling. They rarely have a chance to choose their learning path in school, and routinely treat school like a “job” instead of the most valuable learning experience they will ever have…

By the time students get to high school, over 83% are stressed out, 67% say they are bored half the time, and many learn to “play the game of school” worrying about what will happen to them if they do not get a particular grade and get into a specific college.

What we end up with are students who are never given a chance to explore their own interests in school, who end up confused about what they want to do with their future because they continue to march down a path that has been chosen for them for 12 years. Many of these students end up getting jobs in fields they think are “safe” or “practical” but don’t have a personal connection or interest to the work they are doing.

Have you ever met an adult who doesn’t like their job? I’ve met many. And it’s not necessarily their fault, our system produces many adults who failed to have a chance to find their passion through schooling and instead found that the best way to get by was to keep getting by…

But this can change, almost immediately, if we add one key ingredient to school: choice.

Choice Leads to Deeper Learning

Picture from our book Empower

Why Choice Matters in School

We tend to overthink what it means to engage and empower.

What the research (and many of our own experiences) tell us is that choice fuels ownership, which leads to empowerment, and ultimately deeper learning experiences.

Choice in what content our students consume, what activities they take on in and out of school, what assessments they take, and choice in their purpose for learning.

Choice drives student ownership of their learning, which kicks engagement into high-gear, and ultimately leads to learning that is intrinsic and powerful and deep.

I’ve seen this change first-hand. A few years ago I gave my students a choice in the form of a 20% Time project. Just as Google gave their engineers 20% of their time to work on whatever they were passionate about, I gave my students 20% of our class time to learn, research, make, and create something they were passionate about.

Many of my students were blinded by the choice at first. It was difficult for them to find their way without a rubric, project handout, and guidelines to move them forward. But eventually, they began to learn about things they were interested in, and the products they created gave each a purpose for deep learning.

But choice does not have to be given every time with the pure freedom of a 20% time or Genius Hour project. As my good friend John Spencer says, “Limitations often inspire more creativity.”

Changing the game of school means actually allowing students to create their own game. Studying photosynthesis in class? Give students a variety of content choices to learn the basics, and then ask them to demonstrate their knowledge through making a video, giving an oral presentation, conducting a podcast interview, or creating an infographic (using paper or computer). Choice dictates a sense of ownership and autonomy, even when presented with limitations.

More Than “Trying New Things” in School

Sir Ken Robinson, the author of the Element, has famously said: “Whether or not you discover your talents and passions is partly a matter of opportunity. If you’ve never been sailing, or picked up an instrument, or tried to teach or to write fiction, how would you know if you had a talent for these things?”

And I would take this thought a step further. Schools pride themselves on giving students all types of opportunities. Many educators (myself included) believe that education is the bridge that allows someone to do what they love for a living, and love what they do for a living.

Yet, the problem is that we often fail to encourage students to try new things, and instead demand that they try new things. It may sound like a small difference, but let me tell you, it has huge ramifications.

As Dale Carnegie says: “Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn’t bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish and said: ‘Wouldn’t you like to have that?’ Why not use the same common sense when fishing for people?”

We can’t predict what will catch our students’ attention. We can’t choose what will engage them. And we can’t force them to have high attention and commitment in their learning if there is no chance for ownership.

Choice gives students the opportunity to cast their own line and choose what bait they want on it. Learning follows, not because it is forced upon them, but because it is naturally connected to curiosity and inquiry.

To re-invent school we don’t need to scrap the entire system. We don’t need to start from scratch. We don’t need to throw away what has worked. Instead, as Dean Shareski points out: We need to change our focus from rigor to vigor. Choice, whether completely free or with limitations, is what will drive our students to learn deeper. And in a way, it may bring us back to why we loved learning in the first place: It allows us to do the things we can only dream of doing.

Our job as teachers, parents, and leaders is not to prepare students for “something”; our job is to help students learn to prepare themselves for anything.

Let them choose, and watch what they can do.

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  • When we have conditioned students to follow directions and depend on external sources of authority and control, it’s a challenge to make the shift to choice and an internal locus of control. The earlier we start with student choice & empowerment, the more traction that will have later on when it matters even more. It’s also hard for many teachers who have been married to older models of teaching to make the shift themselves. So, one place to have some impact is carefully designed PD.
    One source for schools that may want to consider that for the coming year is There are others too and if you want some help, ask for it.

  • […] Choice -> Ownership -> Empowerment -> Deeper Learning — from AJ Juliani […]

  • Jan G. says:

    My first and second graders come alive when offered Genius Hour. I’ve seen less experienced readers dive into books in order to learn about what they’re interested in. I had a student who loved going to the Learning Center every afternoon in order to get out of classroom work. Beginning the very week we started Genius Hour he stopped asking to go. Not only was he fully engaged during that time and dare I say, excited to learn, his behavior and willingness to do other work improved also. I’ve also seen students light up when I give them options for assessment. Giving students ownership requires them to self assess, builds their confidence, motivates them, and opens the door to innovate, problem solve & collaborate. Drive, by Daniel Pink is a great read.

  • lisa heald says:

    Kia ora from New Zealand. I facilitate a MAD class (Media and Advertising Division) for K11 and K12 (Years 12 and 13). MAD uses social media to promote, inform and celebrate school events to our school community and beyond. It is student led and they have created the products they want to use. It is an evolving process and currently they produce the following for a range of platforms: Fortnightly news bulletin, website items, regular social media posts on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, videos, posters, billboards, digital newsletter articles, school booklets. maintaining our school screens, and live feeds of events. Both students and staff are the clients of MAD requesting products . At first I couldn’t work out what my role was as the students did everything. Over time I have worked out a supporting role based around sustainability of the programme. They are amazing, they serve the school in a very professional way and they help to teach youth that the purpose of social media is for promoting positivity. I am currently working with BOMA New Zealand on an Education Fellowship to bring MAD to others who want to do this. Now MAD is sustainable my project is on how to bring ‘MADness’ to the world. The students are already thinking about how they can collaborate with other schools using social media to promote positivity.

  • Paul Kearney says:

    For years I have played around with the notion of what lies between ‘over-teaching’ and ‘under-facilitating’ on the spectrum. I have grown to prefer the term Responsibility instead of Ownership. The former implies the latter bit it also makes explicit the notion of shared-responsibility, i.e. if going to help you also must take responsibility for making the learning happen.

    Teachers must shift more of the control of and responsibility for the learning process to the learner…easier said than done. As learners mature they have a deepening psychological need to control their learning. At the same time teachers are deeply rooted, psychologically too, in the practice of managing (dominating) the learning process, resulting in a passive and dependent learner. This imbalance has to change for a number of reasons. Learners are more motivated when they have control. Independence allows people to become self-managing learners – for life. The potency of experience-based learning is enhanced when the learner plays the prominent role in managing activities. Moreover the process of managing one’s own learning, especially experiential activities, requires the learner to employ high value generic transferrable skill skills, namely, using initiative, being resourceful, organising, solving problems and remaining focussed and determined, and commonly collaborating. This is important because these are not only the skills of the 20st Century, but they are also the skills needed to manage one’s own learning.

    I also like the notion of a ‘balance of powers’ in the classroom, if any one is interested…

  • Marianne Ruud says:

    What I don’t understand is that for many of our students, we are going to offer them this opportunity with technology. They are going to discover their world through the use of technology when so much of our world is without it.
    Marianne Ruud, Norway

  • Kimberly S. Belleisle says:

    Choice drives student ownership of their learning, which kicks engagement into high-gear, and ultimately leads to learning that is intrinsic and powerful and deep. Students should have a voice shaping what happens in their schools. I currently have a real opportunity to effect positive social change at my school on the issues of lunchroom behavior. The students in my 5th-hour class have voiced their concern about the issue of behavior in their lunchroom but they feel powerless to make a difference. Currently, students are not regarded as partners in decision making at this school. These students need a voice, therefore, I want to be an advocate for those who want to do something to fix the problem. I have already explained the situation to my administrator, he seemed skeptical but gave me positive feedback. I created an interest survey using Google Forms calling for all students who are passionate about having a lasting positive effect on the behavior in the lunchroom. It was sent out to all 6th-grade students this afternoon. I feel like this may be a huge paradigm shift in student voice and choice.

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