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.
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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