What REALLY Happens When You Give Students Choice

“Is this real, Mr. J?” The question came from the back of the room. Todd rarely spoke up in class, but today he seemed visibly upset.

“Yes, it is real. Sadly, this type of thing is all too common around the world–”

“But”, Todd responded, “if this is going on right now, why doesn’t the UN or someone go in there and stop it. Isn’t that the reason we have all of these organizations…to stop this?”

Multiple students were raising hands now, eager to share their thoughts on what they had just seen. It was the first time I had shown my 10th grade students the “Invisible Children-Rough Cut Documentary”–and they wanted answers.

“Well”, I said, “let me ask all of you a question first, before we go further into what we just watched. How many of you knew this type of human rights violation was happening…right now…in the world we all live in?”

Not one hand was raised. They all were silent. 

“Don’t you think”, I continued, “that is part of the problem? Don’t you think that everyone would make this a top priority? Don’t you think it would be on every news channel around the world, until something was done to end this child violence?”

After a few more seconds of silence, Kelly, an outspoken student, finally said: “Yeah, it would be all over the news…and we would all know about it…if it was happening in the US.”

“I think you’re right Kelly. And I also think that is an awful truth. So what should we do about it?”

And that was the moment my students decided enough was enough. They CHOSE to tell the world about the human rights violations happening right now in their world. And they CHOSE to not be bystanders anymore.

Students Choosing to Start a Movement

I’ve heard many of the same types of questions, over and over, when talking about student choice.

  • How can you keep students accountable?
  • What if they don’t do anything with their time?
  • Does it connect to the standards?
  • My curriculum is set, how can I do it?
  • This doesn’t seem possible in a class of 25 students…

And yet, my 10th grade classes were between 25 and 30 students each. The students kept each other accountable in groups. They went above and beyond anything we had written in our curriculum…and hit more standards than any other project/activity we’d ever done.


Because they chose to help create a project that they cared about.

After our discussion about human rights violations, child soldiers, and genocide that was currently happening in our world right now–my students wanted to DO something.

We had recently read Night by Elie Wiesel, and this quote in particular guided our campaign to create awareness about human rights violations:


As a class we decided to not be bystanders, and to take a side. This new project would be a chance to use our voice to spread awareness.

Traditionally, during this Unit students had written a position paper on the Holocaust and Genocide in general, as well as send a letter to a Senator about a current human rights violation.

My group of students wanted to take this further. Together we crafted a new project that would focus on creating awareness about current human rights violations. I say WE because the students had a lot of input into how this project would look, what they would be measured on, and what the ultimate goals and objectives would be.

What Student-Centered Learning Looks Like

Project: Global Inform (PGI) was created in the 2008-2009 school year. The students picked their own groups and researched current human rights violations. Each group picked a violation they felt particularly passionate about and began to develop an action plan. Their action plans allowed the students to judge how effective each method of media was at spreading information and creating awareness. At the end of Project: Global Inform’s first run, hundreds of people had been met face-to-face with information they did not know, while thousands of other teens and young adults saw videos, visited websites, and became Twitter and Facebook fans of media meant to create awareness.

In 2009-2010 Wissahickon High School took Project: Global Inform to the next level. Over 110 students participated and this time the students were even more creative. In addition to the video, web, and Facebook campaigns – groups began to host events dedicated to raising awareness for their cause. This time, not only was information spread, but money was also raised for organizations currently fighting against human rights violations. Thousands of dollars were raised in just under six weeks, showing that students do have the power to make a difference.

Project: Global Inform was one of my proudest moments as a teacher. It still gives me chills when I look at the work these 15 and 16 year old students were doing to spread awareness on such serious violations.

It was also an example of what can REALLY happen in our schools when we give students choice, and ownership of their learning experience. For me, it was when I saw student-centered learning actually happening in the classroom.

Take a look at the definition of student-centered learning, and let me know what you think:

Student-centered learning (SCL), or learner-centeredness, is a learning model that places the student (learner) in the center of the learning process. In student-centered learning, students are active participants in their learning; they learn at their own pace and use their own strategies; they are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated; learning is more individualized than standardized. Student-centered learning develops learning-how-to-learn skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and reflective thinking. Student-centered learning accounts for and adapts to different learning styles of students (National Center for Research on Teacher Learning, 1999).

I know we can sometimes rail against terms like “student-centered” learning and call them buzzwords. But the truth is, I want my own kids to experience the type of learning that is defined in the above paragraph. I don’t care if it is a buzzword or not, I only care about the actual work they are doing, and how they feel about the work they are doing.

The next time you do a project or activity in your class, ask these questions:

  • What is the students attitude towards learning?
  • Is their commitment to the activity based on external or internal factors?
  • Are students creating their own measures (goals/objectives) for achievement?
  • Are they reflecting on how well they have achieved those goals/objectives, and what could be done differently?

During Project: Global Inform students filled out this action plan template to decide as a group what their goals would be and also what their evidence of success would be:

Action Plan Template

There were many groups who “failed” to reach some lofty goals during this project. But each one of these groups presented to the class about their journey and spoke of how much they had learned even if they did not reach a specific goal. It was the first time I had heard students talk about “failure” in a positive light. Because they realized create big goals meant you had the opportunity to fail forward.

Projects like this are why I wrote my recent book, Learning By Choice: 10 Ways to Transform Your Classroom Into a Student-Centered Experience. Each chapter is filled with a step-by-step process for bringing choice into the learning experience (you can get the first chapter for free, right here).

Until my students showed me what student-centered learning could look like, I didn’t have a clear picture in mind. But I knew this: I wanted my students to be engaged. I wanted them to care about the work they were doing in school beyond the grade they would receive. 

Have you experienced that moment where your students show you something about teaching and learning that you never knew could actually exist? I’d love to hear about your experience and please share your student-centered story in the comments below!

Join 76,000 other learners (and teachers)

And get new posts every week by email.

Powered by ConvertKit

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • mildred says:

    My daughter is doing research about this topic ..I was reading some of her data and was also amazed .She is developing preventive strategies ,how to identify them in school and many more for her phd studies.

  • You’re touching on a great point here AJ. It’s not about how much you know or do, it’s about how much you care about what you know and do. As a student I learnt all of what I was asked to learn, and did allot; volunteering, recycling committee, youth parliament e.t.c in the name of contributing but, truthfully, it always felt empty.

    Of course it was better than nothing but, I was only making real someone elses vision of what ‘good’ students do. Then came the rewards and praise and recognition for me while my friends, who couldn’t or didn’t want to fit that mold, felt dis-empowered by the comparison. Who were those awards for?

    I hope teachers everywhere can be inspired by your experience and open wide the possibility for their students to decide and act on what is worthwhile for them because there is a whole world to choose from and every person is important!

  • Craig Bates says:

    This is so “spot on” with great PBL (which I have decided to call “authentic/inquiry-based learning)! There is a great entry-event where students are given startling statistics/video or other media/discussion to get their attention and to get some buy-in. This leads right to them choosing to take up the cause of creating awareness campaigns for an online audience. You have all the elements for great authentic inquiry-based learning (PBL) 🙂 These students could have just written their own driving question as well! The entry-event set it all up, asked the right questions, and got them to CARE about this enough to learn more about it.

    With your permission, I’d like to use this blog article in my next professional learning for teachers around authentic product/audience, entry event, etc.

    Craig Bates, Coordinator of Instructional Tech – Talladega County Schools

  • Michelle Spencer says:

    This sounds so exciting! Do you believe your book is geared towards high school, or all grades. I teach grade 1/2.

  • John e says:

    I think it’s fantastic. I get most excited about science and social studies projects which deal with students doing something in their own communities. For instance, I was speaking to a principal at a local elementary school last week (at a training for Science4Us), and she was telling me about her approach to involving the students in service. She said: “There’s always something. For instance, I use to the be principal of an alternative school (ie kids that were really difficult and weren’t acceptable to regular schools) and I got them involved in service to the homeless. I had them all make pillows and we took them to the shelter and gave them out and talked to those in the shelter. After, we talked about it and wrote about it.” I also got very excited about Chicago Middle School Science Project htat I heard about where the students were doing original science research on the impact of tne snow-melting salt on the local vegetation.

  • […] in school and beyond. We know that the richest learning occurs when learners are interested in, passionate about and committed to mastering new skills and concepts. This growing sense of ownership also creates […]

  • […] to sell 500 wristbands to raise money for a charity organization that he cared about during our Project: Global Inform inquiry-based group project. The passion was there for Evan. His heart was in the right place, and […]

  • […] human rights and genocide unit from being a letter to a state senator to developing, creating, and running an awareness campaign that would reach our community and people all across the […]

  • […] human rights and genocide unit from being a letter to a state senator to developing, creating, and running an awareness campaign that would reach our community and people all across the […]

  • David S. Hill says:

    Thanks AJ! Aligns with the book I read over the summer “In Search of Deeper Learning; The Quest to Remake the American High School.” If you have not read, I would highly recommend to anyone interested in expanding the thinking around student centered and engaged learning. It requires a significant shift in thinking, most importantly, in how we were taught. The possibilities are endless…we have to be willing to let go of the reigns and let our students be more responsible for their learning. I’d encourage everyone interested, start small and build momentum!

Leave a Reply