Let Your Students Choose Their Learning Path

Let Your Students Choose

I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I “grew up” at age 5. I still didn’t know at age 17. And guess what? I’m still having trouble figuring it out.

When I was 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 played the part of the Lion in our school’s production of the Wizard of Oz (working to destroy this video). 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 bus-boy most of high school as well. I got in trouble, made mistakes, and kept on 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 8 years ago I’ve been in three different school buildings, taught five different grade levels, coached two sports, sponsored three separate clubs, and now have a job focused on innovation and technology-integration…two things I never received a degree for.

And at 30 years old I can say I’ve found lots of success over the years while experiencing many failures. 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 backwards.

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 we go to college 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). Middle School and High School is a bit different.

Think about this: We force our middle and high school students to take six years of Language Arts/English, History/Social Studies, Math, and Science. During those six years of learning we sprinkle in Foreign Language, Health/Phys Ed, 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 are acing, 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 through them in Geometry (why do we do that?). Or a student has a blast in a Video Production elective…so of course next year 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. So, 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.

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, gives 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 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 “Classroom’s For the Future” program. Each of these successes allowed me to be “so good they can’t ignore you”…which led to me being hired as an English teacher out of college, and to working with tech-integration in my current 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

There are many people calling for school reform, and having all different types of agendas and plans on the table. I believe school needs to change in one single fundamental way: We need to let students choose their learning path.

Maybe this sounds crazy, but I don’t think it is as big of a shake-up as we make it out to be. Here are some ways we can let students choose their learning path in any school:

  • When students choose their schedules we need to encourage them to “scratch their itch”…and we have to build in opportunities for students to continue with classes where they have found success.
  • Don’t limit “electives” to one semester or one year. Don’t force students to jump from one area of Math or Science to the next. What to improve STEM opportunities in our schools? Let kids take Physics and Advanced Physics in back-to-back years…or Biology and Advanced Biology or Environmental Science in back-to-back years.
  • It is so backwards to tell our students congratulations for finding success and not allowing them to “Go Deep” the following year. Also, think of ways to let students work with teachers they’ve had prior success with as well.
  • If your school does not provide a specific elective that a student in interested in taking, allow them to take it online. Look at New Milford’s Open Courseware program for an example of how to do this right.
  • Give your teachers the flexibility to run 20% time and Genius Hour projects within their subject areas so students can explore their interests and go deep in areas that they are curious about.
  • Ask students (and recent graduates) for input. They will have a fresh perspective on this process.

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 change that “can happen” and “has happened” already in some schools. Start with a conversation…and see what path it leads you down.

Your students will thank you.

PS- I’m debating between a few new book ideas and I could use your help. My purpose is to provide the most value to the readers of this blog, so if you could answer this one question survey, it will help me get the clarity I need! 

1 comment… add one

  • I am super excited about the work you are putting out there. It is resonating with me and my leadership team in our little public school in Chicago. Thank you.


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