What would you like?: Integrating Choice in the Classroom

Choice is everywhere, and we all want it, even if we choose to opt out.

I often visit classrooms where students begin the first lesson of the One World Program stressed out and overwhelmed by the idea of completing a comprehensive research project, but as soon as they see that they can control the direction of their learning their eyes light up and the questions start flowing. Simply with the introduction of different issues they can choose from, students take the wheel. They ask about where they can find more information and how they can make sure that other people understand what they're trying to say. With these questions, the students begin the first step in developing independence to guide their learning. They are empowered. They want their voices heard! 

After a few weeks, when I visit those same students again, they can't wait to share what they've learned. Many times I'll ask them how the research process was, and they'll sigh and tell me how long it took them, and how difficult it was to find the right evidence or say just what they wanted, but when I ask them if they would recommend the program to another student, they smile, every time, and enthusiastically say, ‘Yes!’. When I inquire as to why, it is always because they had a say, in this case, in what they learned about.

Students yearn for the freedom to choose. Like adults, they view choice as a demonstration of power and control. Not only is this a desire people share across the ages, there is significant research demonstrating that providing choice has benefits across all facets of life from basic survival to physical and psychological health. "Whereas rewards and punishments are notably ineffective at maintaining behavior change, people are likely to persist at doing constructive things, like exercising, quitting smoking, or fighting cavities, when they have some choice about the specifics of such programs" (Kohn). This need for choice is often demonstrated through hostility and even blockade when learning is demanded of students without options. By giving students choices, they take ownership of their work. The best types of choices in the classroom will help students build a sense of control, confidence, and competence (Perks). For the best outcomes, learning to be self-reliant in a responsible and proactive way takes guidance, practice, and time.

In order to learn the skills required for positive decision-making that will help them succeed in all areas of life, students need a balance of structure and freedom. Creating opportunities for students to make choices within boundaries helps prepare them to make choices as adults by increasing their engagement as they deepen their learning, building a sense of autonomy, and developing cognitive skills needed for advanced problem solving (Grossman). All of these effects empower students and drive them to make responsible choices independently.  "If learning is a matter of following orders, students simply will not take to it in the way they would if they had some say about what they were doing" (Kohn). Rather than simply remembering the information provided by the teacher, students cultivate self-determination and are invested in really learning. This develops intrinsic motivation that transfers to success in other settings as well.

‚ÄčThere are many ways that teachers can integrate choice into their classrooms. The One World Program‚Äč offers a strategic balance between student choice in the topic of their research, while providing guidance for their learning about issue by taking the students through every step of the research, writing, and presentation process. In this way, students gain confidence in their ability to perform these complex skills and are engaged in the learning process because they care about what they are learning. There is a buzz when I visit classrooms completing the One World Program. Students aren't just invested in their own learning, they want to share what they are learning with other students and are interested in the findings of their classmates as well. Students become active participants in their own education, and it's infectious.

Studies have demonstrated that students who have been provided the opportunity to make choices:

  • attend school more often,
  • spend more time on their schoolwork,
  • complete more tasks in less time,
  • produce better results on individual assignments and national assessments,
  • take greater pride in themselves,
  • are more creative, and
  • develop more sophisticated reasoning skills (Kohn).

If we think about it, it makes perfect sense. In order to learn, students need to want to learn. If they don't have a choice, teachers are met with resistance.

These are not the only benefits. When teachers provide choice in the classroom, their job gets easier. The culture becomes collaborative. Sharing power about what is happening and how it will be accomplished make the teacher’s job easier because the students take on some of the responsibility. The students begin self-monitoring, so even non-curricular responsibilities in the classroom hold less weight for the teacher.

So, what is the best way to integrate choice?

It must be meaningful, legitimate, and appropriate. Younger students, especially, benefit from limited, direct choices in order to develop autonomy without overwhelming the child (Grossman). Meanwhile, students who have experience with decision-making can be awarded more freedom and a broader scope of choice (Perks).  Based on the constraints of the classroom and particular needs, teachers can provide choice to individual students or to the entire class.

Here are some suggestions for bringing choice to your classroom:

  • When first beginning to work with a group of students, having them design the space they will work in by arranging the classroom and decorating it how they would like gives them ownership over their learning environment.
  • Having students create goals, norms, and consequences creates value in the agreement. Having them regulate each other according to the class agreement can enhance this further.
  • Creating multiple settings within, or even outside of, the classroom allows students to choose where they will work.
  • Creating opportunities for students to integrate their interests from outside of the classroom into what they are learning, they will feel more motivated to take part in the learning. For example, students could choose famous basketball players’ statistics to make calculations. Their interest in learning these outcomes will motivate them to learn how to build their skills in order to complete the task.
  • Allowing students to create the questions to guide discussions can help target their level of understanding and encourages them to push each other at the same time.
  • Providing varying levels of choice in collaborative learning lets students choose whom they will learn with. For instance, the teacher might allow students to choose one other person to work with and create larger groups based on the student-selected pairs, or the teacher may allow students to create their own groups all together.
  • Rotating between teacher, class, and individual student choice about the content, type of texts, types of activities, and sequencing of activities they participate in creates a sense of autonomy for the students and allows them to regulate when and how they will interact with more difficult tasks.
  • Providing suggestions, guidance, and criticism and asking questions, but leaving the final decision to the students, gives them a sense of control and develops their divergent thinking.
  • Providing parameters for the students to follow in their decision-making guides the students toward positive decision-making. For instance, they may be provided multiple options for a product, but be required to complete a certain combination of types of products. Perhaps they must complete at least two written responses, but can choose additional options for visual, aural, and kinesthetic responses. This could also be used to provide choice while setting expectation in a class discussion. If everyone needs to participate, the teacher may state that as a non-negotiable and ask the students how to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance to be heard.

By providing students with choice, they feel heard. What they are learning seems more important. They become more engaged in their learning and make deeper connections to the content and skills that will transfer to other aspects of their lives more meaningfully. As students practice positive decision-making, develop a sense of autonomy, and increase intrinsic motivation, they cultivate and refine their voice toward right action.

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