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Student Engagement

The Importance of Student Choice Across All Grade Levels

When students get to make decisions about their learning, it can be powerfully motivating.

September 16, 2021

In any environment that requires attendance, there’s a significant risk of disengagement. Remove choice and you breed passivity or, worse, defiance.

Compulsory, free public education is one of America’s greatest innovations—perhaps its most egalitarian principle—and it isn’t going anywhere. But in schools and classrooms across the country, there’s a powerful argument to provide more student choice across every grade level: to shake up inflexible social and academic schedules, reduce one-way learning, and place more responsibility firmly in the hands of students.

To some extent, the system itself—with its bell schedules, prescribed curriculum, and testing regimens—creates the habits that are hard to break. But purpose and motivation go hand-in-hand with volition, and when there’s too much emphasis on control and compliance, notes a report by the Education Trust, it puts students in a position where they must “relinquish all power and decision making” and compels teachers to rely on power “to control bodies and minds instead of using their autonomy to invite learning.” Within the realm of literacy alone, the research on choice provides a powerful illustration: According to a 2012 study, young kids who completed mandatory reading logs turned into desultory readers compared with students who logged their progress voluntarily. And another study, this time of eighth graders, revealed that when students shifted from assigned reading to choice reading, there was “increased reading volume, a reduction in students failing the state test, and changes in peer relationships, self-regulation, and conceptions of self.”

Offering students choices—making it a regular dynamic in the school day—isn’t a recipe for chaos. It goes almost without saying: Rules and boundaries are a necessary element in schools and classrooms, essential in many ways for keeping kids and adults safe and productive throughout the school day. But by centering choice, educators signal openness to negotiating the middle ground and offer students scaffolded opportunities to practice decision-making, explore their academic identity, and connect their learning to interests and passions. It can be a relatively small but consequential mindset shift—rather than assigning students partners, for example, you might let them choose whether to work alone or with a partner—that, ultimately, acknowledges and respects their humanity and recognizes the fundamental importance of agency.

“Want to know how to engage students, enthuse them, and bring out their best effort?” asks middle school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron in MindShift. “Give them a voice in their decisions. In a society that barely listens to each other, listen to your students. In a system that can be a flood of top down, let your classroom be one that allows voices to trickle up.”

Here are eight ways to provide children with choices across the grade levels.

Choice in the Early Grades

Give a say via voting: Even at the preschool level, choice can be a powerful motivator. “At my school, we work to give students choices that hold some responsibility within the classroom,” writes preschool teacher Oi Ling Hu, who introduces classroom voting early in the school year.

The process starts small—which book to pick for read-aloud, for example—before Hu moves on to bigger topics like which activities to do at the park or which route to take to walk there. The process imbues kids with “a sense of autonomy and responsibility,” she says, which serves them well as they advance into upper grade levels. “We have seen that when children feel that they have a voice in how they learn... they do their best to practice self-control and self-regulation as they want to retain their ability to choose.”

Prioritize choice time: In spite of competing curricular demands, kindergarten teacher Jessica Arrow follows the research by prioritizing a 30-minute choice time within her literacy block each morning and a 45-minute choice time to wrap up the day. During choice time, students visit thoughtfully designed centers—a math center, a book nook, a sensory table, for example—to play and learn in unstructured ways that are aligned with the curriculum. It’s a favorite time of day for her kindergarten students, who get to exercise some degree of choice and independence in a day that’s otherwise dominated by “teacher-directed activities and transitions,” Arrow writes.

Build ownership with class jobs: When Justine Bruyère reflected on why her second-grade students felt little ownership over their assigned class jobs, she decided to try handing over some responsibility to them. “To foster autonomy, I could relinquish some control of the job chart—my students could identify needs in the classroom and take on roles of responsibility to address those needs,” writes Bruyère. With Bruyère’s guidance, the class brainstormed a new list of jobs and prioritized them, and then students applied to their favorites and Bruyère made the final matches. The process was hugely popular, garnered buy-in from kids, and gave them a better understanding of what it takes to run the classroom.

Choice in Middle and High School

Consider flexible seating: Middle school English teacher Laura Bradley was already experimenting with flexible seating when her district decided to invest in additional resources like chairs on wheels and wobble stools. Bradley soon discovered that choice was more crucial than new furniture: Some students worked perfectly well standing at bookshelves; others preferred carpet squares, kneeling or sitting at low tables, or folding into nooks created with bookshelves or tables pulled up to a wall.

What’s important, she says—again, sounding a note about the balance between autonomy and authority—is to be clear about expectations with respect to how students set up, work, and clean up when they’re done. “I can say that the benefits far outweigh any management issues that arise,” Bradley writes. “Students respond positively to the freedom and responsibility they are given, and they work hard to keep those privileges.”

Cocreate classroom norms: In Bobby Shaddox’s seventh-grade social studies class, shared classroom norms—a set of about 10 attributes, like communicative, focused, and serene—is developed by the group at the beginning of the year to guide their behavior and learning.

“By having children themselves create the norms, you are creating a pathway toward belonging for every single child in that class, and they have a role in this learning community that they had a share in building,” says Pamela Cantor, MD, founder and senior science adviser of Turnaround for Children, emphasizing the importance of academic identity. It’s both a compelling civics lesson and a practice that can have a big impact on classroom management, says Shaddox: “The classes that go really well are the classes when I start off reflecting on the norms and using those norms to articulate how our class will run well.”

Make academic choices meaningful: Education researcher and author Robert J. Marzano suggests narrowing academic choice down to focus on three key areas: choice in the tasks that students perform, choice in assessment, and choice in learning goals. “Choice in the classroom has been linked to increases in student effort, task performance, and subsequent learning,” Marzano writes in his blog. “However, to reap these benefits, a teacher should create choices that are robust enough for students to feel that their decision has an impact on their learning.”

For example, while an oral or written report is often the assigned format, students might instead have the option to use their mobile device to record video or audio reports. Or consider opening up assessment options to include different types of graded products—building models, drawing diagrams, or creating flowcharts—so that all kids, including those who are spatially gifted, have an opportunity to shine.

Upend assigned reading: After years of teaching a set list of novels with study guides, close readings, and a big test at the end, AP literature teacher Brian Sztabnik polled his students to examine what was working and where to improve. The results were eye-opening. “Many had not read a novel cover to cover in their three years of high school.… Many gave up on reading long ago,” Sztabnik writes. “Often, when students have no agency over what they read, they stop enjoying it. And this ultimately kills their motivation.” After examining the research, Sztabnik upended his approach and gave his students much more reading choice and responsibility. “My students’ scores on standardized tests soared,” he writes.

For all students, and students of color in particular, regular access to a rich, diverse selection of reading materials is particularly important, says Kimberly Parker, a former high school English teacher and cofounder of #DisruptTexts. “Often, black youth, especially those regarded as in need of remediation, have the least amount of choice in text selection,” Parker writes for ASCD. “They are given regimented reading instruction, an abundance of standardized test preparation, and little, if any, time to read works that resonate with them. We know, however, that choice drives reading engagement, and black youth need to be able to choose what they want to read.”

Offer recess, even in high school: Unstructured time for play is crucial at all ages. At Montpelier High School in Vermont, there’s a daily 15-minute recess period during which everyone is expected to unplug from the school day and engage in a completely different and renewing activity of their choice. Students and faculty come up with the activities—options might include open gym, chess, free art, music jam, or rock climbing, for example—and everyone gets to pick what they’d like to do. “We really make a point to say, ‘You have permission and you need to stop what you’re doing and do something totally different, something that’s mindful, challenging, something that creates community, something that creates generosity,’” says special educator Bill Laidlaw. “It’s very powerful.”

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