Lately I have been thinking about student choice and how it really plays out in schools. The right to make choices is such a fundamental part of being human and yet, if you think about a typical school day for most students, there is very little choice afforded to them. School is often a rigid and structured environment, regulated by bells and required classes. Electives are usually out of the question, at least until high school. While students are given a few options, the majority of them are superficial and inconsequential. There is nothing inherently wrong with structure. It can be a very positive thing. The problem arises when schools and teachers box students into a fixed system that allows for no choice; where everything is strictly dictated to them. Giving students choice doesn’t mean they choose everything, but it does mean that the curriculum respects the preferences of students and tries to honor them as much as possible. Like many aspects of life, the middle ground and striking a balance is often the best approach.
If we look at choice in various professions, there is a real disconnect between school and the working world; that “real world” we are preparing our students to enter and thrive in. The most prestigious careers involve a level of freedom and choice which makes them sought-after. Those professions reward innovation and creativity, based upon one’s ability to effectively navigate through a myriad of choices. Highly successful people in those fields have the ability to make good decisions from a variety of choices that they encounter on a daily basis. In contrast, the jobs that offer little to no choice, such as customer service or assembly line work, are often considered mundane and tedious. No wonder students often describe school as boring. Give someone few options, with a steady diet of mindless tasks, and of course they will find it boring. Give someone little freedom and of course they will rebel. Give someone little control over what they learn and of course they will disengage.
The integration of technology in the classroom has enabled teachers to provide students choice with ease. Their devices and smartphones can offer choice at a micro level. Technology has afforded students with a degree of choice that was unimaginable a few years ago. In the past, student choice was often limited and teachers were required to have a planned and intentional approach. That’s not to say that individualized learning wasn’t possible before technology, it’s just that technology has made it much easier to implement. It has given new meaning to differentiation and provided a whole new realm of possibilities for personalized learning. There is no longer a need for students to all be on the same page. They can pick and choose what they want to pursue and learn.
If we start to trust students more and allow them to make more meaningful decisions about their learning, I believe they will rise to the occasion. In the process, they will become more invested and engaged in school. The intrinsic motivation that choices provide will stimulate learning and a real excitement for school. Students will no longer view it as boring and something to be tolerated and endured.