Easy Ways to Implement Student Choice in the K-12 Classroom

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Click above to listen to this podcast episode. Below is the transcript for Student-Centered World Podcast Episode 34: “Utilizing Student Choice“

As time marches forward in education, we are finding that students are becoming micromanaged to a fault. Whereas teachers have the responsibility of making sure that their students learn the specific curriculum and content material, it is creating a generation of students who don’t know how to take initiative and find out the answers to questions without specific directions to follow.

This is a recipe for low student engagement.

Most of our students’ day-to-day activities are structured and controlled by others. From a psychological point of view, this makes them feel powerless. As teachers, we should turn this on its head and instead conduct our classes in a way that makes our students feel empowered.

The number one way to do this is by establishing student choice in the classroom to demonstrate learning.

What is Student Choice?

Plainly stated, student choice is the ability of the student to make decisions about how they are going to show what they know. The purpose of student choice is to allow students to take more responsibility for their own learning, which will also help them feel more engaged in their studies.

It can be anything in the classroom that is completely controlled by the teacher but allows the students to have ownership in their decisions and gives the illusion that they are completely in charge of the situation.

Why Student Choice?

Regularly allowing students choices will naturally design personalization of content and lessons but still is directly constructed by the teacher in knowing the objectives and outcomes of that piece of curriculum. The key idea before you move into a fully choice-based classroom is to know what makes your students “tick”.

Knowing their learning styles, personalities, and even their interests allows them to build student choice activities that will appeal to each student in your classroom and allow them student voice in their academic choices. You may have one student that loves art projects, but another one that would much rather write about a topic. Another student may love video, while the next prefers explaining verbally.

In giving students choice, you create assignments where they all have the exact same learning outcomes but appeal to each individual student in your class. This learning experience is differentiation at its finest and, if implemented correctly, is no extra work for you (and to be honest, it’s way more fun to teach).

The Benefits of Student Choice

When students are given choice, their learning becomes much more authentic and they are naturally drawn to the next steps of the learning process. Again, they are all learning the same things and demonstrating the same objectives, but in different ways.

If nothing else, it makes grading so much more entertaining when you have a variety of different assignments coming back at you and you are not grading the same monotonous assignment repeatedly throughout the school year.

While the standards are the same and the exact same elements of learning need to be displayed, it will come forth in ways that really allow the students to flourish with their own unique styles, and this is done through simple elements of student choice.

This also helps encourage ownership on behalf of the students. They are not just going through the motions of an assignment; they are developing something that they, believe it or not, become passionate about. A student who never wants to do anything in class may have a complete turnaround if they are able to demonstrate something on his or her own terms. It’s quite a powerful tool (especially in terms of classroom management).

Their choices may not always be perfect but establishing this culture in the classroom allows for self-correction and improvement.

How to Implement Student Choice

It is always good to start off in a way that allows the students to ease into having such autonomy with their learning. It may start off as simple as giving them the option to complete an assignment by choosing option a or option B.

This can be individualized or in small groups.

You may have a topic that you need to cover, but you allow each student to find their own article to help explain what that topic is about or something else from a choice of tasks that you curate. You can then bring all the students together, group them, etc. to work with all this information.

As time moves forward, you can move into choice boards, menus, or other self-directed opportunities to complete assessments, giving that student choice in the development of completion.

Keep in mind, this is not going to go smoothly right away. Again, this is a generation of students that had been micromanaged most of their educational careers. They believe that they need to be spoon-fed the formula for student performance and jumping right into giving them too much choice will not result in the student work you are hoping to see.

Giving them free rein immediately will not go well for any party involved.
This is how student choice will immediately fail.

It will take some modeling, consistency, and encouragement but over time you will see your students engage more and more and come to expect to be able to demonstrate their student learning in a variety of different ways that appeal to them.

Data doesn’t lie

A fantastic study was completed in 2008 by Courtney Kosky and Reagan Curtis titled, “An Action Research Exploration Integrating Student Choice and Arts Activities in a Sixth Grade Social Studies Classroom“. They focused on giving students choice in their assignments and activities in the classroom to see if there was any benefit to teaching “outside of the box”.

Their findings were fantastic. As stated:

Offering students choice and mobility in classroom activities was a great way to get students involved in the leaming process. Why should students have to sit and listen all day? Why not give them the opportunities they deserve to be active participants in their own learning? Students were much more involved in activities that were different from what they saw as “regular classroom activities.” Just because the students were having fon in their leaming, did not mean that the activities were not meaningful. More often than not, students actually took more away from hands-on activities that got them up out of their seats and where discussion was used as opposed to a lecture format.

Think about this in your own life. We all have things that we enjoy, and we also have things that we do not. Given the opportunity, we would certainly want to do something that we enjoy. We will see it as the “easy way” to get something done, but in actuality, it is just being completed in a way that we find engaging.

In a time where we are doing everything we can think of to keep our students engaged, why shouldn’t we think outside the box a bit?

I am not saying that we need to make the children think that they will never have to do something that they do not care for, but it is our job to make sure that they master certain concepts. The rest will fall into place naturally. Giving them student choice and getting them excited about the material is a phenomenal way to put them on the road to mastery and not just compliance in all grade levels.

We must remember that our students are just young human beings. They had the same needs, wants, and concerns that adults do. As the grownups in the room, we need to make sure we are teaching them how to propel themselves forward in the ways that will suit them best.

From flexible seating to close readings to a genius hour project or options that give real choices that would be applicable in life (the list can go on and on), giving students choice in the classroom is a great first step in doing so.

SCW Podcast Transcript on Student Choice

So, the first thing in understanding what student choice is and how it’ll work in your classroom is understanding what it isn’t. There’s a really awful negative connotation stereotype that is the kids are deciding what they’re learning and what they’re not learning, and it gives them the opportunity to do nothing if they don’t want to and your classroom becomes a free for all.

All of that literally could not be further from the truth.

The number one thing you need to understand when it comes to this concept of student choice in the classroom is that the teacher is still 150% in charge of everything. You know what the objectives are that the students are going to be meeting, what the outcomes are that you want them to achieve. Even though they think that they have control over what they’re doing in the classroom, you are still orchestrating every single piece of it.

When you’re giving your students choice, you’re giving them opportunities to become more engaged, to find avenues of learning that excite them, that make them want to learn more. I have seen it in action in a variety of different types of classrooms, not only throughout my own teaching career but like I said, in feedback that I’ve gotten from people that have gone through and implemented what I teach in “A Passion for Progress“.

So, when you’re giving students choice, you’re creating assignments that will make sure that they have the exact same learning outcomes. But in doing that, they’re able to complete them in a variety of different ways.

So, for instance, say you want them to be able to show you that they have mastered x concept. You might give them options where it is attractive to students that are kinesthetically inclined, that are visually inclined, that like to write, that is artistic, that is musically inclined. There are a lot of different options and it’s not hard to set this up.

If you’ve been teaching for a while you most likely have various assignments that cover the same topic, you can pick and choose from them. You can Google the topic and see what comes up. The internet is your best friend when it comes to finding active lesson plans. You can try out a site like Teachers Pay Teachers. Even if you don’t want to find a lesson that you actually have to pay money for, you can still find a lot of activities that are listed on there for free, which could fall into what it is that you’re looking for.

Of course, at any time you take any of these and tweak it for the group of students that you have in front of you.

I’ve had years where I’ve used the same type of project over and over again and then I have another group of kids come in and I realize it’s not going to work for them. There’s no shame in that. Honestly, if you’re not adapting your lesson plans for the group of students that you have in front of you right now you’re doing them a disservice. Every year the kids that we can’t have come in are different than ones that have been there before. We need to make sure that we’re meeting them where they are.

The teachers that seem to struggle the most with connecting with their students are the ones that want to hold on to what they know and what they love and how they are in their comfort zone without really amending to the students that you have. You might have some serious high flyers one year and then the next year, you have the exact opposite. Trying to make sure that they’re completing the exact same things is going to look different.

student choice

So, when you’re starting out with this concept of student choice, you have to keep your students in mind. And you also want to start out slowly, if you’ve never done something like this before. If you jump into a full-on choice board menu project-based activity unit, however, you want to look at it, and you’ve never done it before, and your students have never done it before, that’s not going to turn out well for anybody.

Let me tell you something about teachers, as soon as something doesn’t work for us, we have a tendency to be the perfectionist type A people that we are and say I’m never doing anything like that ever again because that didn’t work.

Rarely, rarely does it ever not work.

It might be that the presentation was a little bit off. It may be that you bit off a little bit more where it’s a little bit more advantageous than you should have in starting out, your students didn’t understand the routine yet.

There are a lot of different variables there. But rarely will lesson and go catastrophically wrong to the point where you could never try it again. So, I would suggest something simple. So, maybe giving them the option of alright, so to complete this assignment do you want to do activity A or activity B. Maybe you say we’re going to be covering this topic, I want everybody to find an article on that topic or something that was in the news that could cover that topic.

Then you can bring them together or group them based on what they found. It gives them autonomy and it gives them not only a sense of purpose that they have to do this for the learning but a lot of times it gives them a sense of pride as well because this is their brainchild, if you will.

Again, you are still fully in charge of the plan, but they’re in charge of the execution. When you start slow, you can gradually build upon it, and don’t ever think that you should underestimate your students, even that kid. I know that kid I’ve had that kid who you swear is just… I don’t even have to explain it in words.

You can crack that kid by finding something that is going to appeal to them.

Now, I know there are always extenuating circumstances. There’s always something… I’ve had a couple of times where I’ve had difficult experiences as well and that’s teaching. That’s the name of the game of our career. But the vast majority are going to rock this in ways that literally you would never even have thought of yourself.

I think that’s actually the number one thing that I hear back from teachers, once they master this style of teaching, that the projects and assignments and activities that their students have delivered back to them have been far beyond anything that they could have come up with themselves. They were able to learn things about their students that maybe they’re a fantastic driller, or a singer or a writer, or maybe they have this leadership skill once you put them in a small group.

There are just so many pieces there, that if you were trying to teach in a more traditional manner and a more whole-class instruction you would never even know existed within the walls of your classroom. Remember, as teachers, we should be teaching our students not just the curriculum but the pieces that are going to help them flourish in life to find out what it is that they are good at, what they might have a future in, what is going to come easy for them and on the flip side, what is going to challenge them.

By doing this and giving them that student choice, it’s automatically adding it to your curriculum.

So yes, it might seem scary giving over control of your classroom to your students, but you need to remember that you are the one in control. You are almost like the puppet master, but the students think they have this choice.

I always use the concept of when you have a child who’s young, and you ask them do you want to wear the green coat today or the blue coat. It doesn’t matter what color coat they’re wearing, as long as they’re wearing a coat. But they think that they got to choose the green coat, and therefore, they had that power.

They only have the power that you give them.

If you do have questions about it, you can reach me in the comments. You can send me a message on social media, on Facebook, on Instagram. You can shoot me an email at admin@studentcenteredworld.com. I love to connect with other educators and hopefully, this gave you some ideas for things that you can do in your classroom with student choice moving forward.

Student Choice and the 4 Keys

Determining your best plan for student choice in the classroom isn’t difficult, it just needs to ebb and flow with the students and where they are (physically, mentally, and emotionally). Being flexible is the key to making all of this work. The key is engagement. There are four keys to student engagement that I discuss in my video training challenge called “Finding Your Student Engagement Formula” and it walks you through those four keys and how to implement them in the classroom.

If you are interested in registering (it’s totally free), visit the Finding Your Student Engagement Formula Challenge registration page and you will be notified the next time the series is available.

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