Education Opinion

5 Ways to Use Student Choice to Improve Learning

By Thomas Armstrong — January 17, 2017 6 min read
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Between the ages of 13 and 20, teenagers must develop an authentic “person” out of many possible selves derived from peers, cliques, mass media, and role models. The German-born American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson regarded these years as a struggle between “identity formation” and “role confusion,” out of which a teenager will either establish an enduring sense of self or instead continue to search for identity in gangs, ideologies, bad romances, or other societal black holes.

One of the best ways to engage students in a process of “person-building” is to provide them with frequent opportunities in the classroom to make meaningful choices. Adolescence is not known as a great time for optimal decisionmaking. The regions of the brain that are most involved in decisionmaking (in the prefrontal cortex) are the last regions of the brain to fully develop in the early to mid-20s. Unfortunately, we see the results of bad decisionmaking by teens every day in the news when we read about adolescent traffic deaths, drug abuse, gang membership, cyberbullying, binge drinking, and other hazards. These incidents should only cause educators to double our resolve to do all we can in the classroom to help develop those areas of the brain responsible for choosing wisely.

As a former junior high school teacher, a professor of courses in child and adolescent development, and a staff developer in schools, I’ve come to appreciate the wide range of approaches available for helping teens develop their “choice muscles.” Here are five surefire strategies:

1. Let students choose the books they read. Lorrie McNeill, a middle school teacher in Georgia, decided to scrap the perennially required book To Kill a Mockingbird and allow students to choose their own books. Among their choices were chick-lit novels and books from the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey along with selections like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, a novel about black Americans in the South immediately following World War II. After several months of implementing her new reading plan, NcNeill observed, “I feel like almost every kid in my classroom is engaged in a novel that they’re actually interacting with, whereas when I have them read To Kill a Mockingbird, I know that I have some kids that just don’t get into it.”

2. Use student polling. Teachers are increasingly using free or low-cost apps for mobile phones and tablets to gauge student opinion on a variety of topics or to glean responses to content-related questions and issues, such as Poll Everywhere, LocaModa, Socrative, The Answer Pad, ClassPager, and even Twitter. Such technologies provide students with immediate feedback on their peers’ opinions, get them to think more deeply about an issue, and may even prompt them to revise their views once they’ve heard other points of view.

3. Involve students in decisions about school policy. Educators are beginning to recognize the value of “student voice” in decisionmaking, both at the classroom and the school-wide level. Student-voice policies can be structured in a number of ways, including having students lead focus groups, develop surveys, co-design courses with teachers, or take part in actual school governance. At Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, for example, students are involved in the hiring of teachers, the development of curriculum, and the creation and enforcement of school rules. At Vanguard High School in Manhattan, students involved with the Student Voice Collaborative—a group that supports student-led change in New York City—focused on improving student engagement and boosting graduation rates. They ended up recommending students to serve as co-facilitators in the classroom, a proposal that teachers readily accepted. By giving students a voice in determining the conditions of their education, teachers are personalizing school experience and preparing students to make good decisions once they reach adulthood.

4. Provide opportunities for independent study. Until recently, schools doled out educational content to their students in bite-size portions through the portals of lectures, textbooks, workbooks, slide shows, laboratory experiments, and other highly controlled forms of learning. Now, students have direct access to a whole world of online expertise. We need to provide students with the opportunity to engage in both online and real-world independent study projects that reflect their own interests, learning styles, rates of learning, and other personalized learning factors. At Montpelier High School in Montpelier, Vt., students can enroll in Soar, a unique program consisting of independent study, internships, and a weekly seminar where students learn how to set goals, conduct research, and reflect on their learning. And at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Mass., students participating in a program called the Independent Project create their own curriculum and engage in learning of their choice, including traditional academic pursuits in addition to projects like taking flight lessons, writing a novel, and building a kayak.

5. Offer more electives. Increasingly, states are requiring students to go through some version of a mandatory college preparatory curriculum to graduate, usually involving four years of English and math and three or more years of science and social science. This trend continues to gain steam, even though some research indicates that it doesn’t really improve learning or heighten student engagement. What it does do is leave less room for students to choose courses that interest them and could actually help them decide on a career, a hobby, or a lifestyle they’d like to pursue in adulthood. One solution to this problem is for schools to institute a rigorous academic program and, at the same time, offer a wide range of electives. In a single year, Pelham Memorial High School in Pelham, N.Y., which is a high-performing school with a rigorous college preparatory program added 17 electives to its class schedule, offering options such as jewelry-making, ceramics, photography, broadcast production, military history, and human rights.

Personalized learning is about more than just asking students what their needs and interests are or providing ready-made instructional materials and experiences customized to their particular profiles. Learning becomes truly personal when the students themselves take charge of their own learning. This is especially true at the middle and high school levels when students are most likely to disengage emotionally from classroom instruction strategies that fail to resonate with their growing sense of autonomy.

Secondary school classrooms will become places that truly contribute to the optimal development of a student’s full potential when educators recognize the important changes going on in the adolescent brain; when they address the motivational factors in a teen’s surging emotions (where the thinking is"if it’s not ‘cool,’ it’s not for me”), and when they sensitively cultivate the identity-formation regions of the student’s prefrontal cortex through personalized teaching strategies. In this way, educators can truly light up their students’ brains for success in school and beyond.

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