Student Well-Being Opinion

We Can’t Assume Students Know How to Choose

By Starr Sackstein — December 11, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

We were sitting in a classroom in an elementary school this weekend at the What Great Educators Do Differently conference in West Virginia when it occurred to me that too often we assume students know how to choose.

A frustrated educator who was clearly trying to make learning more relevant for her students said the reason she had chosen my session for empowering students to take ownership of their learning was because she was giving her students choice but they didn’t know what to do with it. As a matter of fact, they were generally apathetic.

It’s not that students don’t want to make choices for themselves, they simply don’t know how to.

Children start out naturally curious, asking a lot of questions and engaging with their environment as soon as they are aware of it and have the ability to do so. Then they enter the school systems and almost immediately have that autonomy taken away. It’s a slow, insidious process that systematically strips students of their ability to understand their own interests in academic or even purely passionate way, especially as it pertains to school.

Now, they definitely know how to make choices outside of school. Whether it is the kind of sport they want to play or the video games they enjoy, students connect with material that matters to them. This is why the first step in teaching them to make their learning choices in school is developing relationships with them so you know how start giving them real options.

If we simply say to students, “what do you want to learn?” They may be inclined to answer “nothing”. But if we frame the question differently, the responses can be the first step in truly authentic learning spaces.

How about starting with one or all of the questions: “What do you love? What are you passionate about? What do you do outside of school that makes you happy?”

Different questions will resonate with different students. They’ll be skeptical at first, but persist. Show them you are really interested. Maybe even share with them what you love and are passionate about and show them how you make choices to fulfill those passions and interest in and out of school.

After you learn what really gets them going, you can start making decisions about how and where to insert choice while you are teaching the necessary skills to help them acquire and personalize the content they need to internalize as well. Perhaps is starts with an article about those passions for students or a discussion about the first amendment (which was the aha moment for me this year so far) where you teach them to annotate and then have a socratic seminar about the topic.

Start small, ask them to choose between two things or to brain storm a list of five things and choose one from that. Then set them up in a project that allows them to explore that topic for a good amount of time. In the process, you can give daily mini-lessons that pertain to success criteria and standards associated with the product you’d like them to complete.

Learning like this should NOT terminate in a test, but rather a student selected product which you can give them choice about too. Maybe you have some students who love to write or speak. Maybe some are terrified to speak but will make a podcast. Maybe some are makers and want to produce an actual thing that shows their understanding and mechanics of the topic they are researching.

Over the course of the project, you can teach them digital literacy and research skills. You can teach them to vet sources. You can teach them to work together and give each other feedback, all while they work on different content. Even if you have to work within a framework of a particular concept in a content area.

For example, in social studies you may consider letting them research the era you need them to know about rather than teaching straight from the textbook. Each student covers something different from a different perspective and either presents about it or makes a video or some other informational product that will be shared with the class in some way to make it public. Then students can engage in a Q and A as the experts on that subject.

Every child knows how to like something, but they don’t always know how to make it applicable to learning. Sometimes they don’t see the connections and that’s where we have to help. The more transparent we can make the learning process, the better students will be able to choose when you ask them “What do you want to learn?”

How do you help students make choices to engage in their own learning? Please share

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.