The Power of Choice

Getting Started

I’m not a gambler, but I’d be willing to bet heavily on the following premise: All dedicated teachers absolutely LOVE to see their students excited and engaged in class. For me, there is simply nothing like watching a student’s eyes flash with a lively spark of intrigue, curiosity, amusement, or satisfaction during the learning process. Whenever we as teachers know we are making a difference in the lives of our students, the challenges of the profession seem to pale in comparison to the rewards of empowering students to take “ownership” of their learning.

There is a clear link between student empowerment and student choice.A simple Google search will yield countless articles from across the blogosphere heralding the power of choice in the classroom. So, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, I will take a slightly different approach. First, I’ll briefly address two common sources of anxiety that may prevent teachers from incorporating elements of choice in their lesson plans. Then, I’ll offer a Mount Vernon Ventures’ version of an excellent tool for fostering choice: the choice board. Let’s begin!

Common Worries

Before I began experimenting with opportunities for student choice, I was terrified of losing control of the day’s lesson. What if students take advantage of freedom and choose not to do any work? What if the divergent options make it impossible for me to direct my attention and energy in a constructive direction for each student? What if chaos ensues and “student choice” gives way to complete pandemonium and lawlessness, as students break all the rules and make a mockery of our class norms?

Fortunately, I found this fear was unfounded as long as I had appropriate boundaries and parameters in place. As long as a strong classroom culture of mutual respect has been established and everyone understands the norms and procedures of the learning environment, students will tend to honor those, at least in my experience. They may even grow in their respect for the class and their peers as they choose an activity that serves their interests. Furthermore, I did not experience any additional classroom management issues with a student choice approach, as I could move fluidly and easily from student to student, checking on their progress and answering questions.

Aside from losing control of the learning environment, a second source of anxiety for teachers is time. Will teachers have to spend more time planning and grading outside of school hours in order to keep up with the demands of offering students choice on a regular basis?

In my experience, the answer is: “not really.” As with any new task, planning for student choice entails a bit of trial and error. It may take a week or two to find out what “works” for your students. At first, brainstorming and organizing the various options for choice took me an additional 30-60 minutes per week, depending on the course load. So, student choice may incur a slight increase in planning time on the front-end.

However, on the back end, I *saved* time! When students choose their learning activities and/or assessments on a regular basis, it frees the teacher to give regular verbal and written feedback on a continuous basis during class time. This record of feedback makes assessing the final products more simple and less time-consuming. Once I had a method for offering choice and assessing work, I found that incorporating student choice did not consume inordinate amounts of my time, nor did it complicate my job. In fact, the opposite was often the case.

The first item a teacher should prioritize when planning a unit is to identify the desired results for learners, starting with a few basic questions: “What should students know, understand, and be able to do? What enduring understandings are desired?”

Choice Boards

So how do we do this? Is there a tool that helps students visualize their options and regulate the variety of tasks at hand while saving the teacher from spending an inordinate amount of precious planning time? In a word, yes. In two words, choice boards!

A simple choice board (such as the downloadable one linked here) is an excellent resource for the busy teacher who wants to maximize student engagement. For any given task or assessment, simply provide a range of options in a table. Preferably, students should be able to click on the headings in each section and access an assessment sheet that walks them through the process and requirements of the option they have chosen. Of course, the teacher will need to check-in on students to ensure that they understand the directions.

Choice boards can be arranged topically or by task. For an inquiry or research project, students may choose from a variety of topics (e.g. the Cuban Revolution, Iranian Revolution, etc…). However, in many cases, the choice may involve a product rather than a topic. As in the example below, students may choose to record a podcast, write a letter to the editor, or curate an “exhibit” for a museum.

How many choices should you use? There is no right answer, although I advise against offering more than eight options. Too much choice can actually be overwhelming. In my opinion, four-to-six choices is ideal, although two is better than none. The point is to offer options so that students can choose a topic or task that motivates them to pursue their curiosity and passion.

The Challenge

The challenge here is simple and straightforward: Put together your own choice board and try using this tool in one of your classes. Don’t feel like you need to offer a choice board each day for each class. That would be overwhelming and counterproductive! Instead, try to imagine one idea for one class. Then see how it goes, reflect on the process using our reflection tool, and iterate again in a few weeks. I suspect you may be pleased with the results. The choice is up to you!

*For those wondering how to grade student work without using six or eight different rubrics, stay tuned for our next entry! There we will discuss how to use one rubric for an entire choice board that targets key skills and competencies*

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