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Four Ways to Increase Student Choice

student choice

As we grow up, we forget how few choices students have. Adults are used to managing our days to a certain extent, from what we eat to when we complete certain tasks. By and large, kids don’t have the same privilege. Instead, they spend each day wondering what will happen to them without a whole lot of control over the process. This lack of autonomy in relation to school can result in behavior that ranges from passivity to total disengagement. To change up instructional methods for the better, increasing student choice with a few small strategies can make a huge difference in their excitement for learning and their sense of belonging in any given classroom. 

Open up the agenda once a week.

Typically, teachers delineate every aspect of a daily agenda in classrooms. To a degree, this level of management seems natural because as the authority figures and content experts, teachers are active drivers of instruction. However, students who have opportunities to make choices just once or twice a week feel more investment in their classes. One way to help kids implement a level of autonomy without completely turning things upside down is to designate a day in which the agenda lists a specific number of goals that students must meet by the close of the week. Then, through stations or areas of the classroom that are identified for different purposes, students select what they would like to work on to meet those goals during the provided class time.

Ask for suggestions—and mean it.

When teachers gather student voice, they should never do so just to check a box. Instead, asking students about their experiences from the genuine place of wanting to know how they’re doing can provide far more information than just developing hypotheses that may not reflect what is actually happening. When I talk to students about their learning, I always ask what is working for them, and what they would like for me to change. Whether or not I can act on their suggestions, I also spend time explaining what the class will do moving forward as the result of their feedback, and where I couldn’t comply with their requests (and why that is). When teachers are as transparent as possible about acting on student voice, kids have a better understanding of their level of influence over the way learning is conducted on a consistent basis.

Look for areas of flexibility in the curriculum.

While desired content outcomes within a curriculum are almost always non-negotiable, the ways in which students reach identified targets can be more flexible. Suppose that a class needs to complete a project that requires a specific result, such as studying a historical era in depth. While the process likely includes non-negotiables like conducting research or citing information a certain way, there might be areas where students can exercise more choice, particularly in what the final product looks like. For example, there might be an option to present information in multiple modalities, like a podcast. If that flexibility is not possible, students might have more leeway with the kinds of resources they gather, or perhaps with the style and approach that can be taken as they lend their perspective to the assignment. However possible, looking for those areas of agility can positively impact the work students do and make their experiences more engaging.

Let students capitalize on prior knowledge.

No student enters a classroom without any knowledge, and building upon familiar content helps to increase both capacity and confidence. Rather than jumping into any new information without any preparation, use the first few minutes of class to activate what students already know and make connections to less familiar material. That way, each class begins with an accessible entry point while still meeting high expectations and keeping the grade-level standard for learning where it should be. Once students become accustomed to starting class this way, it can also be empowering to give them the option to design the activators just once or twice a week, which increases their sense of agency and provides them with a deeper understanding of the work they do each day.

Creating a classroom that includes more choice, voice and autonomy seems like a big lift. However, taking just one of the incremental steps highlighted above moves everyone in the right direction. When students are provided with smaller options for choice consistently in their classroom experiences, they are more likely to approach their work with meaningful engagement. Providing choice does not have to be an every day, all day type of endeavor. Rather, a balance among different approaches to instruction can be beneficial for everyone if there are opportunities spread throughout any given week for additional student voice and autonomy. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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