February 28, 2016

The power of choice

Student choice is one of the most powerful learning tools, both inside and outside the classroom.  When students have control over their academics, and are allowed to lead the way, they are intrinsically engaged in learning and are able to achieve a variety of positive outcomes. However, when students are disinterested, bored, or made to feel powerless in the classroom, their responses are highly predictable: They “go through the motions of learning, handing in uninspired work and counting the minutes or days until freedom” (Kohn). What is the real impact of student choice and how can more students take control of their education?

Alfie Kohn, a famous researcher of student choice, explains that “powerlessness – a lack of control over what one is doing –” is the number one enemy of student success. Powerlessness consistently predicts negative outcomes for students, especially boredom and underachievement. On the other hand, empowered students, students withchoice, feel engaged in their school work and motivated to grow. They interact with their peers and their teachers, building knowledge together, choosing focal points of projects, and developing their own passions.

Unfortunately, in many traditional school systems, students “are compelled to follow someone else’s rules, study someone else’s curriculum, and submit continually to someone else’s evaluation” (Kohn).  As a result, students lack opportunities for individual or collective decision-making. Instead, children and adolescents learn to view themselves as powerless participants in the acquisition of knowledge. After years of compliance, they can become apathetic and passive learners, feeling stripped of their choice to be otherwise.

When and How to Give Your Student Choice

Parents, just like students, have limited control over the topics and projects covered in each classroom. However, with careful scrutiny, parents, students, and educators canwork together to find opportunities for student choice. Some empowering choices can take place outside the classroom, such as choosing school supplies or setting a personalized homework schedule. Meanwhile, other choices require students to self-advocate within their classes and ask for the freedom to explore unassigned topics. Consider these tips to help your child reinvest in learning:

  1. Remember that Simple Choices are Still Choices: To an adult, choosing between hand-writing or typing an assignment seems like a negligible decision. Either choice will work, as long as the job gets done. However, to a student who feels powerless, making small choices can go a long way. Encourage your child to take charge of all decisions, big or small, to make her process feel like her own. Letting your child choose the organizational system that she feels will work best for her, determining the method with which she will track her assignments, and deciding where in the house she feels she can focus best for homework time are simple ways to empower your child.
  2. Assess Assignments for Opportunities to Choose: All assignments have mandatory requirements that must be met in order to receive full credit. However, beyond those explicit demands, the possibilities are quite endless. For example, while writing a research paper, students will need a certain number of sources, paragraphs, quotes, etc. But every student’s thesis can and will be different. Help your child make sure that her work reflects her unique thinking style, interests, and methods of organizing her ideas. Ask her to focus on what she understands best or is most interested in exploring.
  3. Take Advantage of “Make-Your-Own-Assignment” Options: The majority of students groan when they see the option to “create your own prompt” or “select a topic of your choice.” Most students avoid choice-driven options, sometimes fearing failure. In truth, following a teacher’s lead, and choosing a pre-made prompt, can be significantly easier than developing an assignment of one’s own. However, choosing a unique topic tends to to be especially enriching for students, who must use critical thinking, and active study methods to construct their own assignment. Once finished, your child will take pride in her ownership over the process, her ability to persevere, and the content she created.
  4. Guide, Don’t Tell: The most important component of a choice-driven education is that students actually get to make choices about their work. The best teachers and coaches guide their pupils, offer them options, and let their students gradually take over full responsibility of tasks. Contrarily, telling your child when, where, and how to complete her homework will not empower her to do it; but giving her options within appropriate parameters, and letting her choose, can make her feel capable, in control, and in a position to grow.

Students, parents, and educators can work together to empower students, teach them to self-advocate, and help them make their own choices. Engaging Minds makes sure to give each child a voice in the process, and parents can do the same at home. Support your child’s unique learning and organization preferences and help her to choose topics that interests her. Empower her to make her own decisions, follow her passion, and discover something new.