When Students Learn to Choose, They Choose to Learn

Mike Anderson student choice
Mike Anderson, Leading Great Learning

I was recently working with a group of high school teachers, and they voiced a concern that I’ve heard many times. “Our kids are so compliant,” they groaned. “They don’t have any internal drive at all. They just ask, ‘What do I have to do to get an A?’ or when we try to give them some choice or control over their work, they plead, ‘Can you just tell me what to do?'”

Sadly, this sentiment was echoed by a friend of mine who is a college professor. “My students come without any ideas of their own. They simply want to be told what to do and then do the least amount possible,” she complained. “I’m looking for students who are ready to take a stand — take chances — and the kids I get want me to hold their hand and lay out every detail of their work for them.”

There are two things that I find unsettling about this:

  1. Skills such as innovation, drive, flexibility, and a strong work-ethic are often cited as the most important skills needed in today’s economy.
  2. Perhaps more troubling is that kids don’t initially enter school like this. Have you spent time in preschool classrooms? Have you ever met a four year-old who isn’t overflowing with creative ideas and intrinsic motivation? In his wildly popular TED talk, Ken Robinson makes the uncomfortable assertion that schools squash creativity instead of nurturing it. I’ve seen this over and over again. In elementary schools, we train kids to be teacher-pleasers. In middle school, we teach them how to jump through hoops to get grades, and by high school, they have learned how to simply comply to get by.

It doesn’t have to be like this!

student choice
Let’s inspire student choice.

One of the ways we can help students retain their intrinsic motivation and independent thinking (or help older students regain it) is through offering more choices about their daily learning — an idea I explore thoroughly in my new book, Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn: The Key to Student Motivation and Achievement. After all, if we want students to develop skills of creative thinking, innovation, persistence, and flexible thinking, we’d better start giving them chances to have more control over their learning. This can be as simple as allowing students choose a good place in the room to work or helping them decide whether to work alone or with a partner. It could also be something more complex, like taking on an independent research study as part of a thematic unit.

A central idea of this book is that using choice as an instructional strategy involves more than simply giving students choices — we have to teach students how to choose well. How do we do this, you wonder? I’d like to share a couple of ideas for you to consider.

IDEA 1: Use a three-step process for facilitating choice: Choose-Do-Review.

  • Choose: When offering students choices about their learning (for example, two different ways to practice a math skill or three different articles to prepare for a class discussion), give them a bit of time to examine the options and think about which might be a good fit for them.
  • Do: As students are working, support and guide their work. If needed, you might help students refine, change, or reflect on choices they have made.
  • Review: After students finish their work, give them time to reflect on the work they have done and the choices they made. This helps build skills of metacognition and enables students to become better at making choices in the future.

IDEA 2: Scaffold choices for students, according to their needs and experiences.

Too many choices or choices that are too open-ended or complex can be overwhelming for students who don’t have much experience with making decisions about their learning. Consider starting the year off with small, bite-sized choices and then, as students are ready, offer more open-ended or complex choices.

IDEA 3: Deemphasize teacher-pleasing. Emphasize student ownership of work.

When students are hyper-focused on doing what teachers want, they can’t focus on their own needs or interests as learners. We need to help students take more ownership of their learning, which means that we need to own the work a little less. Replace teacher-centric phrases such as, “I’m looking for students to…” with “Think about your goals as a learner.”

Deemphasize traditional grades, especially ones geared toward boosting student compliance such as class participation, bringing in homework, or showing effort. Don’t incentivize learning. As soon as we say, “Do your work and you’ll get extra recess” (or bonus points, or a piece of candy, or a dollar for the school store) we have just stripped the work of intrinsic motivation. If you’re interested in exploring some of these ideas in more depth, you might check out a couple of Pinterest boards I have put together:

IDEA 4: Create good choices.

Without good options from which to choose, it is hard for students to get better at making effective choices. Good choices match three key criteria:

  1. They connect with content. Good choices are directly connected with the learning goals of a lesson, activity, or unit.
  2. They match students. Good choices must resonate with students. They align with their interests and needs. They are a good fit developmentally. They allow students to tap into their passions and quirks.
  3. They match logistics. Good choices have to be manageable for us as teachers. They must fit within the time we have (for planning as well as class time), the space we have, and should involve materials that are easily accessible.

So, if you want your students to practice skills of effective-decision making and feel more authentic ownership over their work, if you want to help students tap into (or reignite) their intrinsic motivation for learning, consider not just offering them more choices about their daily work—help them learn how to choose well. Your students might surprise you with how ready they are to learn!

Mike Anderson is an education consultant, and the author of ASCD’s April 2016 editor’s pick member book, Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn: The Key to Student Motivation and Achievement. To learn more about Mike and his work, visit his website: leadinggreatlearning.com.

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Mark Murphy
5 years ago

I really appreciate your focus on intrinsic motivation when it comes to learning. My wife and I have been thinking of getting a new house, and that means that we will have to find a new school for our daughter. In the meantime, I will be sure to teach my daughter that her own intrinsic motivation can help her get into the right mindset for learning!

Ellen McNett
Ellen McNett
5 years ago

I don’t understand the comments about de-emphasizing participation and effort. Isn’t that necessary to student engagement? I agree that those things should be done not to please the teacher, but for the self esteem of the student. But I feel that they fo need to happen in order for learning to take place.

dolores witkowski
4 years ago

I speak to my students quite often about integrity, and intrinsic motivation going hand in hand. If you have a strong sense of integrity, then ostensibly you will take responsibility and ownership of your education. Moreover, this will fall into all other aspects of your life, as integrity is conducting yourself in the best manner possible, regardless of other people’s opinions or awareness of you. Furthermore, you are behaving your best because it makes you feel good about yourself and the world, rather than for an extrinsic reward. Therefore, you are motivated by self; self-achievement, self-esteem, and self-actualized.

Lou Sabatini
Lou Sabatini
2 years ago

I emphatically disagree with the idea of deemphasizing traditional grades, such as class participation, and bringing in homework or showing effort. Without those guidelines how will you know whether or not the student is receiving the material being presented in class. In the construction class that I teach it is all about making sure a student is prepared and equipped to eventually go out into the work force and be safe and professional. If they can not exhibit those traits then they will not be prepared to be in the skilled labor work force. Among other requirements, they must have training, be tested and pass safety tests on all shop equipment and tools. They have to have a grade in mathematics. Math is a skill used daily in the construction industry by professional trades people. The only way I can determine, as their instructor, if they are prepared to meet the challenges is to test them and have them meet a passing score corrected to 100%. Class participation is critical. They have to be prepared to work with a team when they progress into the work force. They need to know how to be a productive member of that team.