Three Ingredients to Help Students Navigate Choices

A growing number of schools and families today believe offering students choices can increase their sense of “ownership” in their learning. I am among them. I’ve seen students come alive when their teacher provides them options for their next project, paper, or capstone assignment. As choices increase, we believe student engagement will also deepen—and it does for the most part.

The downside is now showing up and it requires wise leadership on our part.

When offering choices, we must remember a teen’s brain is still developing. They don’t always make the best decisions for themselves. For example:

  • Jaclyn, a sophomore, was given a choice on her science project, and she chose the one that was the most “fun” for her.
  • Tyler, a freshman, chose a project that was the “easiest” for him.
  • Chase, a freshman, picked the one that he could “finish the fastest.”

It makes sense doesn’t it? Kids are pragmatic—why not get this thing over with and not suffer in the process?

“Educators are wrestling with those kind of questions as more and more schools embrace personalized learning and its accompanying mantra to give students individualized control over their academic experiences,” according to EdWeek.

The question is: “Does choice increase their learning experience?”

Fundamentally, I believe it does. As a rule, students support what they help create. The more they have a “say” on their assignments, the more they experience a sense of ownership. At the same time, they are human, and humans love shortcuts. I look for them too, when I am driving, shopping, managing tasks or almost anything else. It’s natural. The key is to allow for learners to pursue shortcuts, but not diminish the development of their grit or work ethic. This usually needs to be fostered.

So—what’s a teacher to do?

Balancing Achievement with Engagement

This is where caring adults come into play. Options alone do not equal deep learning. Certain options are better than others. There is nothing wrong with a student choosing a project that seems “fun” to them, but they should not get one that’s “easy.”  Genuine learning is like lifting weights. In a gym, we must choose barbells that are light enough that we can actually hope to lift them, but heavy enough to stretch our strength and increase our muscle mass. There is a balance.

So it is with engagement and achievement.

A project must be intriguing enough to engage the students, yet tough enough to stretch them. They should work somewhere between stretched and overwhelmed.

The Ingredients in Our Assignments:

1. Toughness: The assignment must be challenging enough to grow tenacity.

2. Time: The assignment must consume enough time for them to grow patience.

3. Trailblazing: The assignment must cultivate new, critical thinking skills.

When students take on projects they believe are fun and engaging, it is totally fine as long as those assignments develop grit, critical thinking and patience. How they go about accomplishing those projects, then, can be left up to them.

In fact, shortcuts can be good for students. They don’t always indicate students are lazy or apathetic. Some shortcuts reveal insight and wisdom. This morning, I stood on the back deck at our house, and it was full of leaves. So, I grabbed our leaf blower and began blowing those fall leaves off the deck. Today, it turned out to be a bigger chore than it was last week. Because the wind was blowing, each time those leaves became airborne, they’d whirl around in the air and fall right back onto another part of the deck. So, what did I do? I checked the weather app on my phone to see if the wind might be calming down later in the day. If so, I’d wait on this project. Alas, it was going to be windy the entire day. So, I changed my game plan. I ended up leveraging the wind to my advantage, removing the leaves in a different manner than I had in the past.

Was I taking a shortcut?

I suppose I was. I made the job easier for myself, because I utilized the elements to work in my favor and for my objective. But it wasn’t laziness that motivated me. I’d like to think I used wisdom to remove those tenacious fall leaves from my deck. Likewise, shortcuts are good if they foster insight. They are helpful if they lead to wise kids not wimpy ones; if they bring about learning, not laziness. Their choices should reveal efficiency, not deficiencies.

Remember—we are not merely teaching students. We’re teaching future adults.

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Three Ingredients to Help Students Navigate Choices