The Power of Choice: Involving Students in their Learning


Every morning my eldest child, Freya, eats her breakfast, entertains her brother, plays a bit and then she gets down to business…choosing her clothes! I’m not exactly sure when this begun, but it seems a long while ago – her obsession with what clothes she is wearing – predominately her desire to wear a dress regardless of the weather! She has mastered some skilful techniques – from explaining how the sun is shining, to how it is “the one thing in the world she wants”. Since this obsession began there have been a fair few tears, but the fact remains – she doesn’t know what’s best for her – I do, I’m the adult! Yet, without pandering to her or falling for her sophistry, I have found the answer – give her a choice. Only a very controlled choice – which involves offering her two items of clothing from which to choose – both of which I am more than happy for her to wear. Given a choice she is happy – her emotions soothed – my peace of mind soothed we can move on and enjoy the day ahead! What is true of my daughter is true of any student – choice can have a tremendous power psychologically and emotionally – we therefore need to bear this in mind when we plan our teaching and their learning.

The Chinese proverb: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand”, may be ancient, but in our digital age, with an immense and complex mass of information, it is immensely pertinent. Students must be actively and emotionally involved in their learning and we need to ensure planning and schemes of learning contain the flexibility of choice. Making good choices will be paramount in their future lives.

I have a mixed experience of implementing choice in departmental schemes of learning. When I was a Key Stage Three Coordinator (with luscious dark hair, free of grey!), I worked with the department to co-plan thematic schemes of work where each scheme had three optional outcomes – or pathways. The schemes were interesting, but the degree of choice didn’t work. On top of the newly introduced APP frameworks, teacher were muddled by the many options and we couldn’t learn together as we had all gone down divergent paths because of the sheer degree of choice. Teachers felt inhibited from offering students choices and fell back into a default control position. Effectively, what I had learnt is that the conditions need to be right to embed good choices in lessons – choices can be narrowed but they must be real for students. Also, teachers need to establish good learning habits, whilst ensuring students know how to independently tackle problems or barriers once they have undertaken their choice. This year we have planned choice by outcome in our Y11 revision schemes, with confidence that teachers are now wholly familiar with the demands of the course, the requirements of the examination and skills required for success. Within the activities we have begun to embed a skilful degree of choice – for example, students are asked to create presentations on aspects of the exam, but they can choose the platform from which they present – from PPT to an iMovie, an ExplainEverything presentation or a Prezi, to an artistic design of their choice. The variety we hope will prove memorable, and the motivation engendered by making their choice will be heightened.

There are many other ways to create more choice and raise levels of intrinsic motivation. Choice of student grouping can be powerful. With the learning of a new skill it can be particularly effective, as students who have chosen to work with friends may feel more emotionally secure and willing to try a new challenge. Students being given the choice of how long to complete a task, although not always appropriate, can really give confidence to students (whilst giving implicit feedback to teachers about how much they may know). Giving an element of choice for students when defining success criteria for a given task is also a useful way in eliciting understanding about a task and also, again, inspiring a greater level of commitment in the undertaking on the part of the student. In our school, teachers can decide if students are allowed to listen to iPods during independent tasks (typically extended writing tasks). This choice can have a really positive impact on students – giving them extra motivation to work and also allowing them to learn as they would at home – raising their motivation levels and helping with that elusive ‘flow’ where they learn most smoothly and effectively.

Barry Schwartz pointed out in his book, ‘The Paradox of Choice’, that too much choice can be negative. Students can become confused and paralysed by the gallery of choice if not guided. I would agree with this assertion. It is therefore clear that the teacher needs to careful select appropriate choices – skilfully and with a guiding hand (like my fashion selections for Freya!) – but with a level of trust that their students will be better motivated and more emotionally engaged to complete the task to the best of their ability when given a choice.

How to offer choice:

  1. Choice of outcome, including how they present that outcome
  2. Choice of grouping
  3. Choice of learning style/approach
  4. Choice of timing for given task
  5. Choice of roles in collaborative group work

Why offer choice?

  1. It enhances intrinsic motivation
  2. It empowers learners and fosters their sense of independence
  3. It provides variety, particularly when students collaborate with one another
  4. Co-constructing learning has a proven positive impact upon student achievement
  5. It encourages greater emotional investment and comfort- making it easier for students to settle into a ‘flow’ conducive to the best learning

It’s a new school year – be flexible – be pro-choice!


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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

One response to “The Power of Choice: Involving Students in their Learning”

  1. wasibettertodaythanyesterday says :

    You should read Dan Pink’s book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us = autonomy, mastery and purpose.

    Also I experimented with an Innovation Day with approx 80 kids designing and constructing their own learning experience for 1 entire school day:


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