The Reflective Educator

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The Illusion of Student Choice

There is a lot of discussion of how we can personalize education for students and give them opportunities for choice. The idea is that students who have choice in the learning process will be more engaged. Personalized learning, where the delivery of the curriculum is tailored to individual student’s needs, will also likely lead to students understanding the curriculum standards. Both of these suggestions seem reasonable.

Some educators suggest that students can present evidence of their learning in a variety of ways so allow students to choose whatever form of assessment they want. If a student prefers to work with video, they can create a video. If they prefer to take a test, they are given a test. If they want to write an essay, they write an essay. The idea is that they can present what they know in the medium they want. On the outside, this looks like student choice and this is a good start.

Alternatively, some schools offer electives for students to take. Students can choose from a selection of additional optional courses aside from their required academic courses. Unfortunately these courses are typically being cut back as schools face budget short falls. It’s too bad that these cuts are happening because these courses are another step in the right direction.

Students can choose to take athletics, participate in after school clubs, perform in the school play, play a musical instrument, or a variety of other activities. These opportunities are terrific, but they are still just replacements for real student choice. 

The problem is that all of these are superficial opportunities for choice. They are all an illusion of choice. At the end of the day, students are greatly restricted in what they learn, and when they learn it. Each year is packed full of state-mandated curriculum and course content chosen by educators. Students spend their evening exploring the world through their Internet browser and come to school to find arbitrary walls have been placed between them and the world by well-meaning educators. Students lack the most important choice in school, what they learn.

Choosing what you learn is a powerful motivator. Ask someone who has mastered a musical instrument, or learned to build dynamic websites, or any one of a million possible challenging things. We educators have all experienced what it feels like when you learn something new, we know that it is a powerful drug. Why are we withholding this opportunity from our students? Isn’t it possible to give students real choices about what they learn?

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