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Choose Your Own Adventure: The Importance of Learner Choice

September 27, 2021

For those of us who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s the reference to Choose Your Own Adventure books likely brings a nostalgic smile. What was it we universally loved so much? They certainly weren’t the best written stories.

But, they empowered us. We chose the plot. We made the character’s decisions. One could say we had all the power of storytelling without the hard work of writing.learner choice

For many reasons these books aren’t nearly as popular today. Perhaps the biggest one is that students don’t need them the way we did. They have the power of storytelling at their fingertips.  It’s called social media.

They choose whose story they want to follow and what pictures they want to view. While adults might not like social media, teens find it empowering to be in control.  So maybe that choice is the aspect of social media we can, and should, replicate in classrooms.

Learner Choice in Practice

Which, of course, leads to the question of how. How do we effectively give learner choice in a classroom dictated by standards and a curriculum that we might not ourselves find interesting?  Add to that the stresses of a global pandemic and offering choice might feel like one step too many this year. Not true.

This summer, I gave a talk at the CAST Symposium on the importance of providing students opportunities for choice. CAST is an educational leader in universal design, of which learner choice is a central facet. You can watch the full video, but here are the highlights:

Learner Choice is Valuable to Students and Teachers

  • Learner choice increases engagement. Engagement is directly correlated to academic achievement gains. When students are engaged, teachers and students are both happier and more successful.
  • Learner choice improves decision making skills, a core CASEL competency.
  • Learner choice provides teachers a direct window into each student’s interests, beliefs, and self-awareness. In short, choice enables teachers to build relationships and support students.

Type of Choice Needs to be Lesson-Specific

  • If the learning goal is content knowledge, allow multiple formats to demonstrate knowledge. Students can show what they know through writing an essay, giving a presentation, making a video, or taking a test. All could be equally effective depending on the standard. Be sure to have a clear measurement rubric.
  • If the learning goal is skill mastery, allow multiple options for the content. When students are learning to write a 5 paragraph essay, let them choose their topic. If they are learning convert fractions, give problems specific to their interests whether it’s sports, music or cooking. The content will give purpose so students persist to master the skill.

Choice Isn’t Best for Every Situation

  • Students don’t know what they don’t know. In other words, sometimes you need to tell students what they must learn even if it’s not what they would choose to learn. When you can’t give choice, give purpose. If students have a good reason to learn, they will learn. While you might not be able to give choice in every lesson, every lesson can begin with the purpose, tailored to your students’ specific interests, environment and history.
  • Students often lack the self-awareness to make the best choices for themselves. They might pick what is familiar or what their friend is doing, even if it’s not right for them. Limit students to a few good options to ensure they are growing in the right way.  But if you limit their options, be sure they understand why. Explaining why will develop their self-awareness so they learn to make better choices over time.

Allowing learner choice is truly a win-win for students and teachers once you know how and when to put it in practice. Parents can follow the same principles at home whether it’s deciding what to wear to school, when to do homework, or what to do on the weekend.

Have questions? Ask us.



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