When I was a kid, I loved learning but I hated school. That’s not entirely true. I loved my teachers. I liked some of my classmates. I even enjoyed some of the assignments. However, I hated the non-stop sense of compliance. Things like:
- Binder checks, notebook checks, and other external forms of organization
- The proper way to put my name on the paper (and every teacher had a new way of putting the name, date, class period, etc.)
- The “wrong” or “right” way to do research
- Things like “pop corn” reading, where I wasn’t allowed read at my own pace
- Treating math problems like recipes, where I have to follow exactly what my teacher is doing
- Loving writing but almost never getting to choose what to write
These things were often done with the best intentions. Teachers wanted us to learn to be organized, so we did the binder checks. Teachers wanted to make sure we were “on the same page,” so we followed a rigid process. We learned recipe-styled math with the best intentions of helping us through seeing examples.
However, in each case, we lacked student choice and agency. We didn’t own the learning process. So, instead of empowering us and helping us grow, these activities actually got in the way. The scaffolding became a cage that kept us from the autonomy we needed in our learning. They were, at worst, motivation-killers and, at best, a major distraction.
As Much Freedom As Possible
When I first began teaching, I resisted student choice. I would offer the occasional options, but I was scared of student choice:
- What if they don’t choose the right thing?
- What if they check out and don’t care?
- What happens if they make too many decisions? Will I be a weak teacher?
- What will this look like for classroom management?
- What will the principal think of too many people are doing things differently from each other?
- Won’t students get lazy and selfish?
- How will I even know what’s going on?
I was terrified of what would happen if my students had too much freedom. It would be anarchy. It would feel like Lord of the Flies. But that isn’t what happened. My students were more engaged and, as a result, more motivated to learn. They worked harder and took more ownership in the process. They were better behaved. They actually respected my leadership even more than before, because I trusted them.
I spent one summer analyzing every part of my classroom with a single, driving question:
What decisions am I making for students that they could make for themselves?
After my third year of teaching, I revamped everything — my class rules, procedures, instructional strategies, lesson plans, projects, and assessments. Everything. It feels counterintuitive, but when students have more choice, they will actually work harder. They will take more creative risks. They will be more engaged. And that’s what happened. When I revamped my approach so that they had the freedom to learn, that’s exactly what they did.
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