Student choice is one of the project-based learning essential project design elements, according to the Buck Institute, because choice helps students take ownership of their learning. Without it, John Larmer and John Mergendoller explain, “the project just feels like doing an exercise or following a set of directions.” However, providing student choice can sometimes be one of the most overwhelming aspects of project-based learning for teachers who fear that choice can quickly turn into chaos.
Developing a classroom culture where students drive the learning requires teachers to mindfully provide student choice in a way that develops agency. Where “choice” allows students to make a decision, “agency” refers to the parameters that influence that decision. For example, let’s pretend that student choice is a brand new concept in your classroom, and you decide to allow students to choose their own topics for their next research paper. You may think to yourself “Yes, I’m doing it! My students can now take ownership of their learning!” But then they don’t. They moan and grumble and decide on topics that seem to be just as pointless to them as something you’d assign.
It’s great that you gave students the freedom to choose their own topics, but if they’ve never had to make decisions about their own learning before then they may be unfamiliar with what makes a good research topic. Instead of feeling empowered and motivated, students might feel like they “have to” pick a topic for your assignment instead of “getting to” pick a topic for their research. Big difference.
Student agency is critical to developing 21st Century Learners. “At the heart of student agency is the belief that schools are for and about students, and students need to deeply participate in their learning,” according to Patterns of Innovation, a report published by P21 and Pearson. It’s important to help students develop the skills they need to participate deeply and actively in their learning. That’s where choice comes in!
If you provide opportunities for choice intentionally and appropriately, you’ll be able to build towards a classroom culture where students drive the class. When students get to practice making decisions in the classroom, they learn that they have the power to make choices - not just because their teacher told them to, but because they know how to. They know that they are active participants in their own learning.
Student choice is not always open ended
Choice doesn’t always need to mean “whatever you want!” Avoid decision paralysis by providing students with a menu of options to choose from. This is also a great way to make sure that student work is purposeful and appropriate if students are making their own learning decisions for the first time. As your students develop agency, they may not need a menu of option to help them direct their own learning.
On PenPal Schools, students are given a menu of options at the beginning of each project to help them choose what product or deliverable they’ll create. Teachers can always give students the option to create their own project, or limit students to one or two options from the menu.
Menu of options from the PenPal Schools Race in America project
Student choice is purposeful and defined
Don’t just stick options in front of your students because “choice is good.” There should always be a clearly defined purpose, just like if the learning task was happening in the real-world. (In general, there should always be a purpose for the learning tasks you give students!) What are you asking students to do and why? Then, where is there naturally opportunity for choice?
In the previous example about assigning a research paper, you could provide more context that helps students understand why they should choose a research topic. For example, you could provide students with a theme that helps guide them as they choose a research topic.
Student choice is relevant
You don’t have to dig through a million ideas to find new ways to provide choice to your students appropriately - just ask them! A great way to do this is to get to know your students. Ask them what they like at the beginning of the year and then pay attention to their strengths and weaknesses as they grow throughout the year. This is the best way to ensure that you are providing choices that are appropriate not only to the task, but to your learners.
Perhaps you give students a survey and learn that a majority of your students watch TED talks. Instead of simply assigning a research paper, challenge students to turn their research into a TED talk-style presentation. Not only is the task is relevant to their interests, but now they have a framework to help them choose a research topic: what would make an interesting and engaging TED talk?
Student choice is not limited to what students will create
Letting students choose what final product they’ll create is a great way to start providing more student choice, but if the rest of their learning resembles a traditional curriculum, then your PBL practice needs some work. Students can choose who they work with, how they will learn, even what they will learn about!
Another easy way to add more student choice to the project-based learning in your classroom is to give students choice over the materials they use to learn. Instead of assigning one text to the whole class, maybe you provide a menu of texts that students can choose from, or maybe you visit the library one day and allow students to choose their own texts.
As you provide more student choice in your classroom, you lay the foundation for student agency. Students will continue to learn more about themselves and the ways they learn best, becoming lifelong learners that can continue to explore new topics of interest on their own all the time!
Let us know how you incorporate student choice in your classroom and develop student agency by leaving a comment below!
Gold Standard PBL: Student Voice & Choice
Enabling Student Voice and Choice through Projects
10 Steps to Encourage Student Voice and Choice
Equity in PBL Social Studies Classes Through Student Choice