What Happens to Behavior When You Incorporate Student Choice?

By John Spencer

My hardest year of teaching involved a sixth grade self-contained class about four years ago. Somehow, I got off on the wrong foot. I had just been an instructional coach and I felt, on some level, that I could handle any classroom situation.

I was wrong.

I had never had a group interrupt me, yell at each other, and throw things on the first day of school. They weren’t naturally bad, but they had been together for 3–6 years and had experienced two years with a string of subs and no permanent teacher. I responded poorly. I yelled at my class; which is embarrassing now and felt even more embarrassing back then. I remember apologizing to the group and they didn’t really know to respond. I had moments when I simply checked out, paralyzed by my inability to lead this group. It was humbling.

In the process, I restricted student choice. We scrapped the Geek Out Projects and the Genius Hour after they talked over me during directions and used the independent time to talk to each other and cause trouble. I cut our first design thinking project short when I decided that they couldn’t handle it. I switched to highly structured assignments. Things got worse. Still, I didn’t want to provide choice with a class that couldn’t handle it.

However, two weeks later, as we began blogging, I noticed something. They were fully engaged. They were on-task. They weren’t perfect. A few of them were playing games on their devices instead of learning. But there was a difference. They were buying in. It was the first project where they had any kind of choice. They were choosing the themes, the topics, the ideas, and the multimedia elements.

The entire room felt different.

Slowly, I began adding more choice. We did a cardboard challenge and a design project. I added a few MacGyver-style projects to push divergent thinking. The class remained difficult for the entire first semester. I still had moments when I lost my cool. And yet . . . the more they felt empowered, the better they behaved.

Choice Isn’t a Privilege

Looking back on this experience, I realize a critical mistake I had made. I had treated student choice as a privilege that I could add or take away depending upon the behavior of a class. I assumed that it was better to start with more restrictions and slowly “give” freedom as we moved along. Students responded with resentment, anger, and defiance. I responded poorly to their response.

The truth is I was afraid of student choice. I knew it could work with a typical classroom. But what about a hard class? What about a group where I am regularly missing 4–5 students a week for suspensions around playground fighting, graffiti, and drug possession? I was scared that autonomy would lead to anarchy. I was also proud and even a little arrogant. I had a positive reputation in my district and suddenly I was struggling. I didn’t want to be found out. I felt powerless and so I tried to micromanage.

And yet, when I began to incorporate student choice, things started to change. It began with little things, like the design projects and it grew into having students select their own strategies, choose their own interventions, and engage in self-assessment. It took time for them to adjust to this freedom but it took even longer for me to trust this idea that student choice was the solution and not the problem.

I no longer believe that choice is a privilege. I believe it is a fundamental right. It’s something that all students need. But more importantly, it is something that works. It can feel risky to empower a student who misbehaves. However, it is worth the risk. I’ve learned that so many students, labeled for years as being the “bad kids” do amazing things when they feel empowered to own their learning.

Originally published at medium.com on August 24, 2016.