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Another type of school choice

7 min read


The act of choosing from a menu is a compelling reason for why people enjoy going to a restaurant. You are handed a menu in a polite and respectful way and are afforded the time you need for your decision.   You reflect upon how the different options match up with your tastes and preferences. You hear the opinions of others but ultimately it is up to you to decide your own meal. If the food turns out to be satisfying, you made the right choice and that can taste as good as the meal itself.

This dining out experience is a perfect blend of the predictable and unpredictable, with familiar routines and the surprise and novelty of the meal itself. The best menus give just the right number of choices. Too many can overwhelm and too few can restrict. Even though there may be many others in the restaurant, people feel special because they are at the center of the experience. It is their choice, their meal, their fate. Everything that happens is designed to make the diner’s experience as good as possible. That is the clear goal.

The most successful learning environments mirror this dining-out experience. Effective educators create the right blend of the routine and novelty. They provide a predictable and orderly structure. They know how to give students meaningful choices throughout the entire experience in the classroom. They also integrate the individual experience with the collective experience of learning.

Effective educators keep students at the center of the experience and give them control and choice in determining the ultimate quality of their learning. Students become active participants not passive recipients. Effective educators know that depriving students of that choice and control severely diminishes the satisfaction and fulfillment of learning. Learning in this type of environment becomes as personalized an experience as eating.

As I was writing this analogy, it occurred to me that some might use it to support a different notion of school choice. Restaurants that provide the best dining experience thrive and the ones that don’t, go out of business.Why can’t the same be true for schools? It is pretty simple: Let the market place decide. Although this can sound attractive, there are some serious problems with it.

Let’s remember one important thing: The traditional and unfortunately enduring structure of schools was based on a factory model and not a restaurant model. Choosing a new factory would not solve the underlying problem: Schools should not be factories in the first place. There is another big problem with the factory model: Students are not people who work for the school. They are not employees. Students shouldn’t be treated as a group of people who all need to do the same thing, at the same time, in the same way.

Students are really visiting the school the way a customer visits a restaurant. It is not a permanent residence but a temporary experience. The school experience should be designed and tailored to meet students’ needs. Students shouldn’t be manipulated just to function more smoothly in the school.

For schools to become more like restaurants and less like factories, a key feature of this re-design should be giving students greater choice and control for their learning in the public system, the school and the classroom. This is a real choice that schools can make, one that can make a big difference and impact learning in a positive way.

And here’s some good news: Adding more choice and giving students more control of their learning experience doesn’t take more time or cost more money. It can be added to all schools and all learning environments. Educators just need to understand its value and decide to inject more of it into what they are already doing. A little bit of choice added the right way, and in the right places can make a significant positive difference for all students.

Very often the lack of choice provided to students is not because teachers don’t want to give choice; it is because they haven’t stopped and thought about it enough to intentionally incorporate it into their practice. Most students have learned to comply and do what they are told without being given choices, so it is easy to forget how important it is to provide it. Students still need choice and want it even if they haven’t been given it in the past.

Here are some ways to incorporate more choice into the classroom:

Make a choice/no choice list with students at the beginning of the school year.

Most students accept limits when they know they have some choices. Many power struggles between students and teachers are a result of blurred lines between choice and no choice situations. Student shouldn’t have to discover the difference after a conflict has already occurred.

Look for choice in your schedule for the day.

There are few schedules that are fixed in stone. Students can help decide when to take a break collectively or allowed to chose their own break time. Very often the order or sequence of activities within a day or a lesson can be determined with student input.

Provide choice in the number of items in assignments.

Instead of assigning five math problems for homework, give students a choice of five problems to select from a list of ten. Even this level of choice can increase student engagement in a task.

Provide some flexibility in how students can demonstrate what they have learned.  

Teachers can establish a criteria for demonstrating mastery of concepts or skills and provide a variety of acceptable ways to meet that criteria. For example, instead of answering a set a questions on a topic, students could be given the option of actually writing the questions that pertain to a text or a topic studied. Mind maps, concept maps and other visual means of expressing understanding can be an acceptable substitute for writing or can be a meaningful precursor to writing assignments.

Give students some choice in the physical arrangement of the classroom and its appearance.

Many of the chores and responsibilities in maintaining the classroom are eagerly embraced by students. Why not let students choose what to put on the walls or where to put a piece of furniture? The more they invest in the environment itself, the more ownership and pride they will take for how it looks.

Develop lists of classroom practices, post them on the wall and use them as menus with the students.

Many teachers use classroom energizers or similar activities throughout the school day. Students can determine which ones are favorites and have input on what ones stay in rotation or what ones are eliminated.

Help students develop of list of strategies they can use when the “going gets rough” for them.

Many students act up to avoid work that they perceive to be too hard. Acknowledging that work can be difficult and then discussing appropriate options available to them when they encounter those feelings can help students avoid panic reactions. Too often misbehavior is an unintentional and dysfunctional way of meeting their need to avoid “failure” in the face of a challenging task. Helping students develop and choose a good back up plan for the times when they need it increases ownership for their learning and builds their confidence.

Work with colleagues collaboratively to develop ways to provide more choice and options for students.

If choice becomes a valued strategy for improving the learning environment, teachers should meet and collaborate on developing a variety of ways for providing it to students. There are probably many more choices that can be given to students than most educators initially realize.

When students are given more choice, they also feel like they have a greater voice in their own learning.  An educator who gives students more choice is also conveying respect, trust and belief in them as people who want to learn. When educators believe that about them, they end up believing it about themselves and they learn more.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at