What If Not All Students Want Choice?

“But there isn’t though enough sharing by those who are embedded in the work [of 21st century learning]. There isn’t enough shared deep reflection, video, or examples of what the how looks like in action. But we can fix that, right?” ~Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach.

On her blog, Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension, educator Pernille Ripp is one of those teachers who “fixes that” by regularly sharing such deep reflection that seems often to originate from genuinely listening to her students.  Her recent post, “Not All Students Want to Change the World,” led us to a thought-provoking idea:

What if not all students want a choice?

In considering this question, we’ve gone from knee-jerk reaction to contemplative consideration, and everything in between.  One thing is certain: this question is weightier than it appears.  A few issues it touches include vulnerability, ownership, learning as a social act, and emotional well-being.  Here are some of our reflections on the matter.


The prospect of making mistakes when acting under the direction of an authority figure can be disheartening; making mistakes when acting under your own determination can be downright terrifying.  In this way, for students who would rather be “told what to do,” we must understand that compliance is nothing but a safety net: comfortable, risk-free, and sheltered (ie, the opposite of growth and learning).  They are often our perfectionists, fearful of any slip-ups, and in stagnant paralysis.  And as shame-researcher Brene Brown reminds us,

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. …It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame…Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think?”   (Daring Greatly, p. 128-9)

Giving students choices, even if they’d prefer explicit mandates, is more than about increasing their motivation for assignments or participation.  It’s about teaching them to embrace their own vulnerabilities–their courage, their unpolished ideas, their imperfect selves–which is the only way they can truly grow.


recite-1g8c6guStudent choice is also the foundation for self-discovery.  Educator Joshua Block shared on Edutopia his first experience with authentic choice as a high school senior, saying,

“For the first time in my life, school had not been about finding ways to meet requirements established by others — it was about work that I believed in…School works when students have opportunities to produce quality work about issues that matter. Education works when people have opportunities to find and develop unaccessed or unknown voices and skills. Opportunities for flexibility and choice assist learners in finding passion, voice, and revelation through their work.”

Though not all students may want to change the world, they need to know that choice is a prerequisite for students to discover their true passions–and that the natural offshoot of a person acting on their passions is to change the world.

Learning as a Social Act

There is nothing wrong with students wanting to keep their work private, especially when it is of a deeply personal nature.  However, we must help them understand that with the privilege to choose comes the responsibility to contribute to the learning community–in ways that simply cannot be duplicated by anyone else. John Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education,

“The essence of the demand for freedom is the need of conditions which will enable an individual to make his own special contribution to a group interest, and to partake of its activities in such ways that social guidance shall be a matter of his own mental attitude, and not a mere authoritative dictation of his acts.”

Similarly, the pedagogy of co-constructing knowledge is a two-way street; no matter how much you embrace it as a teacher, it is useless without your students on board.

Emotional Well-Being

In Pernille Ripp’s article, one commenter brought up anxiety, a matter that deserves its own consideration.  Who hasn’t had the student who seems perpetually stricken with fear of a misstep? But we must ask ourselves, will it really help their anxiety to make all their decisions?  Will encouraging their passivity help them grow as learners and healthy human beings? Instead, as you persevere in presenting them with choices, model the decision-making process yourself by thinking aloud, creating your own projects, and otherwise sharing your process.  Be mindful as you find ways to scaffold their ability to cope with choices. (read more about strategies for helping students with anxiety here).

Asking the Right Questions

A common 21st century teaching question is, “How can we provide all our students with choice?” We would add another, equally important question to consider in your practices: “How can we teach students to value choice?”

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