Academic Choice is a way to structure lessons and activities. When teachers use Academic Choice, they decide on the goal of the lesson or activity, then give students a list of options for what to learn and/or how to go about their learning in order to reach the defined goal.
Used well, the strategy breathes energy and a sense of purpose into children’s learning. When students have choices in their learning, they become highly engaged and productive. They’re excited about learning and sharing their knowledge. They’re likely to think more deeply and creatively, work with more persistence, and use a range of academic skills and strategies. In addition, research has generally found that children have fewer behavior problems when they have regular opportunities to make choices in their learning, a finding supported by anecdotal evidence from teachers.
Many teachers already give children choices of how or what to learn: Choose six of the following ten questions to answer. Choose a mammal to study in depth. Choose whether to write a report or make a diorama. But what sets Academic Choice apart from the choices that many teachers already offer—and what is essential to its success—is the three-phase process of planning, working, and reflecting that children go through in an Academic Choice lesson.
After the teacher introduces the activity choices, students plan what they’re going to do and sometimes how they’ll do it. In this article’s opening example, the students planned whether they were going to chronicle the events leading up to women gaining the right to vote, show what rights men and women had before women’s suffrage, or show something else they learned about the suffrage movement. Then they planned how to show their chosen content—by creating a diagram, comic strips, a magazine, or a letter.
During this phase, the children complete their chosen task. The opening vignette of this article shows students in the working phase of their women’s suffrage Academic Choice lesson.
After completing their chosen task, the children reflect on the work they did and the learning that occurred. This often consists of children presenting their work to the group and discussing some aspect of their product or process. But it can also consist of a private reflection through journal writing or a self-evaluation of their work. Whatever form the reflection takes, it allows children to make sense of their concrete experiences: Why did they make the choices they made? How did their work change the way they think about a topic? What helps them learn? What went well? Why?
This cycle of planning, working, and reflecting mirrors natural learning. According to educational researchers and theorists Jean Piaget and John Dewey as well as more recent brain research, children learn most effectively when they initiate activities based on self-generated goals, work actively with concrete materials, try out ideas, solve problems, are allowed to make mistakes and correct them, and have opportunities to stop and reflect on what they’ve done. Academic Choice and its planning, working, and reflecting cycle nurture just this kind of learning in children.