Let Them Choose

3 mins reading

The first time time I witnessed the power of enabling student agency was when I was in Grade 5. Of course, I wasn’t able to conceptualise it as that until a long, long time after I left primary school, but looking back on it now, that’s exactly what I had (accidentally) accomplished…

Adam 18I was a very shy student, known for being consistently quiet from Grade Prep to university tutorials. The first lecturer to offer me teaching work had expressed her concern that I hadn’t been much of a contributor as a student, so I would really have to snap out of it if I was going to run a class. In Grade 5, however, there was one thing that got me up in front of my peers to speak for minutes on end: story writing.

On the day I’m thinking of, I had written an Indiana Jones-themed ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style story, and was picked to share it with the class. The details of that story have evaporated now, but I distinctly remember presenting the several narrative options I’d concocted to my fellow students to choose from. It wouldn’t have been a masterpiece (it would have been better than the Crystal Skull movie at least), but my classmates must have been engaged enough, because they made the choices I offered – I definitely would have remembered if they hadn’t!!

From memory the choices my peers made led to the death of the protagonist, but needless to say the interactive nature of the process still points to something powerful. Offering students choices can take many forms, which have only multiplied with the rise of digital technologies. Nonetheless, the practice must be intentional and strategic. Harnessing student agency isn’t inherent in a given media mode or platform; it has to be embedded through sound pedagogy.

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I’m still experimenting with ways to expand learner choice in meaningful ways, and I explicitly raise the issue and value of agency frequently with students. Building a student learning community on Twitter essentially gives students a lot of agency as to how, when, and for how long they will engage with a unit and its resources – which they themselves help make through their posts and content creation. Embracing student agency doesn’t have to be so expansive though, and might be a discrete element of otherwise ‘conventional’ learning materials.

One of my earliest attempts to embed student choice within digital content itself was through a video I shared in the final week of a trimester in 2013. This was back when YouTube was investing more in its interactive functions, which allowed me to provide hyperlinks in captions, among other things. Using a video linking feature, I was able to embed a list of 4 choices for students interested in different perspectives on the future of digital media: my own, those of two colleagues, and that of my canine companion Tiffany. Unfortunately, this interactive feature has since been removed and the links with them, so I can’t show you the way it worked exactly. But even Tiffany’s ‘educated opinion’ received over 50 hits in this manner… admittedly, this was designed only for entertainment value.

This example highlights that opportunities to afford students agency are as fluid as they are varied due to the changing nature of online platforms. Nonetheless, students are always empowered when they are given genuine and useful options to choose from, and authentic learning goes hand-in-hand with meaningful choices. The massive popularity of ‘open world’, sandbox-style video games points to just how much people find the ability to exercise their agency engages them, but more on that another day…

How has choice been embedded into your teaching or learning?

Thanks for reading – for choosing to do so! 🙂

 

Featured image: Photo by Caleb Jones (free use via Unsplash)

 

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