The Power of Student Choice

Nancy & NickAt a recent conference of the Maine Association for Middle Level Education, Nancy Doda, renowned expert on teaching and learning, shared her keynote podium with Nick, a ninth grade student. He explained to attendees how choice in the way he demonstrated his learning engaged him more deeply in his work. Listen to him in this video.


This young man was empowered and inspired to write an original musical composition to demonstrate the effect Samantha Smith’s life had on him.

Nick’s words make us think—What do we really mean when we use the words “Student Choice.” Is it simply…

  • You may read this book or that one
  • You can create a diorama or draw a picture
  • You can use whatever images you would like in your PowerPoint

Or, does student choice go deeper?  Does it involve student voice in the direction a unit might take?  Does it allow students the freedom to demonstrate their learning in ways the teacher has never considered? What is the role of student questions in the lesson plan?

Nancy Doda and Mark Springer speak of student engagement and empowerment on their Alliance for Powerful Learning website:

The need for empowerment rests on the premise that human beings are innately driven to learn and create.  So, recognizing and engaging young peoples’ natural curiosities and interests constitutes the initial level of empowerment. From this requisite starting point, when teachers shift the cognitive load to students, students are afforded far richer opportunities to develop the skills and capacities most needed to live well in our ever-changing world.

In other words, powerful learning best occurs when students have a say in what and how they learn. In powerful learning communities, students and teachers collaborate in making a variety of decisions. Optimally, comprehensive empowerment that involves students in every phase of the design, implementation and assessment of their curriculum should be the aim.

While there are numerous ways students might be empowered and engaged, powerful learning demands these conditions:

  • everyone respects the inherent dignity of each individual
  • each individual is committed to the welfare of the community
  • learning and decision-making are collaborative,
  • collaboration is ongoing and continuous
  • individual learning needs and preferences are honored,
  • students are active participants in the learning process.

Incorporating student voice and choice in a meaningful way is an act of courage in many districts these days. Despite pressure for standardization and compliance, we need to have more conversations about engagement, empowerment, and the role of the student in developing the plans for teaching and learning in our classrooms.

Listen and enjoy Nick’s composition.


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