You may be old enough to remember when Pepsi launched a campaign in the 1980s claiming that its cola was ‘the choice of a new generation’. In the context of education, it seems obvious that ‘choice’ should be synonymous with a new generation of schooling. Choice marks a shift in the ownership of learning. In the past, the learning agenda has been driven predominantly by the system or by government policy. Students haven’t been expected to ‘own’ their learning. This probably accounts for generations of disengaged learners who felt like they had little involvement in what they learned, how they learned and at what pace. Too often, learning has been a process of doing to rather than doing with. The irony today is that we want all young people to become independent learners but too many of the learning environments are still set up towards dependency and control.
This has been made more obvious with the roll-out of the Australian Curriculum (AC). The AC defines very specific ‘learning entitlements’ or content. In NSW for instance, the ‘stronger’ HSC has reduced student choice within some subjects around topics as well as imposing a minimum benchmark for literacy and numeracy.
When learning is largely content or syllabus-driven rather than student-interest driven, we deny students the right to agency and autonomy. We know from research that this is an integral part of effective learning and teaching. As Will Richardson noted, real learning happens when there is the ‘power to choose, and we facilitate that in schools by creating the conditions and space for that to happen at a student (and a teacher) level.’
I recently spent some time with Lyn Sharratt and two of our secondary schools who were sharing their experiences on encouraging learners to read. One of the simplest strategies on the road towards agency was giving students a choice of text instead of mandating a single text to read. Teachers noticed more students were willing to step up and challenge themselves when the purpose of why and what was clearly articulated and understood. The outcome was higher levels of student (and teacher) engagement and, unsurprisingly, improved attendance in class. These teachers are now looking at how they can extend student choice to other subject areas.
Disappointingly, schooling has been largely driven by the system instead of by students, supported by their teachers. Schooling today can and should be a ‘win-win’ proposition by giving all students greater ownership over their learning , greater input into the curriculum and greater choice in pursuing passions.