Giving students choice in the classroom

By Steve Pendleton

In this month’s #Leader5Aday blog, I want to explore the importance of the power for choice in developing learning agency and motivation.  In a Post-COVID19 era, this is vital as so many young people experienced a lack of agency and choice during that period.

There appears to be a trend in English schools for teachers to be more and more directed by their managers as to how to operate in the classroom. For example, a friend working in a secondary school in Outer London was given a 50-point detailed and non-functional list, describing the non-negotiables of the school’s teaching policy. It seems that school leadership is becoming increasingly authoritarian and teachers are being given less and less freedom to teach in a way that suits them. Driven by the current culture of school accountability, school leaders may feel that exerting this sort of control improves the overall performance of teachers because individuals’ preferred methods may not necessarily be effective. Insisting on minimum standards may therefore be considered to eliminate poor teaching. However, this controlling approach may also bring about unintended consequences.

When teacher autonomy is suppressed, it is likely that it will lead to a reduction of student autonomy (Roth et al, 2007).  Self-determination theory (SDT) developed by Ryan and Deci (2017) concludes that autonomy is a basic psychological need, essential in order for individuals to develop self-determined forms of motivation such as intrinsic motivation. Such forms of motivation have been found to lead to many beneficial outcomes. For school students, these outcomes include improved academic performance as well as mental and physical health and happiness.

Autonomy for students in lessons means that they have a sense of control or agency of their own learning in that they can make decisions freely. An aspect of this is providing them with the opportunity to make choices. Given that groups in English schools contain 30 or so students, how can this be done? Fortunately, research conducted round the world has shed light on approaches that can work successfully.

Stefanou et al (2004) points out that three types of choice can be offered to students: organisational, procedural and cognitive. Organisational choice is allowing students choice of how they work together. For example, students can choose where to sit or in which group they will work. As a teacher, I worried that students sitting with their friends would be more likely to engage in off-task behaviour. Sometimes I sat them in allocated groups or in boy-girl pairs to suppress this. Now I realise I was mistaken. First, this approach restricted opportunities to collaborate with trusted peers. Also, this seating arrangement did not address why they wanted to avoid the learning activity in the first place. Their sense of autonomy would have been thwarted which would have made matters worse for the future. Of course, there are other considerations when managing the organisation of a group such as group social dynamics, the additional needs of specific learners and the need to encourage students to learn how to work with peers who they might normally associate with.

Procedural choice is where students are given options as to which materials they use for a learning activity. They could choose which questions they will answer or how they will demonstrate competence with respect to specific learning. Recently I saw a maths lesson where students could choose the difficulty of questions to answer – either easy, medium or hard. However, the teacher guided the students as to which questions they ought to select so it wasn’t a choice at all. The teacher encouraged some “more able” students to do the hard questions. This threatens how the rest of the class see themselves. They are more likely to feel lacking in competence which is another basic psychological need which underpins self-determined motivation. Not only that, but this approach could impact on the feelings of competence of “more able” students who are unable to do the hard questions.

Another way to provide students with procedural choice is by allowing them to carry out learning activities at a pace that suits them. Again, as a teacher I worried that if students were not given time limits they would be tempted to engage in off-task behaviour. With the benefit of hindsight, I think this had an adverse effect by changing the nature of the task from one where the objective was to learn something new to one where the objective was to complete a task in a given time – a subtle adjustment but one which undermined student autonomy.

The third category of choice is cognitive, when students have the freedom to use their chosen intellectual strategy to solve a problem. An example of this is when a group of students is given some text and some accompanying questions which interrogate their understanding of the text. The students could start by reading the questions and then have these in mind when they then read the text. Alternatively, the students could read the text first. Autonomy would be supported if the teacher does not insist on one of these approaches. Rather, the teacher could facilitate a discussion in the group afterwards to hear the experience of different student approaches. Students would then be able to consider choosing the other approach next time

Giving students choice will not always support autonomy. Students need to be able to choose options which reflect their own personal values and goals (Katz & Assor, 2007). Offering students the choice between writing an essay on either plants or animals is not likely to provide that but writing an essay about someone they admire might. Also, choices need to be limited in number (Lepper 2000). Otherwise the risk is that student effort is diverted to making a satisfactory choice rather than undertaking the learning activity.

When I was teaching, I think I was more inclined to offer choice to students that I considered academically “able”. I didn’t believe lower attaining students would make good decisions. This was a mistake. The students who had made less academic progress probably needed their autonomy to be supported more. They were more likely to be extrinsically motivated rather than doing activities for the pleasure of learning.

In conclusion, I would encourage teachers to offer real choice to students wherever this is feasible. This could be by allowing them freedom to choose who they work with, how they allocate their time or how they approach a problem. When students make choices that you don’t agree with, instead of correcting them, try to understand their decision by taking a curious and non-judgmental stance. Students won’t want to make bad choices and they will learn from their mistakes, so let them.  However, as leaders it is important to remember if we do not give staff choice, they in turn may not offer learners choice.  It starts with leadership.

Steve Pendleton is a school improvement specialist with expertise in the education of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. After a successful career as a teacher and leader in secondary schools, Steve became a school inspector, improvement adviser and senior leader in a local authority in the West Midlands. He is now a consultant working with TeamADL and is undertaking doctoral research at the University of Wolverhampton.


Katz, I. and Assor, A. (2007) ‘When Choice Motivates and When It Does Not’, Educational psychology review, 19(4), pp. 429-442. doi: 10.1007/s10648-006-9027-y.

Reeve, J. and Cheon, S.H. (2021) ‘Autonomy-supportive teaching: Its malleability, benefits, and potential to improve educational practice’, null, 56(1), pp. 54-77. doi: 10.1080/00461520.2020.1862657.

Roth, G., Assor, A., Kanat-Maymon, Y. and Kaplan, H. (2007) ‘Autonomous Motivation for Teaching’, Journal of educational psychology, 99(4), pp. 761-774. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.99.4.761.

Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L. (2017) Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. 

Stefanou, C.R., Perencevich, K.C., DiCintio, M. and Turner, J.C. (2004) ‘Supporting Autonomy in the Classroom: Ways Teachers Encourage Student Decision Making and Ownership’, Educational psychologist, 39(2), pp. 97-110. doi: 10.1207/s15326985ep3902_2.


Expect great things from your team & do great things for your team!

By Dr Anita Devi

One month into the academic year and it’s important to check in on how are you doing and also how is your team doing. Those of you who have heard me speak before know how much importance I attach to teams, as a significant part of #leadership

Last month Jenny Bowers addressed the need to be ambitious Quoting Edmund Burke, Jenny suggested ambition can be a season of creeping along or soaring the skies. Either way, movement is involved.  This led to question, what should we be ambitious for?

So, this month in our #Leader5ADay blog, I am looking at teams through the lens of William Carey.  In 1792, Carey gave an iconic speech based on Isaiah 54.  Adapting this as leaders, we could ask:

Do we expect great things from our teams, and do we do great things for our teams?

Let’s address the second part of the question first. To be a leader is honour and a privilege. It means we have been entrusted with a group of people – their care, their progress and their contribution to a wider vision.  As such we have a responsibility to them, not just for them.  We have a responsibility to enable them to be the best they can and more. This requires us to first and foremost know our team members.  To have a healthy relationship with them that creates space for an honest and open two-way dialogue. These meaningful interactions do not happen overnight.  People have to invest time, energy and forgiveness.  Forgiveness you might ask – really?  Absolutely! Honest relationships will at some level involve friction and so showing each other grace to know we all make mistakes is key for team building.

Expecting great things from your team isn’t just about setting high expectation or targets.  It’s about believing in them & their success. Sometimes this can be about encouragement and cheering them on, at other times it is about providing honest feedback that helps them grow.

Leadership isn’t easy. Author Sandra Carey (no relation to William Carey) advises, “Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.”  Wisdom in leadership is critical.  It’s about skilfully combining experience, knowledge and good judgement by being still and listening to that wise inner voice.  As leaders how much time do we make to be still.  I know for me; this is a critical part of my day and enables me to be effective in myself and for my team.  Acquiring wisdom in different situations and season is a continuous process.

 “Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”

― Albert Einstein

So, in practical terms, what would expecting great things from your team & doing great things for your team look like?  Isaiah 54, where this all started talks about reaching out to the world – a global perspective on justice and goodness. Using the acronym GLOBE seems apt:

Give of yourself fully to your team and its success

Listen and reflect, its foundational for wisdom

Observe, analyse and celebrate successes and failures

Be compassionate of needs and forgiving of mistakes

Encourage everyone to be the best they can

At the start of this year, TeamADL announced its membership to Catalyst 2030.  We are part of a global vision, and we are directly contributing to the wider fulfillment of Sustainable Development Goal 4.  From my perspective, as team leader – it is a privilege and honour to serve my team to be the best they can, as well as serve with them to deliver the best we can for children, young people and their families. On Friday 30th September 2022, the Catalyst 2030 community gathered in an Online Conversation Cafe to discuss the leadership of special educational needs and disability. As part of the discussions, we all agreed – everyone is on the SDG 4 Team, everyone has a responsibility to make it happen and a contribution to make. This includes you! We will share more in the coming months about how you can play your part. Follow #TeamADL

You can read the Catalyst 2030 Report presented to the United Nations in September 2022 on Pathways to Transforming Education: Proven Solutions from Social Entrepreneurs here.

Keep leading!


About Anita:

As a former SENCO, Senior Leader, School Improvement Advisor, and local authority SEND Advisory Teacher and Healthwatch Trustee Anita Devi carries a wealth of experience in developing leaders of learning. Her own teaching career spans early years to post grad in the UK and overseas and Anita lives her why through her belief in the joy of learning. In 2017, Anita was awarded the prestigious international Influential Educational Leaders Award for her SEND Pipeline strategy developing professional from initial teacher training to advanced and experienced SENCOs. Anita is author of the first SEND book for Early Career Teachers and has contributed to several other publications. Anita passed her PhD thesis viva on the career trajectory of a SENCO (beyond the NASENCO) in in 2022. Currently a Changemaker Education Consultant & Founding CEO of #TeamADL and #365send T: @Butterflycolour Insta: @Butterflycolour9

Rewards – can they help motivate children to learn?

By Steve Pendleton

As a teacher, I sometimes used rewards as an incentive for students to perform well in learning activities. Typically, the reward was relatively trivial such as a sticker or chocolate bar. Sometimes it was simply explicit praise, either written or spoken. I did this assuming that rewards would only have benefits. I did not give any thought to potential downsides. But my research on motivation suggests that not only were these rewards unlikely to improve the learning of my students, they could even have harmed it.

Alfie Kohn’s book “Punished by Rewards” (1993) explains many of the unintended impacts of rewards. He also explains how sanctions have similar effects to rewards except they have a negative rather than a positive value to the student.

Kohn describes how some of the negative impacts arise because rewarding a learning task changes its purpose. Students become less concerned about the actual learning and more bothered about satisfying the criteria for getting the reward. As a teacher, my intentions were to encourage students to put more effort into tasks. I hoped they would take longer and persist with the task when they faced difficulties. However, Kohn explains how students may actually put in less effort than they would have done if the task was purely about learning, as they are more likely to do only what is necessary to get the reward.

Furthermore, Kohn explains how class competitions, with fewer prizes than students, may be even more damaging since many students end up as losers and may see the effort they have invested as futile. Also, if classmates are competing against each other for limited rewards they are less likely to collaborate, reducing opportunities for learning from one another.

Kohn also points out that if a teacher resorts to using a reward to encourage a student to do something, the reason why the student is reluctant to do it in the first place is not considered and addressed. Also, students may be more inclined to use short-cuts that are ultimately unhelpful.  For example, if a student is told they will get a prize for 10 correct answers in a quiz then are they not more likely to take a peek at another student’s work?

Sometimes rewards may appear to have a short-term impact on task success so teachers may feel they are working. However, improvements are likely to be superficial. Also, the teacher will need to continue to give out rewards indefinitely for the effect to be sustained.

When I was teaching, I think there were many teachers like me who believed in using rewards to motivate. After all, the use of rewards is a strategy that BF Skinner (1965) showed to be effective, albeit in changing the behaviour of animals by rewarding specific actions with food. Skinner was a pioneer of behaviourism. Many features of society and the school system encourage behaviourist approaches such as performance-related pay rises and school awards ceremonies.

Schools in England are obliged to have a behaviour policy as specified in The Education and Inspections Act (Department for Education 2006) and it now an expectation that this policy incorporates rewards and sanctions (Payne 2015). So, if rewards are encouraged to promote good social behaviour then why not for good learning behaviour? The answer may be found in the wealth of research evidence which concludes that using rewards for learning reduces students’ chances of long-term academic success

Deci, Koestner & Ryan (2001) explain how rewards harm learning in the long-term by suppressing students’ self-motivation. In using rewards, I was trying to induce students to engage in learning behaviour that they would otherwise not otherwise engage. This effectively meant I was trying to exert control over them in a way that ultimately undermines their feelings of self-determination, or autonomy.

Deci et al (1999) carried out a meta-analysis of 128 studies which showed that using rewards to control students made them to feel that they have less autonomy. Consequently, they are less likely to be intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation for learning can be described as a desire to learn simply for its own enjoyment. Deci et al (1999) found that the presence of this kind of motivation was associated with improved academic achievement.

Research has also found that the use of praise to encourage students can also lead to unintended consequences. Praise could be a form of reward which would have a similar negative impact as a physical reward. Praising the efforts of a student may convey messages which undermine self-confidence. Graham & Taylor writing in the Handbook of Motivation at School (2016) give the example of two students who achieve the same examination mark. If one receives more praise, that student is likely to deduce that the teacher thinks they have less ability. Consequently, the student’s belief in their own competence may be negatively affected with detrimental impacts on their motivation.

Praising effort may not necessarily result in a student trying harder in lessons. If a student is praised for working hard on a task they may infer that the teacher thinks they have to work hard to compensate for lower aptitude. Again, this is likely to undermine the student’s self-efficacy which is their belief that they can be successful at something.

In summary, I have found that teachers should avoid using either physical rewards or verbal or written praise to try to change the learning behaviour of their students. Rewards lead to superficial learning strategies which help students get rewards but discourage a long-term love of learning. Praise is a form of reward that can also have harmful unintended consequences.

Being kind to students is essential in developing positive relationships in the classroom, leading to trust and confidence. However, teachers should take care to ensure that expressions of kindness are not given in the form of praise which leads to the problems I have described.

(In a future blog, Steve will examine the impact of sanctions.)

About Steve:

Steve Pendleton is a school improvement specialist with expertise in the education of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. After a successful career as a teacher and leader in secondary schools, Steve became a school inspector, improvement adviser and senior leader in a local authority in the West Midlands. He is now a consultant working with TeamADL and is undertaking doctoral research at the University of Wolverhampton.


‘Attribution Theory and Motivation in School’ (2016) Routledge, pp. 23-45.

Deci, E.L., Koestner, R. and Ryan, R.M. (2001) ‘Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again’, Review of educational research, 71(1), pp. 1-27. doi: 10.3102/00346543071001001.

Deci, E.L., Koestner, R. and Ryan, R.M. (1999) ‘A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation’, Psychological bulletin, 125(6), pp. 627-668. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.125.6.627.

Department for Education (2006) ‘Education and Inspections Act 2006. London: OPSI.’

Kohn, A. (1993) Punished by Rewards. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade & Reference Publishers.

Payne, R. (2015) ‘Using rewards and sanctions in the classroom: pupils’ perceptions of their own responses to current behaviour management strategies’, null, 67(4), pp. 483-504. doi: 10.1080/00131911.2015.1008407.

Skinner, B.F. and Skinner, B.F. (1965) Science and Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press.

Perspective is power (part 2)

Welcome to the second part of our two part #Leader5aDay blog about developing health perspective across your team culture.   If you missed part one, here it is Perspective is power – Leader 5 a Day (

So, we talked about starting with recognising the gifts and talents we still have within ourselves and our teams, helping concerns about the current and future world be seen in the light of hope; communicated through our vision.  One school I worked with recently has reframed their vision using the language of building resilient mindsets and attitudes as the ‘superpower’ to still aim for the goals we had set for pupils; a readiness for the next stages of their lives. 

Similarly, Van Gogh’s painting, ‘The Café Terrace at Night’ shows us we can see the same pictures with different perspectives depending on what our minds are filled with at the time.  Like the painter, we can help draw our observers’ attention by spreading the light and communicating it visually towards the direction we want them to see.  

Building on from last month with John C. Maxwell’s 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork consider the following practical steps in drawing light towards the vision you now have.

[4] Law of the Big Picture

  • Ask your staff in teams to draw images (or collate pictures if they can’t draw) that build a picture of the goals you are aiming to achieve this term.  Do their images reflect what you set out to achieve?   Have they got and bought into the perspective you thought you had laid out?   Agree a set of drawings/images that truly reflect the goals you had laid out so that you create that shared understanding to keep revisiting in a visual way.  
    • Consider using a photograph of pupils that represent a cross section of your school community and discuss how achieving the goals you have laid out will impact them.   For example, I once shared a goal around a staff re-structure in a SEND specialist setting by placing their photo on the board and helping staff visualise with post-it-notes how many significant adults impacted on that child’s life each week.  We counted 26 different adults.  This helped me achieve commitment from staff to alter the way we deployed staff lesson by lesson.   What might your key student and visual be to help staff buy into the heart behind your goals?  Use it to bring your staff out of the dark shadows and sit at the table with you.

[5] Law of the Compass

  • Link the above visual exercise to a set of moral values that justify putting time, planning and mental energy into.   Teams will work their socks off when they can see the moral purpose behind the goals you are trying to achieve.  Where there is moral vision, people become disciplined in their efforts.  In the absence of such vision, the people cast off their boundaries and lose heart rapidly.
    • Link your strategy to building on what has been achieved and learned from past experiences, particularly the last 2 years.   This helps staff that fear change to see that their previous ways of working have not been discredited, simply we need to build on from there to help look to the future.
    • Have effective 1-1 conversations with your key team players to help them refocus their compass on the next steps, the part of the journey we can visualise between now and the Easter break.   Model for them how to do this to help them do the same for the rest of the staff team.  Get feedback and problem solve together the few that still seem to be willing to hide in the shadows of the painting. 

For more encouragement on achieving a staff wide lamplit perspective, consider reading more of Maxwell’s book or get in touch for your own one to one with Team ADL.   Remember, #TMOS (find your True Measures Of Success for yourself and your teams this Spring term). 

Till next month,


Hopes Dreams and Reality

Create your new reality

Welcome back to school/college/settings wherever you are!  Are you feeling excited, full of energy and hope?  Have you, perhaps, had that annual dream where you wonder if the people you lead will find out at last that you are a fraud and just as human and flawed as anyone (or is that just me?)  

Winston Churchill is quoted in 1952 as saying, ““It is no part of my case that I am always right.” True measures of success (#TMOS) in inspiring leadership behaviours must include integrity, honesty, and a good dose of reality; this has to start within yourself. He also wrote in his diaries about his dark moments in life, often when he had experienced professional failure or loss, referring to it as his ‘black dog,’ – a Victorian phrase to depict low mood. ‘Black dog on my back’ is a phrase that we might translate as ‘got out of bed on the wrong side today.’  You will have hopes and dreams about how this year will pan out for you, your family, your school/college/setting.  You have overcome SO much over last 24 months and know that some of those ‘black dogs’ may still reappear in the months to come.   So how can you face the juxta position of hopes, dreams and the realities that work and life are about to launch at you?    

How honest are you really ….? Take my 3-step challenge in creating the healthy culture in your setting to achieve the most effective and productive work ethic among your team than you have ever seen!

Challenge 1

If you don’t already, commit this year to writing a journal for yourself.  It is by far the most powerful method of honest self-reflection and improvement in self leadership, thus, effective leadership of others.   Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln did it so it should be good enough for us.   Keep it personal and private, but let it be a key priority in your scheduled working week.  This is my Friday afternoon when everyone else has gone home, I sit in my office or nip into a coffee shop, hotel bar on the way home and commit to spending an hour in reflective writing, thinking, and feeding strategic ideas onto my to do list for the following week(s) (see previous blogs on time management).  This is no fluffy in the clouds leadership rhetoric; this is rubber hits the road, get gritty with the issues starting with yourself approach to truly shifting the seemingly immovable mountainous problems you face in life and in your workplace.  This IS the place where battles are won, enemies defeated and that budget deficit, the challenging teacher, the poor results, the recovery from an inadequate OFSTED grading ….. are overcome. 

Challenge 2

Tweet / Whatsapp, etc (or whatever is your preferred methods of venting) only positive vibes this year, commit to have deep and meaningful debate face to face, not in texts without body language, tone of voice or the true intentions of integrity and honest role modelling. Use challenge 1 as part of your process in problem solving before you react; remember the adage, ‘act in haste, repent at leisure’. Seek wise counsel from others for those deeper issues, you do not have to have all the answers at your fingertips to prove you are an effective leader. Strategically map out who your go to wise counsel members would be.   For me, I have 7 key people with key skills and credibility around business, finance, mental health, family and of course leadership.   Who are they for you, write down your list and be determined to diary in regular catch-up sessions with them regularly through this year.  Coach others to then do the same …. Achieve this this year and you will see a significant and measurable impact on your team’s impact and outcomes. I dare you to prove this true in your world.

Challenge 3

Encourage a culture of safe honest professional debate to feed your journaling and deeper decision-making behaviours. Replace some of you staff meeting time with Seminar style discussion.   One year I scrapped staff meetings altogether in favour of this approach and I cannot put into words the impact this had on our teams and sense of professionalism.   Get in touch to explore this further and how you might dip you toe into this shift in culture.  To start with some staff were sceptical and confused; particularly those who feel success is ticking the boxes of ‘jobs done’.  i.e., I have done my job well when I have submitted my planning on time, written my subject action plan and filed it away, ordered the teaching resources and planned a staff meeting.   Again #TMOS.   Try these for healthy alternatives:

  • X% teachers appraisals include SMART goals around impact of action-based research project on a cohort of pupils.
  • Targeted subject action plans are based on research/evidence-based teaching pedagogy and direct input from nationally accredited subject leaders (university departments, maths hubs, etc)
  • School improvement plan includes the above approach and the jobs list associated with it are directly linked to #TMOS you have identified
  • If OFSTED is due for you, you will only challenge staff in regard to the above points knowing that they will be the true measures of success that get you the Good or Outstanding grades.

Are you up for any or all these challenges?  If you want to challenge me back or discuss your steps towards these for a truly productive year, get in touch #Leader5aday