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: 10.1037/0022-06184.108.40.2061.
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.