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.


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,


Everybody having fun ?

Building resilient staff teams in times of uncertain futures

“So here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun.   Look to the future now it’s only just begun.”

Slade, 1973

I heard this in a store at the beginning of November and the grumpy old man in me sayeth, “I don’t believe it!”  Then I thought, actually I have missed you my old friend, I did not hear you last year and yet you have been a consistent part of my annual cycle of life for most of my life (since the age of 2 to be exact).  It rang in my ears  when I rehearsed the Nativity in my first year of teaching in North London in the early 90s and it was there that year as a Head teacher I had to endure dressing up as a Spice Girl (Thank you very much staff from a certain town on the south coast, you know who you are!)  

And so here I am today having lived through what is probably the most challenging start to a school year in my whole career.  Anyone had a full complement of staff in school yet ?  Let’s hope Christmas brings us the joy and peace we so yearn for.  Take a moment to think about what joy and peace will feel/ look like for you.

As a leader I hope for an opportunity to bring connection to my staff, a rebuilding of that sense of belonging to a community.  Or maybe I am thinking, let’s just make it through and hope for the best.  So, here is my Christmas gift, a challenge to all leaders out there.   I say let’s be real, let’s face the elephant in the room with more than another 2 hour wellbeing slot in the staff meeting schedule.

Let’s talk about building resilience in my staff team, right now, this term.  “Cole, you’ve got to be joking!” I hear you scream back at me, whilst covering staff absence, dealing with poor staff mental health and your own rapidly reducing capacity to stay sane.   Well, I acknowledge where you are at and believe me I understand having spent time allowing leaders to (literally) cry on my shoulder and scream down the phone and WhatsApp their emotional rants on almost a daily basis.  

Pause, breath, have a moment with me and bear with my blog.  

Start here (watch this video) … Amygdala Hijack

Search for other video clips describing the concept of the amygdala hijack, often discussed in the business world, but very relevant to help educationists understand their own emotional self-awareness.   This is a concept that I have found very useful in opening up meaningful discussion in staff meetings that perhaps could have more substance than discussing the setup of a well-being twilight.  

Here is how I would approach it:

  1. Watch the video
  2. Lead by example in telling a true story of an amygdala hijack you have experienced in work life at some point in your career.  Ensure you complete the story with a clear example of what resilience tools you have learnt to apply as a result of this incident.  
  3. In groups of 3 or 4 map out the potential root causes of emotional threat that have been evident in our work lives over the past 2 years
  4. Ask the staff groups to come up with and/or research on the internet any tools / strategies they have that help them.  
  5. Ask each group to share their top 3 tips for helping us regain or even avoid the onset of a hijack when they can sense it coming on.
  6. Work together as a staff team in creating a ‘Resilience Wall’ of tools/strategies to help in times of emotional hijack.
  7. Touch base with staff at regular intervals in keeping the dialogue open about being self-aware, taking control and/or helping one another when feeling overwhelmed
  8. Celebrate successes and be kind to oneself in times of success or otherwise
  9. Share what you have learnt in leading this process and pass on the key messages from this exercise to other members of our key teams and colleagues across your local area.  Remember #TMOS (True Measures of Success in leading ourselves and our teams to thrive)
  10. Teach the pupils to learn from your example increased emotional self-awareness

So here is my key point in this challenge.  Find a way (perhaps with this exercise) to open up the dialogue and create a common language, non-threatening but evidence-based model for discussing issues around our mental health.   This shared vocabulary and openness can help also find the solutions, many of which already exist within ourselves or those around us.  We are in this together, in the good times and the bad.   There is no greater gift we can give to ourselves, and our staff teams this year than to face the fact that life can be hard, but we are in it together.

There is no greater joy than to find peace in any and every situation, in good times and bad.   Let’s begin opening this gift and commit to building each other up with tools to help us regulate our emotions in healthy ways.  This is the most powerful intervention we could consider. 

Final thoughts ….

When teachers thrive, pupils thrive. 

When pupils thrive, their progress accelerates.  

Do you agree?  #TMOS (what have been your true measures of success in building resilient staff teams this year?)  Share and let’s face the future with renewed confidence and a renewed hope that we can look to the future together.

Merry Christmas one and all