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One Size Does Not Fit All: How to Honor Learner Choice

Author: Susan Aplin


Think back to the last time you wanted or needed to learn something. Maybe you had to fix a broken garbage disposal. Or maybe you were looking to learn more about a place you might visit over spring break. How did you go about learning what you needed to know? Did you search online? Did you ask someone who might know more about it than you do? Did you read an article or a book? Did you learn with a friend or on your own? Did you watch a video or listen to a podcast?

If you were able to fix that garbage disposal or plan that spring break trip, did how you learned that information affect your outcome? I think the answer is both no and yes.

No, because you met your goal. It did not really matter how you got there. How you learned was not the most important part of the process.

But how you chose to learn did affect your outcome because you learned in a way that met your needs. You found a way that worked for you. You might have even consulted many resources in order to get the information you needed. Having that choice helped you meet your needs.

So how do we bring that natural approach to learning into our schools? How do we allow students and teachers choice and options in their learning?

What we learn

We have to start with the end in mind: the goals or objectives. What do we want students or teachers (our learners) to know? What important concepts or ideas do we need to make sure they understand? What skills do they need to learn? Sometimes even the goals themselves can be determined with the help of our learners. When our learners are involved in setting the goals, their investment and engagement will be higher.

Unfortunately, choices are not something that all of our learners get to make. We often give students only one way to show what they know such as a test or a specific project. We often give teachers one way to learn such as attending a meeting or reading an email.

While we cannot always offer our learners choice in what they learn, we can look for opportunities to offer them choices of how they learn and how they show us what they know. These are two of the best ways to increase learner choice in our schools.

How people learn

With the plethora of resources available, there have never been more options for how people learn. They can watch a video/webinar, read online, play a game, listen to a resource, talk to an expert, etc. They can work independently, with another learner in the building, or with another learner online.

When creating learning opportunities, consider offering the following choices when possible

  • Whole group, small group and individual work

  • Online and in person

  • Self-paced resources

  • Video and audio

  • Digital and print

Starting small is fine and often works best. If your learners are not used to having many choices, then too many choices can be overwhelming. For the first time out, maybe you offer an article and a video on the same topic. They can learn from either one.

A Teacher Choice Example

Last year one instructional strategy our district focused on was feedback. According to Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement, feedback has an effect size of .70. Therefore, we knew that improving our use of feedback should be a goal for all teachers. As we considered how to offer professional development related to feedback, we knew teachers had different needs and different levels of experience with feedback. Instead of offering a one size fits all PD session, we worked together to provide options. We had live online sessions (synchronous) as well as self-paced options (asynchronous). We had options for best practices with specific feedback tools, such as Pear Deck and EdPuzzle, as well as options for content specific learning such as Math, English, Science, etc. With the choices provided, teachers were able to learn about something relevant to their work and learn in a way that worked best for them. Our PD feedback confirmed that offering these choices increased the likelihood the teachers would implement what they learned.

How people show what they know

Instead of all learners producing the same artifact to show what they know, we need to allow our learners to demonstrate their growth in a variety of ways.

Can they write an essay, fill out a form, or take a test? Of course. But can they also create a podcast, video, presentation, or infographic? Absolutely!

A simple choice board or learning menu is an effective way to offer our learners choices in how they show what they know. There are many resources available to help you get started. Education leaders such as Catlin Tucker, Matt Miller, Eric Sheninger, Kasey Bell, and AJ Juliani have blogs and additional resources you can use as samples. I’ve gathered those and many others in a Choice Boards & Learning Menus Wakelet Collection.

The formatting of the choice is not as important as making sure the choices connect back to the goals and objectives and that there is true variety in the options. Learners also benefit from having time to reflect on their learning and the choices they made.

Looking ahead

When we don’t offer choice to students and teachers, we miss opportunities for empowerment. We take away their autonomy and chances for them to self-assess and grow.

As you plan your next lessons or professional development opportunities, think about how you can provide choices for your learners and what a difference that might make. One size learning does not fit all learners.

Additional related resources:

About the Author:

Susan Aplin is a Google Certified Trainer and ISTE Certified Educator who serves as the district Instructional Technology Specialist for School District 5 of Lexington Richland County. Her goal is to support and lead educators in authentic technology integration that helps teachers and students meet instructional goals. Connect with Susan @AplinEDU.




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