The Difference Between Choices and Decisions

We have generations of educators primed to transform classrooms and campuses in every state and district. As I meet with, speak with and visit with hundreds of educators, I rarely hear anyone pushing back on the fact that transformation is slightly occurring or waiting to occur. It’s just happening. I’ve no doubt that we’re at the “front 20%” of a 100% full scale transformation that will one day define, measure and anchor how we teach students.

We have young educators starting to feel more confident in bringing their own intelligent understanding of emerging technology to their classrooms, though it may not be an adopted practice yet on their campus. We have experienced educators starting to trust and utilize new resources to create change in what they do. Soon, we will see legislation that begins slowly and reliably transforming our education paradigms. I’m certainly not a prophet but I can see it coming.

If there’s one ingredient that seems to slow things down, though, it’s the issue of trust. Recently, in a conversation with a superintendent I’ve worked with in a district transformation, we were discussing the difference his transformation had made in the community and why that difference was so significant.

He told me about the two major pieces of his transformed academy. There is a Pathways program where students are directly engaged with local industry, higher education, career apprenticeships and internships. Students are in this for half the school day. The second piece is the class work to complete course credits toward graduation. This is the time of day students learn those subjects required for the diploma.

He explained that hundreds had visited his model to tour, observe and ask questions. And he explained that most ended up nodding their heads when seeing the Pathways because it was easy to stamp “Vo-Tech” on it or call it college prep. And most felt they had figured out that his secret was no secret at all. It was just a nice vo-tech program that had drawn a lot of attention. And that’s an easy one.

He further explained that most left believing this was the key. And the focus was his Pathways. Develop the vo-tech, shove it into the school day and make it work, however cumbersome it may be. And, at the end of the day, it was a great version of the same thing…….solid traditional vo-tech campuses. But it wasn’t disruptive to the system. It didn’t actually transform anything.

We spent the next couple hours just talking about why his strategy had actually transformed everything. On his campus, in his meetings, in the community. The language was different, the expectations were different and “school” was different. Transformed. Why? And we narrowed down to the one crucial distinction between what he had done that set everything apart from everything else.

Student empowerment. Now, I’ve mentioned this before. I’ve discussed this before. And I’ve preached this before. So much that I know it gets boring. However, it doesn’t change and it doesn’t go away.

The single greatest element of a transformed classroom, campus and system is this……..decision making placed in the hands of the student will determine whether it’s actually a disruption or simply an innovative interruption in your school.

And it’s not giving kids CHOICES off a menu. It’s actually giving kids the opportunity to make DECISIONS about their daily course work. Important course work. How much time to spend on math that day. What order to focus on language arts or science or history that week. Taking the control of these decisions and giving it to the kid.

There is a vast distinction between “choices” and “decisions”. We often just list things, make our menu, and give the list to the student. Not a lot of harmful effects no matter which choices you make. Just choose.

Student empowerment is not choosing ‘A’ or ‘B’ off the menu. Student empowerment is making important decisions. Knowing how you learn, knowing how you want to structure your day so you learn best. It may be 15 minutes in math and 2 hours in language arts on Monday.

Maybe it’s finishing the entire section in biology so you can get to the mastery exam by Friday; thereby forcing you to put aside other things so you can focus on biology this week. Maybe it’s scheduling most of your work in this subject for later that evening, at home, because that’s when you can be alone and focus more. Or maybe it’s making sure you sit with the right people at the right table during the morning session so you can work together because you are having difficulty understanding metric conversions.

This superintendent had decided to create a system where students could decide. And that made all the difference. His students are ┬ámonitored closely. Teachers are engaged. The subjects are there and what has to be learned hasn’t changed. But how students structure that day? Those decisions are in the hands of the learners.

Decisons. Important decisions. That’s student empowerment and that’s transformed education. And it’s possible. It’s being done but it needs to be done more. Only then can we truly see disruption in education that aligns itself with the resources available today.

That’s not choosing my vo-tech. That’s deciding how I’m going to progress toward my credits in high school. The secret is mastery based education. That’s encurricular learning systems. That’s transformation.

The difference between choices and decisions may seem subtle but it’s actually a significant difference that can shape everything we do. And the rewards we gain by giving older learners empowerment are increasing every day. If we can change our classrooms, shift our paradigms of thinking and actually empower students, we have something different……something transformative that changes our schools.