Every year many people visit museums, parks, and historic sites while on vacation, and there are many reasons why: family traditions, capturing that perfect picture, or because their parents made them go. Among these people are some who hope to learn something.
That was true of me during a recent visit I made to a historic site. I stopped by the visitor center and asked the ranger on duty how I might best spend my few hours, and she told me I had several options: I could attend a ranger talk, download the free self-guided tour app, buy a guidebook, or wander and read any of the interpretive panels I came across. Whatever I chose, she said that I’d come away with the same information, so it was just a question of what I thought was best for me.
Free Choice Puts Learners in Control
What I experienced is known as free-choice learning, an educational approach used at museums, zoos, and national parks. Essentially, visitors encounter multiple curated invitations that take a wide variety of forms, leaving the choice up to them. No matter their choice, the information is the same even if the method varies.
The appeal of this approach is obvious. It provides the learners with choice, a powerful engagement tool for promoting learning when other factors like grades or attendance aren’t as motivating. It’s also self-scaffolding, a strategy that supports students who may be emerging bilinguals, those who have trouble reading complex texts, or those who prefer to learn as part of a group opportunity. Students choose the approach that works best for them. Learners who may prefer information to be presented in a specific way can all have what they want. One student might find animations of a volcano erupting more informative, while another might prefer detailed readings, but they both get what they prefer.
This same strategy can work inside your classroom if you follow a basic four-part structure.
1. Provide a common foundation. Before you allow learners to explore on their own, it’s important to ensure that they share a common understanding. Orienting them to foundational vocabulary or reviewing key concepts will help them make sense of what they find on their own or what you have prepared for them.
Start with a unifying experience—a short reading or an illustrative video. This will help introduce them to the topic, reinforce essential details, and help build vocabulary, and at the same time it will give you an opportunity to formatively check their understanding. What’s more, this is a good opportunity for skill development, such as reading comprehension or writing a summary before self-direction begins. Providing a framing question for them to keep in mind as they explore on their own helps guide the experience.
2. Curate invitations. Following your foundational activity, share your collection of learning invitations with students. Invitations can take many forms: a Google Doc, a simple website, or a collection of stations distributed throughout the classroom. Whatever form they take, remember the following:
- Only include resources that are developmentally appropriate for the majority of your students—keep encyclopedia entries out of early readers’ hands. Instead, consider early reader books or Newsela articles where you can control the difficulty.
- Include a variety of multimodal resources. Texts, videos, audio, manipulatives, and even peer discussion stations are all good possibilities.
- Try to limit the scope of your invitations. You’ll want to provide some choice, but do so without overwhelming your students with too many options. What an appropriate number looks like depends on grade level, so use your own knowledge of your students when planning. It might take an attempt or two to dial it in, so starting with less is always advisable.
- Make sure that your resources are accessible to a wide range of abilities and learning levels. This allows students who may struggle with specific learning invitations to eventually find ones that are more appropriate for them.
3. Give students an equal voice. As students begin to make their way through the collection of resources you’ve created for them, you may notice that some students are hungry for more. This is a great opportunity to empower them to find their own additions to your carefully curated collection.
This is good because it not only provides automatic extensions for high-performing learners but also helps you to refine and improve your plans for future classes. Students may find resources that are more appropriate for them or find things that you just missed due to time constraints. Allowing them to have a role in finding things that could benefit them or their peers is a great way of including aspects of personalized learning in your free-choice lessons.
You can encourage this by allowing them to search the internet or connect them with sites that do a good job of combining multimedia with academic content, like National Geographic Kids or PBS Kids.
4. Choose your goals with care. Free-choice learning can definitely be used in every grade level and every content area, but not all learning goals are appropriate for this kind of approach. If the standards that you’re focusing on aren’t open-ended or don’t lend themselves to an inquiry process, you may want to consider saving free-choice learning for a different unit or instructional sequence.