Empower Students Through Creativity and Choice

Design lessons that empower students by giving them voice and choice in the learning process as well as an opportunity to create.

Grades K-12 20 min Resource by:
Listen to this article

When our students graduate from high school, we want them to be ready for college, careers, and life. It is a big job to prepare them both academically and personally for their future lives, and it takes our K–12 school communities 13 years to get them there. While there are many factors involved, three key areas rise to the top in our quest to empower our students for future success.

1. Academic Knowledge: Academic achievement is important, and it is a central mission of K–12 schools. Curriculum maps determine the courses that we teach, and academic outcomes shape the lessons that we create. Standardized tests often measure progress toward graduation as well as whether or not our students are accepted to the college of their choice. Despite the importance of academic learning, most teachers will tell you that academics alone is not enough. While academic knowledge can provide a strong foundation, it is not the entire house.

2. Transferable Skills: If you ask employers what skills and attributes they are looking for in their employees, they will consistently mention things like the ability to communicate, collaborate, create, and think critically. This core skill set is commonly referred to as the 4 Cs and was first made popular by The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21). In addition to the 4 Cs, most employers also include a growth mindset and a desire to learn in their list of essential skills. Employers are acutely aware that the specific nuts and bolts of any job will continue to change over time, so they look to hire people with a strong foundation of transferable skills that will allow them to thrive regardless of how their specific job evolves. Because of their importance to future success, these core transferable skills should be woven into lessons in every subject area.

3. Social and Emotional Skills: Often described as “intangibles,” these social and emotional skills are essential to student success because they empower students to work through their struggles, manage their emotions, stick to a task, and understand how their behavior impacts others. Without the social and emotional skills of grit, self-regulation, empathy, citizenship, and self-motivation, students may never get to the point where they can successfully apply their academic and transferable skills. It is critical that we embed social and emotional skill building into all learning.

The components described in this list support and empower student success like the three legs of a stool. Without all three legs, the stool will not stand, but with a strong foundation in each of these three areas, our students will have a stable base that can support and empower them throughout their college, career, and personal lives.

Empowering Learners

The key word in all of this is empower. We want to empower our students. John Spencer, a professor and former middle school teacher, talks about the importance of empowering students throughout the learning process. He describes how schools need to shift the student experiences from compliance to engagement to empowerment.

By definition, compliance means that students do what they are told. It also implies that students don’t really need to invest much in the learning process. They just listen to directions and follow a script. In other words, as long as they keep quiet and play along nicely, they can often get by as passive participants in the classroom.

When students are engaged, they begin to take ownership in their learning and become active participants in the learning process. While engagement is a huge improvement over compliance, it’s still not good enough. Students can be actively engaged without really thinking for themselves or making decisions on a deeper level. To be truly college, career, and life ready, students need to be empowered.

Empowerment means that students own their learning. They have a meaningful voice in the process and must make critical choices along the way. Instead of following a recipe, they help create a path toward the learning destination. Empowered students are fully invested, intrinsically motivated, and control their own outcomes. When students are empowered, they learn at a much higher level and gain the skills needed for future success.

While there are many ways that we can begin moving our classrooms and schools toward student empowerment, providing student choice and facilitating opportunities to create are two of the most powerful pathways to success.

The Power of Creation

Facilitating student creation is one of the most powerful strategies that you can employ in your classroom. In fact, allowing students to become active creators rather than passive consumers can transform the learning in your classroom and quickly become your secret teacher superpower.

Allowing students to become active creators rather than passive consumers can transform the learning in your classroom and quickly become your secret teacher superpower.

To begin with, there is perhaps no greater catalyst for igniting a student’s passion for learning than the opportunity to create. There is inherent power in the creation process. When students create, they think at the highest cognitive levels (as reflected in Bloom’s revised taxonomy). They solve complex problems throughout the process, and content knowledge becomes an authentic part of the learning process rather than an answer on a test. What students “do” with what they know becomes more important than simply what they “know.” Not surprisingly, these skills are also of high interest to employers. A 2019 Forbes article cited creativity as the soft skill most “vitally important for career success.”

When students are allowed to collaborate during the creation process, they further benefit and develop additional skills. By creating with others, students authentically apply all four Cs: communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. Students need opportunities to practice and develop these skills, and group creation projects are an ideal way to provide this valuable space.

Social and emotional skill building can also happen during creative problem-solving. When students create and work to solve problems, they will undoubtedly encounter challenges and struggles. Under the guiding support of their teacher, students can work through these challenges and develop grit and a growth mindset. They can also be coached to face problems with empathy and to consider how their choices impact others. Through these experiences, students will have a chance to discover their passions as well as how they learn best. These insights, along with metacognitive thinking skills, can be powerful as our students face future learning.

While there are many ways students can create, one of the most powerful ways to enhance student creation is to infuse technology. If we allow students to create and communicate with technology, we give them the added advantage of developing digital literacies that will prepare them for an increasingly technological world. By leveraging an abundance of free online tools, students have access to a huge palette of creative opportunities and inspirations. Many of these digital resources are free to any student with a computer and internet access. Even an inexpensive Chromebook can unlock nearly unlimited creative opportunities and offer students an authentic audience beyond the classroom.

To explore examples and tools for student creation, check out the AVID Open Access articles on creating summative assessments in both a self-paced and live virtual classroom.

The Power of Choice

The second key to empowering your students is to offer them voice and choice in their learning. As with creation, this necessitates that you release some of the control to your students. This can be a little scary at first, but the payoff is well worth it. Providing opportunities for voice and choice allows students to see themselves as important to the learning process, and it transforms learning from something that is “done to students” to something that is “done with students.” This is a monumental shift that gives students ownership in the learning experience and empowers them to take control of the process.

A Hanover Research study, “Impact of Student Choice and Personalized Learning,” reinforces the importance of student choice. The report explains how increased student choice positively impacts students both personally and academically.

…such autonomy is generally associated with greater personal well‐being and satisfaction in educational environments, as well as in terms of academic performance. Studies have found that students given a degree of choice about their learning showed improvement on standardized tests (p. 3).

The study goes on to note that choice in different aspects of the learning process can impact motivation, participation, and achievement. Hanover Research specifically points out the benefit of student choice in learning path and curriculum:

Practices that facilitate and emphasize student choice—both in terms of the student’s educational path and the curriculum that the student follows—are widely considered to have positive impacts on student motivation and participation, and, as a result, academic performance (p. 13).

Creative projects are the perfect opportunity to empower students with voice and choice, so as you plan for students to create, consider how you can authentically integrate opportunities for student choice throughout the process. This list offers a few options for empowering student choice. These choices often focus around the big six questions: who, what, when, why, where, and how. Here is a printable version of this chart for download.

Choices

Questions to Ask

Groups

Who will I work with?

Audience

Who is my audience?

Topic or Content

What is my project about?

Message

What is my message?

Format

What medium will I use, and what will my final product look like?

Product

What will I create, and how will I create it?

Materials and Resources

What will I use to create my project, and where will I get these resources?

Logistics

Where, when, and with whom will I work on my project?

Timeline

When will I complete each step of the creation process?

Purpose

Why is my project important, and why do I care about it?

Impact

How will my project impact others?

Strategies

How will I learn, discover, create, and communicate?

Project Management

How will I manage people, time, and materials?

Communication

How will I share my message and product with my audience?

Feedback

How will I get feedback about my work during the process?

Assessment

How will my project be assessed, and what are the key criteria for success?

Don’t limit yourself to these options for choice. Use them to get you started but also consider your own unique situation. You may have other opportunities that make sense in your classroom (such as through playlists or choice boards) to bring students into the decision-making process.

Ways to Set Up Student Creation Projects

There are many ways to structure projects in your classroom that allow for student creation and choice. Here are a few common pathways to get you started. Each subsequent set of ideas becomes more cognitively complex and incorporates a greater degree of student choice and control over the learning experience.

Places to Start:

  • Show What You Know: This is a common entry point into student choice and creation. In this option, students find creative ways to “teach back” what they have learned. Ideally, they will apply it at a higher level, but even a simple reteaching of a concept can help cement the learning while also giving room for the higher-level cognitive tasks of creation and choice. Often, teachers will allow students to decide either what they teach or how they will communicate it (or both). For instance, a student might create a video explaining the causes of World War II, or a math student might create a screencast of themselves teaching another student about a math concept.
  • Apply Your Learning: This is just like it sounds, with students creating something that applies what they have learned. The more authentic this application is, the more meaningful the work will become. For instance, students studying journalism might create a newspaper or TV newscast. Students in a welding class might use their welding skills to create something that they can use at home. A key question to get you and your students started with this approach is: “What would someone outside of school authentically do with what I’ve learned?

Branching Out:

  • Inquiry Projects: If your creation project is framed as an inquiry activity, choice will drive much of the experience. In an inquiry project, students will typically start with a question and then work to find an answer. This might be in the form of a problem/solution activity, and the solution may come in the form of some sort of creation. Throughout this process, it’s questions, inquiry, and problem-solving that drive the learning, and it all leads up to some type of creative solution in the end. The “creation” might be an idea, or it may be a physical product. Inquiry leverages the power of allowing students to ask questions. Once they have generated questions, they seek out answers through research, experimentation, creation, and/or other forms of discovery. For example, you might start an inquiry project by exposing students to a scientific phenomenon and then have them conduct research to determine why and how it happened. In a history class, students could seek answers to why certain events occurred as they did and whether or not the outcome might have been changed. English students could research a favorite author to determine how their lives impacted their writing.
  • Project-Based Learning: In this popular strategy, students generally identify a problem or task and then work to solve or achieve it. The best project-based activities include authentic problems and audiences. This can make the learning experience real, and it provides motivation beyond an academic grade. PBLWorks is a great resource to get you started with project-based learning. The design process is another popular version of project-based learning. In this model, students design and create something, generally to solve a problem. Design thinking is very popular in the STEM areas.

Going Beyond:

  • Passion Projects: Passion projects allow the most voice and choice for students. Essentially, students are given the option to choose a project that aligns with their personal passions. They ask the questions, frame the project, and work toward its completion, often with some general timeline. One popular version of a passion project is Genius Hour. In this spin-off of Google’s 20% time, students are allowed a certain amount of time during the day or week to work on a project of their choice. Passion projects and Genius Hours are great ways for students to practice their learning autonomy.
  • Maker Spaces: Maker spaces are often areas set up in a common space in the school that allow for creative exploration. Many times, these are located in or near a school media center, where the media specialist can monitor and guide students in this space. Generally, there are few guidelines for how students should use a maker space. You might think of them as academic play areas for inquiry, creation, and exploration. Students often have access to creative materials, and they can decide how to use them or what to create. This can be a safe place for students to explore and discover their passions.

Provide Guardrails and Scaffolds

While planning your lessons, it’s also important to remember that while choice is empowering, too much choice can be paralyzing. Some students will thrive off the ability to choose, and other students will be terrified. Consider where your students are at and be intentional about which choices you allow and when you allow them. Think about what amount of choice will empower students while also setting them up for success. One way to balance choice and structure is to think about how you can “offer choice with guardrails.”

Initial supports can help set students up for success. At the start of any project, provide clear expectations and parameters. Be sure that students know what they are supposed to do and how much choice they have. It is very effective to provide rubrics, checklists, and grading criteria at the start of the project. Then, to make sure that students are staying on track, build in time for reflection and feedback along the way. Part of this reflection should be looking back at the rubric or project criteria. Feedback can come from the teacher, from peers, and through self-reflection.

To scaffold decision-making with your students, you might start by offering limited choices. For instance, you might provide a choice board and allow students to pick from these options. Another option is to start by having all students create the same product. They might still have different topics, but this allows you to guide them through the process together. As students become more comfortable with the process, you can add in more choice. A common approach is to have everyone create the same products for several projects. One might be a presentation, one a short video, and one an audio recording. Once students have become comfortable with these three specific types of creation tools, you can then allow them to choose from those three options for their next project. Students will have previous experience that sets them up for success while also having choice as to which option they prefer. For older students, you can offer choices sooner and more frequently than for early elementary students.

When implementing these scaffolded activities, be careful that they don’t become too prescribed, as you still want students to be thinking critically and creating something original. If everyone ends up with the exact same end product, you don’t have a creative project; instead, you have a recipe.

Another effective way to prepare students for making choices is to help them better understand themselves and how they learn. You can have them take learning inventories and practice deciding between various learning options. Self-awareness inventories can prepare your students to make informed choices for themselves about how they learn best, their academic level, their skill areas, and their personal interest areas. You can find some of these inventories freely available online, and others require a fee. Here are a few examples to get you started, but a quick internet search can help you find more:

If you administer these types of interest surveys, it is important that students realize this is a snapshot in time and one information point. You don’t want students viewing this as a permanent label or characterization. You’ll also need them to realize that they don’t want to continually avoid areas of weakness; rather, they should be able to recognize them and decide when each choice is appropriate. Choice should be looked at as an important opportunity to both succeed and grow in areas of strength as well as weakness.

Ideas for Your Toolkit

In upcoming articles, we’ll explore different strategies and approaches for fostering student choice and creativity in the classroom. Check back for specific tools and strategies that you can add to your own instructional toolkit. By giving your students the opportunity for creation and choice through technology, you will empower them as they move on to college, careers, and more.

 

Hanover Research. (2014). Impact of Student Choice and Personalized Learning. www.hanoverresearch.com

Share This