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How Student Choice Helped Me Grow Out of My Perfectionism

How Student Choice Helped Me Grow Out of My Perfectionism

Personalized Learning  |  Teachers  |  Instructional Coaching

I am a recovering perfectionist. As a kid, I always colored within the lines of my coloring book; not because I wanted to follow the rules, but because I enjoyed precision. As a teacher, I bought a laser level tool so that my posters would all be hung at the exact same height. Perfectionism can bring a sense of pride, especially when applied to a tangible outcome. I admired my coloring book pages in the same way I did my classroom walls.


But human beings are imperfect by design. We are supposed to make mistakes, try again, and grow from that experience. Perfectionism flies in the face of our inherent imperfection. Nowhere is that lesson better learned than in a middle school classroom, where twelve-year olds are very imperfect. I believed (incorrectly) that the more control I had in the classroom, the more students would learn. There were several problems with this attitude – one of which was that learning, and in particular lifelong learning, is actually intrinsically motivated – and no amount of teacher control alone could make students want to learn more.


Student choice is how I grew out of my perfectionism. My most successful lessons were the ones that included student choice. Most often, I created structured opportunities for choice in how students extended their learning. For example, I might have taught a lesson about why people immigrated to America; students could then choose whether to further explore this topic through Japanese immigration, German immigration, or Cuban immigration. Each of these choices reinforced the key ideas of immgration, but allowing students to choose which article to read empowered them to personalize their own learning experience. My students taught me how much more powerful choice was than perfection


Admittedly, I also grew out of my perfectionism after being served a dose of it myself. I had more than one administrator who insisted that my lesson plans follow an exact template. It frustrated me that I wasn’t allowed to plan in the way that made the most sense for me. Most of my administrators showed flexibility, as long as I was incorporating those same components in my lesson plans. But there was one person who would not budge. Their reasoning: the school couldn’t grow unless each teacher’s lesson plans were perfect.


Education Elements has always been a proponent of student choice, particularly as it relates to how teachers personalize learning for students. One key component of this work is providing flexibility in path and pace, which allows, “Students [to] learn in different ways and truly personalize their learning experience…” The Education Trust also advocates for choice, naming in a recent report that, “When students make decisions about their work, they are empowered to own it. Moreover, their ownership of a task leads to self-direction and self-discipline because they are personally invested in the outcomes.” 


For those educators looking for a place to start, I would begin by thinking of ways to introduce structured choice. This is not a free-for-all; it is an intentionally designed learning activity where students choose from 2-3 teacher-curated options. There are two ways to pursue structured choice: 


  • Flexible path: Learning pathways are the teacher-curated set of learning activities and checkpoints that lead all students to a common outcome or objective. Differentiated pathways could be as simple as allowing students to choose between two articles to read. Pathways can also be more complex, involving different activities, learning materials, and products that demonstrate mastery. Programs, such as Relevant Learner, also automatically personalize content, curating each student’s content pathway. Structured choice ensures that the teacher is the one providing the options from which students may choose from.


  • Flexible pace: While students might be on the same learning pathway, their process by which they navigate that pathway and progress towards mastery might look different from their peers. Most often this allows students to spend more or less time on a particular activity. Structured choice provides limits to this time. For example, students could choose to spend more time on a particular activity, in lieu of reading independently or getting a head start on homework. The playlist model that Education Elements supports is another great way of providing flexibility in pace. Or there may be three activities to complete in a lesson, and students get to choose how they divide-up 45 minutes of class time to complete those activities.

The need to choose, to have some amount of agency in our lives, is a deeply human need. It is just as important for adults as it is for children, perhaps even more so. In helping students make informed choices, we are teaching them to be empowered, independent, and self-driven.

About Noah Dougherty - Guest Author

Noah Dougherty is the CEO and Co-Founder of Relevant Learner. He taught secondary ELA and social studies for eight years before becoming an instructional coach and school leader. Noah has written curriculum for public districts, charter organizations, and for-profit companies. He also worked as a consultant, partnering with districts across the country on personalized learning; strategic planning; and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Noah grew up in Syracuse, NY and now lives in Washington, DC.

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