Freedom of Choice

What happens if you tell students that they can leave if they want to? If you tell them that they should only stay if they are really interested in the subject matter? If you tell them there will be no consequences for them, no bad marks, no hard feelings? What happens if you give them the freedom of choice?

First, they laugh. “He can’t be serious, right?” Because teachers don’t give you a choice, so it can’t be true. Must be some kind of trick.

Then they become uncomfortable. What if it’s true? Should we just, like, go? Really? This feels wrong and odd. We’re in school, so how can it be possible to just go? That doesn’t make any sense?

Most don’t even ask themselves if they maybe want to stay, if they might actually be interested in the subject matter. They want to go because that’s what they want in school all day. It’s about the clock ticking towards the end of the lesson, the day, the week, the year. That’s the goal – that it is over! They want to leave, of course, why not? What reason could they possibly have to stay?

Then they don’t go. They stay. They sleep, they look at their phones, they are bored but they stay. Because they can’t just go, right? That just doesn’t make any sense. And surely the teacher will be mad at them. It’s like saying “We don’t like you and your lesson!” And what about the grades?

They certainly don’t leave alone. I have never seen one student just get up and leave. Sometimes, after a certain amount of time, a group of students decides to go and it is likely they will attract some followers.

The next lesson, everything starts again. “Can we really go?” “You are really not mad at us?” “Will this affect our grades?” So, they go, reluctantly, as if they can’t believe their luck. Some students stay and most of them are actually interested. Some stay although they don’t want to. Some say “We don’t like the subject but at least we stayed.” Even if they don’t have to stay!

Can we blame them? How did they get this way? How can they have a problem with making decisions for themselves? Isn’t that what they are supposed to learn in school? You can hardly find something that’s more symptomatic for our school system. Students learn to follow, to obey, to listen, to hand over their free will, their choices and interests. Giving some of it back to them confuses them because they have learned for years to give all of that up. They have also learned that no matter what you do in school, not being in school can only be better. In other words, learning anything is worse than learning nothing. That’s what they take away from school. To see the helplessness in their eyes when they are asked to basically do what they want is crushing.

Again, there are two things: the fact that students cannot make a decision for something they want, but also the fact that they basically don’t want anything anymore. If the point of our school system actually is to keep young people from entering the job market and to kill their time, this is good proof of that. You can’t even blame the students. It is hard to rethink what you have been told all your life. You can make some progress as a teacher but it takes time and you will always only reach a relatively small percentage. But you can do something as long as you realize you have the freedom of choice.

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2 thoughts on “Freedom of Choice

  1. I’m not sure what grades you teach, but in college (for me, anyway) they forced you to take all these general courses even though I was already forced to do that throughout grade school and high school, why would I want to sit and listen to yet another half a year’s worth of lectures on U.S. History when I’ve done that more than once already? I think the college curriculum is awful. And if I missed more than 3 classes I would automatically fail, so there was no choice or free will involved. The only courses I genuinely enjoyed were the ones I WANTED to take, like film and English, there were even some random ones I took for fun, like anthropology, and those are the only ones I can remember a lot from, because they impacted me more than all of the other useless classes with information I was forced to temporarily memorize. Forcing students to go through general class work over and over again is something that is terribly wrong with the school system. It basically felt like I was just killing time (more like wasting time) before I could enter the job market. Giving students free will to choose what they want and need to learn is probably the best thing you could do for them, because everything else is wasted and forgotten.

    1. The grades I’m talking about here are 11 and up because you can’t really do that in lower grades for insurance reasons. And even then the possibility to give them such freedom is limited because of school rules. But I always try to allow students to decide as much as possible but it is always a problem that many have “unlearned” how to make such decisions and to know what they want. If you are forced to kill so much time, you take every opportunity to just skip something, even if it might be interesting, which is kind of sad. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see some students making the decision to stay just because they want to and because they’re interested, not because they feel obliged to stay.
      It’s interesting to see from your comment that the difference in the U.S. is not so big but it’s still sad. And the curriculum in German schools is pretty ridiculous too! So, thanks for proving my point, but I really wish it was different.

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