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How giving students choice during the day can create unstoppable learning (commentary by Maricela Montoy-Wilson ’08, MA '09)

April 16, 2016
KQED Mind/Shift
An alumna of Stanford Teacher Education Program writes about her innovative approach to helping students learn how to make good choices on their own.
By Maricela Montoy-Wilson '08, MA '09

I came back from my morning run completely energized. I took my headphones out and continued to puzzle over Sugata Mitra’s compelling segment on the TED Radio Hour of “Unstoppable Learning,” which suggested that in many ways, teachers are getting in the way of learning. A tough pill for me – a teacher of seven years – to swallow.

I scrawled some thoughts in my journal: “Students in pursuit of learning,” “fostering curiosity,” “CHOICE,” “unstoppable learning,” and grinned as I imagined what this transformation could look like in my classroom.  A few weeks later, I told my students we’d be starting “Inspiration Time.” I explained this time was designed for them to ask themselves what they are curious about and what they want to pursue.

In the past, when I made space for “choice time,” I put options on the board and students got to choose, but not this time. I have come to realize how in so many instances, I rob students of the opportunity to think for themselves, to create, to imagine. I am reassured that I am offering them choice within blocks of time: my students choose their books, they choose their writing topics, they choose their strategies in math, justify which they used, and consider more efficient ways.

But I think I can do even better. I feel strongly that it is my responsibility to foster curiosity. To do that I’m trying to give them even more opportunities to make responsible choices for themselves, actively think about what they are curious about, and make a plan about how to pursue it.

Most teachers, like me, feel jam-packed in their days. I love the curricula we are using, and often wish we had more hours in our day to really pursue it. But our days and hours are limited. It would be easy to look at my schedule and think implementing Inspiration Time is impossible. But I have found this time has made the rest of my day more meaningful. Making space for this type of learning and exploration has produced some incredible results.

Inspiration Time has given my students a designated time to reflect and consider where they have gaps in their learning. When given complete liberty over how to spend their time, many ask peers for help with a concept they’re still struggling to grasp. It has helped provide the time to consolidate their learning that is often absent from the frenzied classroom.

The entire article is available on KQED's Mind/Shift. It was originally published on the Teaching Channel’s Tcher’s Voice blog.

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