This is video #5 in my 12-part video series
based on my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students. In this video you will learn 9 practical strategies for incorporating more student choice and student voice in the middle and high school classroom. These 9 strategies include the following tips:
1. Provide Homework Options
2. Use Student Polling
3. Allow Students to Do Their Own Projects
4. Let Students Be Involved in School Policy
5. Set Aside Time for a Genius Hour
6. Allow Students to Choose Books
7. Permit Students to Learn at Their Own Rate
8. Create Independent Study Options
9. Offer More Electives
The video points out that because the prefrontal cortex of adolescents is still developing, the adolescent decision-making process tends to be governed more by the limbic system or emotional brain underneath the cerebral cortex. This can result in poor decision-making, leading to such hazards as drug abuse, binge drinking, traffic accidents, and dangerous sexual encounters. The video explains how the 9 strategies can help develop the prefrontal cortex in teenagers, thus improving decision-making and other important executive function skills important for adult life.

You can view the video by clicking on the play button above, or, you can read a transcript of the video below:

”Hi, I’m Dr. Thomas Armstrong, and this is Video #5 in my video series based on my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students students (published by ASCD).  In the next eight videos, we’re going to look at specific interventions that teachers can make in middlle schools or high schools that are adolescent brain-friendly.  In this particular video, we’ll look at how teachers can give students more opportunities to make choices in the classroom.

Adolescence brings with it a whole new array of situations where the teen must make choices about the friends he wants to have, the activities he wants to engage in, and the ways in which he chooses to spend his leisure time.  Because the decision-making part of the brain in the prefrontal cortex is still maturing during the adolescent years, teenagers often end up making poor choices in their daily life. This difficulty leads to all kinds of problems such as binge drinking, drug abuse, traffic accidents, gang membership, and unsafe sexual encounters, to name just a few.

By the age of 15 or 16, adolescents have the capacity to reason and make decisions on an adult level, but only under controlled laboratory conditions, a situation that’s been called ‘’cold cognition.’’  If the teen has to make decisions, however, under conditions that involve emotions, peer influence, and other situational complexities, their ability to make good decisions is compromised, a situation termed ‘’hot cognition.’’  The different behaviors that arise due to these two sorts of conditions help to explain why a student can go through a substance abuse prevention program at school, for example, and understand thoroughly the dangers of using drugs like speed (a situation of ‘’cold cognition’’) but later that night, when asked by a peer at a party whether he’d like to try some speed (in other words, operating under conditions of ‘’hot cognition’’), he’ll throw caution to the winds and make a bad choice. To help counter this problem in making good decisions, teachers need to build into the curriculum frequent opportunities for their middle or high school students to make choices.  In this respect, decision-making is like a muscle that gets stronger the more that it is used.

The first strategy is to provide choices regarding the kind of homework assignments a student is asked to complete. With a focus in the schools right now on accountability and standardized testing, students are increasingly being given larger loads of homework without the opportunity to choose what they want to work on.  However, as we see in this example, relating to the skill of writing, students can be given a range of homework topics and then make choices about which ones they want to work on.

A second strategy involves the use of student polling. Through the use of technology, teachers can now ask students to give their responses to questions, their opinions about topics, or other survey-related material, in the form of a electronic reply, which can then be tabulated by the computer and the results displayed for all students to see and learn from.  There are a wide range of programs and apps that facilitate the use of student polling including:  iClicker, Poll Everywhere, LocaModa, Socrative, the Answer Pad, ClassPager, and even Twitter can be used as a polling vehicle.

A third way to give students opportunities to choose is by letting students create their own projects. One of the best models for this sort of educational practice is the science fair project, but this approach can be used as well for investigations in other subject areas including history, mathematics, literature, and art.

A fourth intervention for student choice involves letting students be involved in school policy, a practice often referred to as ‘’student voice.’’ This could be done by letting students help with discipline issues, through a student court, for example, or by welcoming student input into helping create curriculum, or even, as has happened in some schools, by letting students be part of teacher hiring.

The fifth strategy for giving students more choices involves setting aside a time during the school day when students can essentially follow their passions and do something, not for a grade, but simply for the joy of learning or creating something new.  There’s a movement called Genius Hour  ( that helps teachers guide this process.  In some instances, students have created electric guitars (as in this example), learned a new language, investigated a social problem, or created a documentary video.   If time is limited, then the daily interval might be shortened to 15 or 20 minutes.

Strategy number six involves letting students choose their own books to read.  Rather than having all the students in the class read To Kill a Mockingbird, for example (a favorite choice among teachers), students should be given the opportunity to make choices about their reading, since this will help to create a positive attitude that will hopefully spill over into their pleasure reading in adulthood.

A seventh strategy is to let students learn at their own rate. A one-size-fits all strategy in education doesn’t fit the realities of each student as a unique individual with his or her own rate of learning.  By using educational innovations such as the flipped classroom, where students can study online in the evenings and replay the online lessons as often as needed and receive help during classtime, students won’t have to feel rushed, and can learn to make good choices about the time they need to master a skill or subject area.

Strategy number eight is an expanded version of strategy number seven where students are allowed to do their coursework through independent study.  There are an increasing number of online sites that provide secondary school level content, including sites such as the Khan Academy and the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education’s National Repository of Online Courses, which includes an entire online high school curriculum free of charge.  Other high school programs exist such as Monument Mountain Regional High School in Massachusetts, where students participate in a program called the Independent Project and create their own curriculum, engage in academic topics of their own choosing, and pursue projects such as taking flight lessons, writing a novel, and building a kayak.

A final strategy that gives students opportunities to choose involves offering more electives in school.  One of the problems with today’s emphasis on college and career readiness, is that students are required to take a given sequence of academic courses, leaving little time for them to choose courses that they’re especially interested in.  This menu of choices from Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, California, indicates some of the choices that can be offered in both academic and non-academic areas.

If you would like more information about giving students choices at the middle and high school level, or want to know about all eight interventions that are adolescent brain-friendly, get my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students, available through Amazon or other online sources including the publisher ASCD.  See other videos in my 12-part series on the adolescent brain on my You Tube channel. 

This article was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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About the author

I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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