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.