students excited about science

The Role of Free-Choice Learning in Science Education

School administrators constantly look for ways to increase student understanding of science, but many face roadblocks when trying the usual methods. Children perceive traditional methods as an obligation: “I have to” rather than “I want to.” Free-choice learning is an emerging approach to education aimed at understanding science through a lifelong curiosity lens. It offers results that formal education can never attain.

Studies show students learn best when schools combine formal education with free-choice learning in a cohesive way.

What is Free-Choice Science Learning?

Free-choice learning is a teaching method that lets students choose what they want to learn. This customized approach makes education more meaningful for students as they explore their unique interests. Instead of viewing science education as a list of things every person should know by a certain age, free-choice learning sees it as something people can learn wherever they go.

free-choice science learning

From children to adults, everyone likes to have control over what they learn. 2019 study by Falk and Dierking found short- and long-term interest in science was primarily attributable to free-choice learning experiences, such as visiting museums, reading scientific literature, and consuming science-related content on television and the internet.

As proof that people love learning on their own, the internet has become the most popular source for those seeking answers to scientific questions, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS).

students interest in science
A National Science Board report highlighted that schools have become more reliant upon free-choice learning resources over the past couple of decades. As a result, the public has maintained a steady level of scientific understanding and retained scientific knowledge longer.

Have a Bottom-Up Mindset

One of the problems with traditional education is that it was developed to meet requirements established by corporations and government entities. This resulted in a one-size-fits-all that learners had no choice but to accept to advance in their careers. Researchers John Falk and Lynn Dierking define this as a top-down approach.

“To not understand and embrace this form of learning as an essential component of the public’s science education is to seriously impede societies’ ability to enhance public science learning,” Falk and Dierking said.

Free-choice learning places the learner’s motivation and identity at the center of inquiry – a bottom-up approach – allowing them to be co-architects of their education.

Benjamin Franklin said: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” The best learning happens when students get to explore what they are genuinely interested in.

curious child

Most free-choice educators highlight the importance of combining a highly visual and digital experience with hands-on learning. You can’t simply give a book or a tablet to a child and expect them to become obsessed with science. It has to be a combination of intersecting digital and hands-on materials that will immerse learners into the subject.

How Can Your School Start Supporting Free-Choice Learning?

After so much information, you might be puzzled about where you should start. How about seeing if there are any museums, clubs, zoos, or other free-choice science organizations in your community? Explore all possibilities to connect science learning opportunities across formal and informal platforms.

forming partnerships

One of the best ways to support free-choice learning is to collaborate with colleagues from non-institutional education settings and build a network that will support lifelong science education needs beyond the school’s boundaries. As a leader in your community, seek organizations (museums, hobby groups, science centers, podcasts, etc.) with which you can form meaningful partnerships to supplement your existing science curriculum.

Through these partnerships, your school can leverage free-choice learning without adding more workload to school staff. These partnerships can be as simple as places to go on field trips, or run as deep as developing customized programs where students can fulfill their custom science curiosities.

A balanced mix of formal and free-choice science education combined with promoting lifelong learning can take public science knowledge at your district to a new level.


Engage your students with inquiry-based learning in our K-5 curriculum.

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