Monday, April 30, 2018

What Is Student Voice and Choice and Why Does it Matter?

One of the most powerful ways to engage students in learning is through choice. Incorporating "voice and choice" into learning typically increases intrinsic motivation, energy and passion which leads to improved outcomes. Student Voice goes beyond token representations of students on school committees. 

At its core, student voice is the antithesis of depersonalized and standardized educational experiences because it begins and ends with the thoughts, feelings, visions, and actions of the students themselves. 

Implementing student voice in your school/classroom requires a deep reconsideration of the 
role of students in the school, not as a place that transmits knowledge, but as a community of learners (Zhao, 2012). Toshalis and Nakkula (2012) found that fostering student voice  - empowering youth to express their opinions and influence their educational experiences so that they feel they have a stake in the outcomes -  is one of the most powerful tools schools have to increase learning. Figuring out what motivates students and engages them in learning is as essential as it is challenging; it doesn't happen over night. 

Promoting student voice and choice has been linked to other important educational outcomes, including: elevated achievement in traditionally marginalized student populations; greater classroom participation; enhanced school change efforts; better self-reflection and preparation for improvement in struggling students; and decreased behavior problems. However, as Prins (2009) points out, it can be challenging to cover the "necessary content" in a completely student choice driven course. The main reason for this difficulty is that the course will proceed from one topic to another at a pace that is defined by when a majority of the students feel that they have adequately mastered the present topic; this form of deeper learning in currently not used in many schools due to a culture driven by high-stakes testing and other barriers like fear of change. Furthermore, Fielding (2004) suggests that it "requires a transformation of what it means to be a student; what it means to be a teacher. In effect, it requires the intermingling and interdependence of both." 

Partnering with students to engage them in learning, in other words, calls for a pedagogical shift – what some describe as a shift from teaching to learning (Watkins, 2009). As educators begin to make this shift, some express a tension between teaching the curriculum and empowering students to become partners in learning. As educators create space for students to have more autonomy in their learning, they require an environment that is open to risk-taking and provides opportunities to continually reflect on and persevere through their own learning process – what Watkins (2012) calls “a supportive forum for experimentation” where educators can talk about the tensions that emerge from new roles and responsibilities. 

Fielding, M. (2004). Transformative approaches to student voice: Theoretical underpinnings,
recalcitrant realities. British Educational Research Journal,30(2), 295–311.

As educators become more open to student voice, they are finding that they are learning about their own learning as well. They are adopting “a learning stance” that affirms “the image of children and teachers as capable, resourceful, powerful protagonists of their own experience (Wien, 2008)." They are opening up spaces and ways for students to demonstrate their ideas and share their thinking. As educators collaborate to analyze and discuss next steps in the learning process, they open up spaces to share ideas and express their own thinking as well. 

In building trusting and reciprocal relationships, traditional roles shift. 

This process takes time and does not come without its challenges. Students don’t start out ready to be independent, autonomous learners. Rather, they need responsibility to shift to them as they become more and more competent and self-directed. Thus, shifting power in teacher-student relationships can happen anywhere along a continuum:

10 Things to Think About When Adopting Student Voice: 
  1. Give student opportunities to move around, work with others and make choices about their learning. Project based learning or starting with project-like activities are a good place to start. 
  2. Help students identify their own interests, goals and values. Use tools like the WOOP Goals planning documents from the Character Lab or help them write SMART goals. 
  3. Classroom activities and teacher-student relationships must attend to the cultural and political contexts in which that learning occurs. Instead of trying to teach in a vacuum by shutting out influences from the world outside, teachers can breathe life into lessons and elevate student motivation by integrating individual, neighborhood, regional, and world circumstances that can make the content areas feel real. 
  4. Explicitly show links between what is being learned and students’ own life plans. Weave career and college exposure into learning, connect events to students' neighborhoods and lived experiences. 
  5. Show flexibility, following students’ ideas, leads and perspectives. Consider designing personalized learning plans that allow students to complete projects and assignments at the pace that is right for them. While this takes extra work, especially in a large class, the benefits outweigh the time it takes to implement. 
  6. Integrate students’ ideas into planning activities. 
  7. Ask questions that push students to think through problems and improve their skills. Teach them techniques like project management and design thinking to support problem solving and entrepreneurial thinking. 
  8. Introduce students to multiple viewpoints so they have to think through their own perspectives. Consider getting "out of school" and leaving to learn. Field based learning, meeting with experts and company tours can support student voice-driven classrooms. 
  9. Let students disagree and criticize as ways of helping them feel safe expressing their opinions and feelings. Learn about restorative practices and protocols from Agency by Design, based out of Harvard Graduate School of Education. These practices and protocols can help build a critical classroom. 
  10. Keep trying - don't give up after the first quarter or even the first year. Model for students what having a growth mindset looks like and how to "iterate" an initiative when it doesn't go the way you planned. Be patient and things will fall into place. 
Creating a truly student-centered classroom takes time, effort and energy.  When students recognize that the curriculum (and the teacher) represents him/her, the student’s motivation to achieve will align with his/her motivation to become authentic, leading to a truly student-centered learning experience. Motivating students to apply themselves in the classroom requires knowing them, knowing their beliefs and anxieties, recognizing the different social pathways they may have taken to arrive in the classroom, and customizing approaches that are responsive to each student’s individual zones of proximal development—all student-centered basics— but it does not require making things easy for them or dumbing things down.In fact, being both supportive and demanding seems to be the ideal. Students' influence, responsibility and decision-making will gradually increase over time which will lead to higher engagement and deeper learning. Maybe if we listened to students more often, we could re-imagine education? 


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