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5 Ways to Give Your Students More Voice and Choice

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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The idea of co-constructing knowledge with students can be a scary thing for many of us teachers. The age-old role of teacher as orator, director, sage has been handed down for centuries and most of us grew up as students looking to teachers in this way. It's hard to shake.

Co-constructing knowledge means giving up the myself and them role of teacher and students and fully embracing the wonder and journey of us.

The first step we have to take is becoming familiar and comfortable with saying "I don't know" out loud to our students. Maybe that sounds silly, but it's a huge step for many of us. I remember the first time I said it; My eleventh-grade students asked me a question that completely and utterly stumped me (I can't remember what the topic was). I was about to tell them what I sort of knew or thought the answer might be and instead I just said, "I don't know."

We all just sat there in the silence of those three words.

Then I said, "Who knows something about this that they can share?" A few students shared some ideas and thoughts they had about the topic. I followed their comments with, "Who wants to find out more?" Several hands went up.

Two educational theorists who inform my thinking about co-constructing knowledge are Vygotsky and Freire. Both saw learning as a social act, where teachers and students dialogued and all created knowledge together, rather than teachers filling the students with content and information as if they were empty vessels.

Yes, it is true that teachers need to be the ultimate decision-makers about a lot of things. This is not proposal to share authority and control with students. Consider it instead an invitation to take a step to the side and see what can happen when we shift our perspective and delve into some experimentation.

In The Classroom

I'd like to propose five ways to get that ball rolling in transforming the learning space you share with students into a place where you serve often as facilitator and guide -- and when needed and necessary, as presenter or instructor.

#1) Stuff We Want to Know About

Brainstorm an on-going class list of "stuff" they want to know about and are interested in -- a phenomena, an event, a law, for example. If you are a science, math, or history teacher, you can ask that it be about those topics, but I also encourage you to have it be about anything (and then you can find connections to content later). Inquiry is a skill all teachers should build regardless of content.

#2) Task Force Teams of Inquiry

Let teams form (or help with this) and ask each team to select a topic from the brainstorm list. Their mission is to explore, research, and present on that topic. If you are thinking, "too much valuable class time off the curriculum or content," find a way to connect it to the educational standards your school follows. (There's reading, writing, speaking and listening involved here so turn to those Common Core anchor literacy standards.)

#3) Assessing Their Needs & Wants

We should never underestimate the power of the five-point Likert scale as a quick, quantitative measure to see where students are. You can create several statements for a unit of study to gauge student interest first, and then their understanding and experience with the content, materials, activities after.

Consider including a couple fill-ins and evaluate their responses for patterns and repetition. Use both the tally of numbers from the Likert and the fill-ins to inform your planning. You can say to students, "So I tallied the numbers and there were twelve 5s and eleven 4s so that tells me __________ is very important to most of you. We are going to explore that next then together. However, in ranking how well you understood writing a thesis statement, the majority of the class selected 1s and 2s, therefore, we are going to spend some time reviewing and practicing thesis statement writing." With anonymity, students tend to be more candid and honest so make including a name on the survey optional.

#4) Think-Alouds

Model for students your learning as you read aloud an article on a current event or a topic of study. For example, as you read, pause, asking questions and making comments and connections to things you already know or even things you've explored as a class. Then have students do the same with a partner, then eventually in groups of three or four. For high school students, I like Kelly Gallagher's Article of the Week he uses with his high school students. Building the prior knowledge of students is also part of our job -- and not just knowledge about the content we teach, but also about the world.

#5) Project Options & Self-Grading

When we think about how this sounds, "You will have several projects to choose from," instead of, "You will create a tri-fold poster..." it might remind us that no matter the age, we all like to have choices especially when it comes to demonstrating our skills and abilities. So offer up plenty of options in types of projects and also collaborate with your students in creating a criteria chart for each project. Having more of a stake in it, students can use the criteria to grade themselves in the end. Be sure to include an opportunity for them to also do some reflective writing on why they've assigned themselves that grade. Learning tends to stick better when we reflect.

Less teacher talk and more student-centered learning makes for a happy, healthy, and productive learning environment. In what ways do you include student voice and student choice in your curriculum? Please share in the comments section below.

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Elinor Kern's picture

I love all of your ideas for adding student input to the classroom. I feel that coming up with a list of things the students want to learn more about is a fantastic way to incorporate all of the subject areas and also increase interest in students. I also use small groups to allow students to explore topics that we are learning about. The kids love "teaching" each other. One other activity I like is to allow students to "teach" each other about topics. The students do this in Reading, Math and Science. It is also a great way for teachers to observe if a student really understands a concept.

Rebecca's picture
Communications Specialist

Love the idea of getting student feedback! This is a great way to start small if you don't feel comfortable doing lesson "co-creation" right off the bat. Surveys and questionnaires help a lot in figuring out what students might really be thinking. A few months ago I wrote a blog post that featured an infographic made by kids with valuable insight into their preferences and interests.

Laura L.'s picture
Laura L.
Third grade teacher and graduate student

This was a great article to read! I was most inspired by the first tip of creating an ongoing "stuff we want to know about" list. What a wonderful way to encourage excitement about learning! This would be a great "back to school" activity and a way for students engage with each other. Students may find other students who are interested in the same topics, or may end up finding students who are experts in that topic and can share their information.

I have allowed students to chose the type of projects they wished to do several times and those projects are often the ones the students are most invested in. I have found that giving students choice is not only what they learn, but how they learn it, produce amazing results.

Chris Sturgis's picture

This is a terrific piece on student voice and choice. Throught the transparency of expectations in competency-based or proficiency-based education, student voice and choice flourishes. Kaili Phillips one of the educators writing at has highlighted how she engages student voice and choice in writing workshops.

Ms. Li's picture
Ms. Li
Six Grade Literacy and Social Studies

Working at a school where classroom management is an issue, there is always fear that "giving the students" a voice will lead to unhelpful remarks or feedback. However, I have found that my students are some of the best problem solvers when it comes to finding solutions for issues in the class. For example, when I realized many of our students struggling with engagement during independent reading, I asked the class to pinpoint the source of the problem and create plans to address the issue. My students came up with a remarkable array of solutions from creating a student-to-student book review board to encouraging students to visit the library in order to bring in books that they would enjoy.

Gill K.'s picture

One thing that matters to me, as a special education teacher, is to give students a sense of confidence and autonomy. I don't have much time with the kids since so many of them are pull-outs. Sometimes I like to swap roles - I give the kids chances taking turns to be the teacher (with my guidance) and not only do they respond well to this, they relish showing me what they know (and how they think I can teach better). My students value the fact that I trust them to steer the ship. I also like to do this during transition times such as when we are lined up in the hall.

Dawn's picture

I especially like having students making activities for their peers using the smart notebook software. Students have to create their game on paper, using information they have learned throughout the topic we have been studying. They especially like trying to create something that is more difficult to try to stump their peers.

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