Student Voice

Voice and Choice: It’s More Than Just "What"

Consider letting students decide what they want to study, who they want to work with, what outcomes they expect, and where and when they do their work.
January 25, 2016
Three high school girls are sitting on a couch next to each other in class, smiling. The two girls to the right are hugging, and one of them is looking directly at the camera.
Photo credit: James Joel via flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

As a PBL advocate, I know how important it is to have voice and choice in the learning environment. When I work with teachers, we always collaborate to design projects with the appropriate level of voice and choice for students, which depends on factors such as time of the year, age level, content, and many others.

There is never a one-size-fits-all method to voice and choice. It's always contextualized to teacher and student lives and experiences. However, many times we oversimplify voice and choice to what students create in their project, or we simply forget that there are many possibilities. While having students express voice and choice in their products is one great option, let's consider more opportunities to create engagement and student-centered learning.

More "What"

While product is the vehicle for showing content and learning, perhaps we can offer more choice in the content? This may not work in all cases, but it can certainly work when we have standards broad enough to allow students to select specific sub-content within the standard or learning outcome. Maybe we'd allow students to choose topics related to the skill. I know a teacher that let students analyze a variety of cell phone plans of their choice, but still demanded that they show the same skills in linear equations. This choice works well with skill-based learning outcomes and standards, but it's not limited to those things. I know this isn't a new idea, just a reminder that we might have more flexibility than we think in the content that students learn.

"Who"

Students can and should choose who they work with. However, take time with them to reflect on various prompts such as:

  • Who do you need to help?
  • Who can help you?
  • What are my strengths?
  • What are my areas of growth?

Prompts like these can help students make intentional decisions in the learning partners they choose and give them a powerful range of incentives. In addition, many times students create work for a variety of audiences. While we might choose that for them, we can also ask them to whom they want to present their work or with whom they will share their work.

"Why" and Purpose

Students always want to know why they're learning material, and we often go to great lengths to make the learning relevant through the task itself or by trying to explain connections. Instead, we could partner with students in deciding the "why." Ask them why they want to learn this material, or help them brainstorm ideas and then let them decide why they want to learn something. Students can become the driving force in the purpose of their learning: "I will learn this in order to _______" is a great sentence starter to give them more of a voice in the "why" of learning.

"Where"

Why do students always have to learn in the same place? Why at desks? Why not on the floor? Why not in the hallway? Why not at home? Why not on a field trip? Why not in the library? Why not in another classroom? More and more schools and experimenting with flexible spaces and learning environments -- quiet corners, sitting and standing desks, conference-style areas, makerspaces, and more. We can offer more voice and choice to students by allowing them to decide where they want to learn. This can meet their social-emotional needs, foster engagement in learning, and create a space where learning is physically dynamic.

"When"

If we are personalizing learning, we need to be flexible about when students are creating work, when they are learning certain concepts, and even when they might turn work in. While this might be uncomfortable to consider, it's a great area to stretch yourself as a teacher in giving up control and allowing students to take more of that control. Teachers can coach students to pick appropriate tasks for learning material, coach them to relearn material in a way that students want, and help them plan effective deadlines for work. Allowing students control over when they learn can create an environment where time is no longer the most important variable, and instead learning becomes the driving force.

Not only can voice and choice create more engagement in learning, but giving students agency can also empower them to become self-directed learners. Voice and choice can allow students to explore their passions and feel honored for their ideas and opinions. We should all be providing more voice and choice, not creating walls to stifle these things.

How do you or will you provide more voice and choice to your students?