George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Voice

Is Your Classroom an Active Democracy?

February 18, 2015

Aren’t we in the business of creating an informed citizenry? One that, someday, will take the reigns of society and chart their own course?

Genuine student Voice and Choice can only be accomplished when the actions of leadership actually support and nurture a culture where students can actively participate in the direction that their education takes. In other words, it’s not just lip service that the students can participate in choosing what will be done in the classroom.

Classroom rights: What do student rights look like in a PBL classroom? Are they different than in a regular student environment? The answer is “No.” As we all know, students do not give away or lose their rights at the schoolhouse door.

However, the expectations of a student’s behavior will certainly be different in a PBL environment versus a traditional direct instruction (DI) environment. For example, in a PBL classroom we would expect our students to move around more. We want them out of their seats communicating and collaborating when it is appropriate. Classrooms full of students engaged in effective PBL will be more talkative, fluid, busy, and active. Being on task will mean something very different at any given time in a PBL classroom than in a DI classroom.

One of the best mechanisms to convey these expectations is to create a rubric with your students defining the expected behaviors in a PBL classroom. As you move through the process, it allows the students the space to imagine, be creative, have their ideas heard and vetted, and ultimately, you are driving future engagement in the process.

Giving Power to the Voice: You have heard now, numerous times, this catchy phrase “voice and choice.” But, it is much more than just a catchy phrase. This is the heart of student engagement and PBL at large.

To give students Voice is nothing new and nothing difficult. Socrates was doing this 2,500 hundred years ago with his famous method of asking questions. By asking questions (lots and lots of questions), he demonstrated his interest in his students' answers—and more importantly, his interest in getting them to think. In its simplest form, giving students voice entails creating a space and time where their thoughts, feelings, and ideas about what they are learning and what they want to learn are allowed to be expressed without prejudice or censorship from authority—or in this case, you.

As we mentioned earlier, any type of forum of this nature must have protocols that surround the discussion/debate activity so that none of the ideas are squelched before they have had a chance to a) be fully expressed and b) properly vetted and explored by the group.

Giving Power to the Choice: This idea of Choice sometimes runs afoul of the conventional wisdom that “we know what is best for the students”—whether "we" are teachers delivering lessons, administrators setting curricula, or governing bodies dictating policy. The facts are that our Industrial Era educational system is not serving our students well in an era when knowing the facts is not as important as knowing how to ask the right questions. If anything, this the Era of Inquiry. Perhaps The Right Question Institute has it right: we should be teaching students how to ask more questions—and better questions—by teaching divergent, convergent and metacognitive inquiry skills.

Giving students “Choice” means that to a certain extent, they should have a say in some part of the work to be done. Naturally, this will look very different from first grade to tenth grade. First graders will generally need to have very narrow choices because, after all, they are learning foundational concepts and skills such as counting. However, what they count and with whom they count could be choices they can make. So, if Jorge likes footballs and Beatrice loves to play with baseballs, they could both be engaged in a lesson where they are both “counting” and learning addition with their favorite sports ball. The overarching project might be "Sports and Math: Let’s Learn to Count!"

In tenth grade the students might be working on a project which allows them complete autonomy over the subject matter as long as they are able to stage and video a debate between two opposing political positions on an issue in their community. So, the skills they need to learn and master for debate—persuasive writing and forecasting objections—are not up for a vote, but the vehicle by which they get there, the issue itself, can be one that they are passionate about and which will lead to a deep and honest level of engagement you would not otherwise have.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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