The vital position education holds in the future of a society is rarely debated. However, the nature of this position is a constant source of discourse.
Why is education important? How does it support the values and beliefs of a community? What goals guide it? Who decides these goals and what purpose do they hold for the learners and the communities in which they find themselves? Is education about preparing students for the future or for the current state? What should students be learning and how should this be measured?
There is no doubt these are important questions, and the answers impact everyone within the education system. However, no one is impacted as much as the students themselves, and yet, it is often students who have the least amount of influence on this important conversation. Perhaps it is time to listen to them a little more.
Why voice and choice matters
Offering students more voice and choice in both their learning and assessment experiences is one way to listen to learners. However, this decision requires a belief that students have something to say and that they are capable of making learning decisions. It hinges on a desire to truly listen to learners and invite them to make choices within a classroom context. When educators shift to this approach, they need to know this decision is the right one. Here are some ways that offering students more voice and choice will be beneficial:
Exercising voice and choice nurtures important capacities
When students decide how they might like to practice a skill, develop essential knowledge, or demonstrate a learning goal, they are practicing independent decision-making. This means they are reflecting on both their needs, their strengths, and their interests. It also means they have to determine how they will know whether a choice they made was successful, and whether they would make the same choice next time. For example, a learner may decide that working with a partner to prepare for an upcoming assessment is the best choice. Later, through guided reflection, this student may recognize that the chosen partner did not support effective preparation. As a result, the learner can begin to think strategically about who a better partner (if any) may be. This is an important insight and, when made by the learner, is most likely to be applied to subsequent choices. It also allows students to experience the results of their decisions, which is important in building independence. By inviting students into this kind of decision-making, teachers are building important capacities.
Inviting voice and choice honors the humanness of learners
Students are human, and humans have thoughts, feelings, preferences, ideas, questions, and opinions. Certainly, working with groups of young humans is challenging; their humanness makes teaching incredibly complex. However, finding intentional ways to invite voice and choice in service of learning can sometimes mitigate the less prosocial ways students may choose to claim their autonomy. If educators can honor students through learning, everybody wins.
Voice and choice serve to develop thinking
Hall and Simeral (2015) assert, “…the most successful individuals today are those who have the ability to reflect—those who are aware of what they know, recognize that what they know is always subject to change, and have the ability to undo and relearn knowledge” (p. 47). The ability for students to reflect in these ways hinges on their ability to apply their thinking to decisions they have made. Reflection is most powerful when it is personal and embedded in self-directed, self-selected choices. When schools consistently tell students what they know and don’t know, plan how they will experience their days, ensure they never learn “the wrong things,” and structure daily work to be efficient and to avoid revision, revisiting, and relearning, the value of reflection is lost. Humans learn from mistakes. Productive failure is important for growth. The only way to build this kind of thinking is through voice and choice.
Allowing students to exercise their voices and make choices allows teachers to listen with the intent to learn
Teaching is a relationship and the best relationships have a balance between talking and listening. When students are asked how they would prefer to show their understanding, when they are invited to decide how to develop a skill, and when they are allowed to share what they are thinking and feeling, the teacher-student relationship is nurtured. It is powerful to feel heard and it is equally as powerful to listen. Inviting students to share their voices and make choices signals that they are trusted, they are able, and that teachers are interested in what matters to them.
Invested, reflected, and challenged
Education is about more than facts and skills. It is about supporting students in their ability to feel invested in learning, to feel reflected in their learning and assessment contexts, and to experience appropriate challenges each and every day. If schools are going to accomplish these goals, students will have to share their voices and make choices. Students’ worldviews matter. Their experiences matter. Their skills and interests matter. Their beliefs and values matter. When education offers learners the opportunity to be seen and heard, they are offered an important part of being human. Here are some practical ways we might approach assessment and accomplish these goals:
- Build clarity with students about learning goals. When teachers and students have a shared understanding of targets and criteria for success, choices can unfold in ways that support intended outcomes.
- Invite students into assessment and learning conversations. Ask them how they feel about their progress; what they feel the next step might be; how they think they might be able to deepen their learning. Share with them decisions around groupings, around practice, around revision. Offer two or more options when possible. Have them document goals and action plans.
- Develop assessment tools (rubrics, checklists, criteria lists) that are focused on learning goals so they can be used across multiple tasks. For example, a rubric that articulates how to engage in proficient observation, planning, and conclusion-making can be used across multiple labs and projects. This allows students to choose their area of focus while developing the same essential skills as their peers.
- If a learning goal requires students to create a specific product (narrative essay, solution to a problem, cover letter), then allow students choice in how they work toward that goal (concept web, table, models, brainstorm, conversation). On the other hand, if the learning goal requires a specific process (application of strategy while playing a game, identification of contextual meaning within a text, use of an algorithm while solving a problem), then offer students choice in the context in which they will apply that skill (playing soccer or playing an invented game; using a memoir or using a myth; selecting a math word problem from a list based on interest and background knowledge).
- Allow students to make mistakes and then allow them to recover from those mistakes in a safe manner. Also allow students to experience success based on decisions they made (and not based on decisions others made for them). Make learning personal. Help students develop efficacy.
Giving students voice and choice are not easy things to accomplish in a classroom and school setting. They require trust, patience, compassion, and time. They also require teachers be organized and clear about learning goals. In turn, teachers must share these goals with learners and release themselves of complete responsibility for outcomes. This is a leap of faith. But students need the chance to own aspects of their learning. They need adults who believe in them and trust them. They need to be accountable for their own decisions, good or bad. This is what real learning is and this is what the world needs.
Pete Hall and Alisa Simeral (2015). Teach, Reflect, Learn: Building Your Capacity for Success in the Classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.