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Student Voice, NOT Choice: Allowing Learners to Drive their Achievement Paths

Posted by on in Differentiated Instruction
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While visiting a high school in Michigan, I talked to students about their learning experiences. Understanding what they saw as valuable could have an important impact on how the teachers may strive to further elevate student voice in the school. One senior shared a perspective that I repeatedly heard from others. “I want more times when I get to say how I make products for projects. Not just do papers. Maybe videos or some other way to do the work.” Students want opportunities to forge their way for learning. How can we as educators share the reigns of instructional learning experiences?


A common practice used to engage students is to give them choices for how they can create products to demonstrate their learning. This is a good practice as some learners struggle when not given options. From a management perspective, choices jumpstart students into the tasks at hand. Yet choices do not equate to student voice.


When teachers craft choices, the options are their construction--not the student’s. The choices might be great and targeted to the learning outcomes--as they should be. From a student’s perspective, he might not like any of the choices, which results in him picking the option that is the least unappealing. A solution and easy step to support student voice, while meeting the teacher’s need to ensure quality, is to give three choices.


  1. The first and second options are constructed by the teacher.
    This ensures that the learning targets are addressed, and provides a model for students to use when creating their own options.

  2. The third option is to allow students to propose their own method of demonstrating their learning.
    When students create their own option there is ownership. They can be held accountable because “they” crafted the product or proposed the tool. There are fewer questions because they know the tools.

  3. Give students guidelines of quality that includes specific language on what skills should be used and to what depth they are incorporated.
    Clear guidelines are important so that students can efficiently craft their designs. Nothing is more frustrating than to invest time in a proposal that is completely off target. Concrete details helps students hit the mark.

  4. Give students a time limit within which they must make their proposal. The teacher can accept the proposal, with edits if needed. Or, the teacher may send students back to plan a new proposal.
    There is always the concern that students may spend so much time on a proposal that once approved, they do not have enough time to complete the academic tasks. Setting a time frame lets students know the deadlines.

  5. Any student who does not get green-lighted for their proposal within the time limit must then choose from the options designed by the teacher.
    As seen with step four, having a set deadline allows students to make an attempt to “do it their way.” If their proposal fails to meet the requirements, students can choose from the teacher options. While they did not succeed with doing the work their way, there is always a future opportunity on a later task.


As adult learners, most educators prefer to learn new ideas that are job-embedded. We want the work to be meaningful to what we do. As experts of our own learning and interests, we can best design a learning path when given the opportunity. Our students are no different. Let’s give them the opportunity to truly own their learning experiences.


It's what they want.


Here are some tools for product development that might inspire student voice:


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John McCarthy, Ed.S.

Follow on Twitter: @JMcCarthyEdS

An education consultant with extensive teaching experience, John McCarthy supports instructional practices around Differentiation, Student Voice, Authentic Learning Experiences, Project-Based Learning, Instructional Technology, Writing, and Assessment.

His website, OpeningPaths.org, offers rich resources in many instructional areas, publications, and support areas.

He currently travels across the United States to work with schools and also coaches internationally. He teaches online graduate courses for Madonna University and online educator courses for Dell. See his LinkedIn profile for more details.

John responds to comments on the blog and via social media such as Twitter @JMcCarthyEdS.


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Guest Sunday, 23 October 2016