Voice & Choice are Key to 21st Century Learning

Providing students with voice and choice sets them up for success in school!
"Providing students with 'voice' means allowing them input when it comes to what they want to learn, how they feel about school and where they’re trying to get at the end of their journey in the school system. Offering 'choice' means giving learners more than one pathway to success and allowing them to explore topics or skills in a way that makes sense and engages them."

One of the great challenges currently facing our education system is finding how to engage 21st century learners and convince them of the importance of using school time effectively. For previous generations, the importance of doing well in school was clear to most students, and the connection between success in school and a bright future in the real world was well-established. Over the last fifteen years, however, we’ve seen this relationship between students and school erode due to the rapid shifts in culture, technology and the increased availability of information via the internet. To keep our schools useful and our students engaged, we need to rethink the way we approach education to reflect the power of internet technology and the increased agency school-aged children have in their lives.

Innovative approaches such as personalized learning and competency-based learning tackle this problem head-on by offering students greater voice and choice in their learning than ever before. Providing students with “voice” means allowing them input when it comes to what they want to learn, how they feel about school and where they’re trying to get at the end of their journey in the school system. Offering “choice” means giving learners more than one pathway to success and allowing them to explore topics or skills in a way that makes sense and engages them. When learners have voice and choice, school becomes a truly student-centric environment in which authentic, meaningful learning can take place.

Of course, schools and districts don’t need to scrap their existing methodology wholesale to incorporate choice into their daily routines. Simple practices like integrating “choice time,” in which students can work on whatever subject they like for a twenty-minute block each day help students feel like school is a flexible place that respects their ability to prioritize and allows them to work in the way that feels right in the moment. Another classic way to integrate choice into the classroom is by providing students with a “menu” rubric that invites them to create a wide variety of projects or materials to demonstrate knowledge of certain content or mastery of particular skills rather than simply telling them “This essay is the one path to success.”

Embracing and harnessing the power of student voice can be a little trickier, though. Schools seeking to become more responsive to student voice can use simple on- or offline tools to survey their students. The resultant data can be incredibly useful to help determine what’s engaging, exciting and valuable to students as well as what’s boring or frustrating for them. When schools take the time to ask students for feedback, it sends a positive message that their opinions and experiences are crucial to the way school operates, which promotes buy-in and empowers each student to feel like they are a citizen with a voice in a productive, thriving community. When schools act on that feedback, it creates an environment in which students feel comfortable and supported and teachers find it easier to make authentic, meaningful connections with students that drive learning.

Make no mistake, voice and choice are the ways of the future in our schools. If your faculty or leadership is trying to create an environment that limits or minimizes the role that students play in their own education, then it’s time to take a step back and ask, “How can we get better at listening to 21st century learners?”