Student engagement, ownership, and motivation are key ingredients to academic success. Nearly all students learn more when they are personally interested and invested in their learning. They tend to care about the work beyond a letter grade and become motivated by personal pride and a desire to be successful. Allowing students to choose their own path and express themselves in ways that are personally meaningful can go a long way toward bringing academic content to life, while also making the learning more intrinsically meaningful. This effect can be amplified even more when there is an authentic audience involved.
One of the ways to increase this type of student ownership in learning is to provide students with meaningful and authentic “voice and choice.” But what does this really mean? How do we implement it in our lessons, and what does it look like in practice? In this episode, we dig into these questions, and we’ll also focus on what it means to provide “authentic” options for our students. When done well, we can use this approach to create learning experiences where students feel empowered, connected, and motivated.
The students we serve now are Generation Z. Generation Z has grown up in a world that is all about choice, options, availability, and access. …They can choose when, how, and what types of music they listen to. They don’t have to just turn on the radio and be subjected to what’s heard; they can create their own radio station. …They have access to information across the world. I guess it has retrained or rewired their brains to not just expect choice, but to embrace it. That’s what they’ve grown up with.
Dwight Carter, principal of New Albany High School in Ohio
The following resources are available on AVID Open Access to explore this topic in more depth:
- Break Down the Classroom Walls (article collection)
- Empower Students Through Creativity and Choice (article collection)
- Engage Students Through Inquiry Learning (article collection)
- Inspire Students With Project-Based Learning (article collection)
- Reimagine Summative Assessments for Increased Student Agency in Remote Learning (article collection)
A Path Toward More Authentic Student Voice and Choice
Offering more voice and choice might feel a little intimidating at times, especially if we think that it means we need to embrace full-on project-based learning. However, any degree of voice and choice that we can offer our students is a step in the right direction. Fortunately, there are countless ways to integrate voice and choice into our lessons. It’s common to begin with simpler options that feel safe and comfortable before extending into something that is more complex and challenging. During our podcast conversation, we explore how teachers can get started on this journey of offering voice and choice in their classroom. The following are some highlights from our discussion:
- Defining Authenticity: What do we mean when we say that students should have an opportunity for “authentic” voice and choice? One approach to answer this question is to ask another question: “What is the most authentic way that someone would actually use this knowledge outside of a school setting?” This might be framed another way, too: “What would you do with this information if school wasn’t telling you what to do with it?” Finding the answers to these questions and offering authentic choice and performance options are often the keys to igniting student motivation.
- Options for Authentic Demonstration of Learning: We can offer students a variety of options for showing what they know. By providing choices, they are more likely to tap into personal interests and passions that can increase their investment in the work. Students might be allowed to show their learning through their choice of multimedia options: video, audio, text, images, multimedia, performance, or coding. This type of choice allows students to tap into personal strengths and begin from a place of strength and interest, rather than weakness and indifference. For instance, if a student has a passion for music, they could communicate their learning through song; if they love words, they could write out their message.
- Limiting Choice: While choice is important, we must be careful not to overwhelm our students with too much choice. Too many choices can lead to paralysis, and we must consider our learners, the task, and where we are on our learning journey when selecting the appropriate degree of choice. For younger students especially, choice needs to be scaffolded in order to set them up for success.
- Cultural Relevance: When students have voice and choice, they have opportunities to share their personal identities with others. This can allow for increased exposure to other cultures and more diverse life experiences. This type of sharing can also introduce varied perspectives, which reduces the chance that students are overly influenced by a single story.
- Start Small: You don’t need to design a lengthy and elaborate project to offer students voice and choice. It’s okay to start small and scaffold options as you and your students become both more comfortable and more skilled engaging in voice and choice. The following list offers some ways that you might provide students with choice. Many of these options work best when students are allowed to create something, but they may also be applied to a variety of other classroom experiences:
- What is my topic or message?
- What will I create, and how will I make it?
- Who do I work with?
- Who is my audience?
- When will I complete each step and at what pace?
- How will my project impact others?
- How will I manage people, time, and materials?
- How will I share my message or product?
- How will I get feedback?
- How will I be assessed?
- Examples of Authentic Learning: Authentic learning can certainly occur outside of a school setting, but it’s often a good idea to begin within the safety and comfort of your school walls. During our conversation, we share examples of authentic work that we’ve seen, including students designing bike parts in an industrial tech class, developing instructional materials for a student group, sharing work on a school news program, creating a school-wide publication, and providing survey input about topics they’d like to study.
If you are listening to the podcast with your teaching team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:
- How do you define the word “authentic” in terms of student choice and demonstration of learning?
- What are some ways that you can provide your students with authentic opportunities to demonstrate their learning?
- How much voice and choice is enough? How much is too much?
- What are some choices that you can offer your students in an upcoming lesson or unit?
- What are some examples of authentic learning that you have seen, have heard about, or can imagine happening in your school building?
- What will you do first to offer your students more voice and choice?
Extend Your Learning
- How Implementing Voice & Choice Can Improve Student Engagement (Michigan Virtual)
- Empowering Students With Voice and Choice (John Spencer)
- Project-Based Learning for All (PBLWorks)
- Project-Based Learning (PBL) (Edutopia)
- The Importance of Student Choice Across All Grade Levels (Edutopia)