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Strategies for Incorporating Student Voice and Choice in Activity Design

Instruction

Think back to the last time you were bored in an educational environment – a class, a seminar, a mandatory work training – and answer this: why? For many of you, I can guess that you were lectured at, already knew the material, or felt that your voice and participation didn’t matter.  Too often, educators design activities for students on the grounds of meeting standards or maximizing student outcomes without considering student desires or funds of knowledge (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). This leads to less student engagement with learning materials and activities and often times a feeling of failure on the part of the instructor. However, if educators change their focus from a standardization or student outcome centered view and instead put energy into creating opportunities for student choice, engagement is likely to increase and the resulting “enhancement of agency has been linked to a variety of important educational outcomes” (Toshalis, Nakkula, Hinton, Fischer, & Glennon, 2012). Two strategies for incorporating student voice and choice are adopting a pedagogy of listening and power sharing. If utilized correctly, these practices not only help increase activity engagement but can also help educators deepen their bonds with students and promote higher level social development skills.

Adopting a Pedagogy of Listening

“Can we go up the canopy tower?”

“When are we going to climb the tower?”

“I don’t care about finishing the scavenger hunt, I just want to go to the canopy tower.”

These quotes are from three different students in just the last two days of teaching team Pond; third- and fourth-grade students aren’t exactly subtle about what they want to do with their time. In fact, the topic of the canopy tower has come up in my group at least twice a week for the last four weeks. My co-instructor and I walked past the tower the first week with our students and every day afterwards kept telling them, “not today.” However, we found that the topic repeatedly came up in our group and would divert conversations and activities away from what we had planned. Eventually in a one-on-one meeting, I asked my co-instructor, “Why not? Why haven’t we allowed them to go up the canopy tower yet? Why are we continually gate keeping an experience that they want to have?”

Krichevsky TowerIn the fifth of eight weeks together, we finally incorporated the canopy tower climb into our lessons and found that once at the top, our students participated more fully in conversations about our driving question, stayed on task more than they had in prior weeks, and more openly shared their curiosities about the forest around us. That afternoon we asked ourselves, “What level of engagement would we be having now if we had listened to our students and incorporated their desires earlier? What if we had gone up the canopy tower the first time they asked?”

Centering student voices when teaching is part of what Carlina Rinaldi refers to as adopting a pedagogy of listening. She argues that “a pedagogy of listening means listening to thought – the ideas and theories, questions and answers of children of adults; it means treating thought seriously and with respect” (Rinaldi, 2004). By listening to what students are talking about, their curiosities, and prior knowledge, educators can learn more about how their students are making sense of their world and learning. Furthermore, if educators treat student thoughts “seriously and with respect,” then they can utilize what they learn from students to make lessons more relevant to student interests and experiences.

Power Sharing

Another way educators can incorporate student voice and choice is power sharing. When teaching, especially with younger students, educators often uphold the inherent power dynamics that exist between themselves and their students. It’s easy to believe that you as the educator should play the role of teacher one hundred percent of the time in order to impart your expertise and produce learning. However, by breaking down the power dynamics at play between student and teacher or older and younger, students can feel less like they’re being lectured at, incorporate their personal funds of knowledge (Moll et al., 1992), and freely express their ideas and curiosities. Additionally, research has shown that one of the best ways to internalize a newly learned concept is to teach it to others through peer teaching (Whitman, 1988). Power sharing allows students the opportunity to show what they know and commit their learning to memory.

During a 7-week program, my students were tasked with creating a project to answer the question: Can we abandon the garden and grow our food in the forest? During our initial talk about the question, I stood up in front of a whiteboard and started asking them what they knew about gardens and growing food. As they answered, I listed things they mentioned on the whiteboard. Almost immediately, I could see their energy draining, eyes and minds wandering, and interest dwindling. After two or three questions, getting anyone to answer was like pulling teeth. At that moment, I decided to switch gears and try something new – sharing the power. I announced that I thought there was enough information on the board to create a project, and that for this next part, they would need to run their own meeting with each other. I told them that together, without my help or input, they needed to come up with project ideas, come to a consensus on one idea, and then pitch that idea to me and my co-instructor.

Allowing my students to take full charge of their project increased engagement tenfold. Their eyes lit up, the excitement was palpable, and one student immediately assumed the role of facilitator, stating that he would start by writing ideas on the board and that they would then take turns explaining why their idea was best. Each of them was eager to get their chance to write ideas on the whiteboard and I was able to glean a lot of information about their garden knowledge, information processing, and leadership styles, which in turn helped me design more appropriate lessons that centered new knowledge to help them with their project completion in future weeks.

References

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms (Vol. 31).

Rinaldi, C. (2004). In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, Researching and Learning, 1–186. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203317730

Toshalis, E., Nakkula, M. J., Hinton, C., Fischer, K. W., & Glennon, C. (2012). MOTIVATION, ENGAGEMENT, AND STUDENT VOICE EDITORS’ INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDENTS AT THE CENTER SERIES Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice. Retrieved from www.studentsatthecenter.org.

Whitman, N. A. (1988). Peer Teaching: To Teach Is to Learn Twice. Washington D.C. https://doi.org/10.2307/1318523

Think back to the last time you were bored in an educational environment – a class, a seminar, a mandatory work training – and answer this: why? For many of you, I can guess that you were lectured at, already knew the material, or felt that your voice and participation didn’t matter.  Too often, educators design activities for students on the grounds of meeting standards or maximizing student outcomes without considering student desires or funds of knowledge (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). This leads to less student engagement with learning materials and activities and often times a feeling of failure on the part of the instructor. However, if educators change their focus from a standardization or student outcome centered view and instead put energy into creating opportunities for student choice, engagement is likely to increase and the resulting “enhancement of agency has been linked to a variety of important educational outcomes” (Toshalis, Nakkula, Hinton, Fischer, & Glennon, 2012). Two strategies for incorporating student voice and choice are adopting a pedagogy of listening and power sharing. If utilized correctly, these practices not only help increase activity engagement but can also help educators deepen their bonds with students and promote higher level social development skills.

Adopting a Pedagogy of Listening

“Can we go up the canopy tower?”

“When are we going to climb the tower?”

“I don’t care about finishing the scavenger hunt, I just want to go to the canopy tower.”

These quotes are from three different students in just the last two days of teaching team Pond; third- and fourth-grade students aren’t exactly subtle about what they want to do with their time. In fact, the topic of the canopy tower has come up in my group at least twice a week for the last four weeks. My co-instructor and I walked past the tower the first week with our students and every day afterwards kept telling them, “not today.” However, we found that the topic repeatedly came up in our group and would divert conversations and activities away from what we had planned. Eventually in a one-on-one meeting, I asked my co-instructor, “Why not? Why haven’t we allowed them to go up the canopy tower yet? Why are we continually gate keeping an experience that they want to have?”

Krichevsky TowerIn the fifth of eight weeks together, we finally incorporated the canopy tower climb into our lessons and found that once at the top, our students participated more fully in conversations about our driving question, stayed on task more than they had in prior weeks, and more openly shared their curiosities about the forest around us. That afternoon we asked ourselves, “What level of engagement would we be having now if we had listened to our students and incorporated their desires earlier? What if we had gone up the canopy tower the first time they asked?”

Centering student voices when teaching is part of what Carlina Rinaldi refers to as adopting a pedagogy of listening. She argues that “a pedagogy of listening means listening to thought – the ideas and theories, questions and answers of children of adults; it means treating thought seriously and with respect” (Rinaldi, 2004). By listening to what students are talking about, their curiosities, and prior knowledge, educators can learn more about how their students are making sense of their world and learning. Furthermore, if educators treat student thoughts “seriously and with respect,” then they can utilize what they learn from students to make lessons more relevant to student interests and experiences.

Power Sharing

Another way educators can incorporate student voice and choice is power sharing. When teaching, especially with younger students, educators often uphold the inherent power dynamics that exist between themselves and their students. It’s easy to believe that you as the educator should play the role of teacher one hundred percent of the time in order to impart your expertise and produce learning. However, by breaking down the power dynamics at play between student and teacher or older and younger, students can feel less like they’re being lectured at, incorporate their personal funds of knowledge (Moll et al., 1992), and freely express their ideas and curiosities. Additionally, research has shown that one of the best ways to internalize a newly learned concept is to teach it to others through peer teaching (Whitman, 1988). Power sharing allows students the opportunity to show what they know and commit their learning to memory.

During a 7-week program, my students were tasked with creating a project to answer the question: Can we abandon the garden and grow our food in the forest? During our initial talk about the question, I stood up in front of a whiteboard and started asking them what they knew about gardens and growing food. As they answered, I listed things they mentioned on the whiteboard. Almost immediately, I could see their energy draining, eyes and minds wandering, and interest dwindling. After two or three questions, getting anyone to answer was like pulling teeth. At that moment, I decided to switch gears and try something new – sharing the power. I announced that I thought there was enough information on the board to create a project, and that for this next part, they would need to run their own meeting with each other. I told them that together, without my help or input, they needed to come up with project ideas, come to a consensus on one idea, and then pitch that idea to me and my co-instructor.

Allowing my students to take full charge of their project increased engagement tenfold. Their eyes lit up, the excitement was palpable, and one student immediately assumed the role of facilitator, stating that he would start by writing ideas on the board and that they would then take turns explaining why their idea was best. Each of them was eager to get their chance to write ideas on the whiteboard and I was able to glean a lot of information about their garden knowledge, information processing, and leadership styles, which in turn helped me design more appropriate lessons that centered new knowledge to help them with their project completion in future weeks.

References

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms (Vol. 31).

Rinaldi, C. (2004). In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, Researching and Learning, 1–186. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203317730

Toshalis, E., Nakkula, M. J., Hinton, C., Fischer, K. W., & Glennon, C. (2012). MOTIVATION, ENGAGEMENT, AND STUDENT VOICE EDITORS’ INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDENTS AT THE CENTER SERIES Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice. Retrieved from www.studentsatthecenter.org.

Whitman, N. A. (1988). Peer Teaching: To Teach Is to Learn Twice. Washington D.C. https://doi.org/10.2307/1318523

About the Author
Diana Krichevsky

Diana Krichevsky earned her B.S. in Environmental Science from UCLA and started her teaching career as an English teacher in South Korea. She is now combining her passions for teaching and the environment as an outdoor educator working toward a Masters of Education at the University of Washington and IslandWood Graduate Program. After graduating, she hopes to continue working with kids outdoors through place-based education that integrates both the cultural and historical backgrounds of land into her lessons.