The students and teachers in my Underachievers Study (2001) all had things to say about student voice and choice.
All students in the Underachievers Study felt they learned better when they had choices about how they learned. The teachers interviewed agreed. Mrs. Libby and Mrs. Edwards both believe that choice is a way to spark student interest or to engage students. Students reported that they sometimes had free choice about what book to read or could select from several books. Occasionally students could choose between two class activities, such as when Mrs. Libby allowed her language arts class to decide to either watch a video or work on creating a paper quilt. The students also said they could sometimes choose who to work with or were involved in setting due dates and scheduling tests, and sometime even in deciding how to assess a unit or project. Mrs. Jacques summed student choice up this way:
Choices? A lot of times I let them choose where they can sit, who they want to work with, what kind of learning environment they want to have in here. You see some of the stuff around the room, the different ways that they can report out. Sometimes they use overheads, sometimes they use charts, sometimes they use different things. I let them choose the kind of projects that they do.
In our interview, Mrs. Edwards and I described these kinds of choices as “the teacher making a skeleton and the students putting the skin on it.”
Mr. Mack believes that getting student input is the key to reaching reluctant learners:
Ask them if we are doing a certain unit, why they don’t like it? What type of things do they like? If it’s notes and discussions and a paper and pencil test at the end, they might not like that unit. Is there another way we can take the same information for them, that might be that they still take the notes but they do a model or a demonstration at the end. If they need to do the hands-on piece. I think that if you make it fun, exciting, they get into it without realizing that they are getting into it. And they’re starting to learn and they’re with you. And then at the end you ask them, “What did we do?” and they say, “We did this, this, and this,” and they were with you all the way along. But the student input helps me make it that way.
Choices and input were important components of project work for Ben, Doris, and Cathy. Doris said she wanted to do class projects and assignments her own way. Cathy wanted input into the kinds of work she does; she doesn’t mind parameters, but doesn’t want to be told exactly what to do. Ben thinks he learns best when he is doing hands-on activities that students have more control over. Cathy notes, however, that most of the time, teachers lay out all the work to be done by students and students aren’t given many choices. Ben and Doris agreed. Doris finds it boring when all the work is laid out to be done. Ben doesn’t see how he is given many choices in school and points out that he would like to have at least one course where he could learn what he wanted to:
Okay. I’d like to have a class where you get to learn what you want to learn. And it would be pretty much divided up [by interest group]… We have something like that only it’s an activity at the end of the day, called [activity period], that we only have on some days. I think there should be a class that is just, you choose what you’re going to learn. You have a little list of choices and you just choose.
Mrs. Jacques was explicit that students don’t get to choose what to learn, “As far as choosing the curriculum, you know, what they want to learn, that’s kind of set. So, they don’t really have much choice in that.” Seventh graders who participated in the Aspirations survey agree. The data show that only about half the students felt that they got the chance to explore topics that they found interesting (51%) or had opportunities to decide what they wanted to learn (44%).
Muir, M. (2001). What engages underachieving middle school students in learning? Middle School Journal, 33(2), pp. 37-43.