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.
You’ve been reading through a series of my posts highlighting, mostly, counterproductive extrinsic motivators.
You must be wondering, though, are all extrinsic motivators bad? The kind of motivators Alfie Kohn describes (bribery rewards) do have a negative impact on learning, but are there other kinds of extrinsic rewards (besides random rewards) that will positively effect learning?
The answer is, Yes!
It is choice that can help make extrinsic rewards almost as powerful as intrinsic motivation, that force that drives us to do what we’re interested in. Choice makes the difference. The fancy term is “autonomous supportive strategies” and comes from self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). Proponents of self-determination theory maintain that integrated regulation is as effective for achieving optimum learning as intrinsic motivation.
Student Voice and Choice can be achieved through a variety of strategies. Teachers can allow students to share in the decision-making and authority within the classroom. They may negotiate the curriculum with the teacher, or help the teacher decide how they will learn the curriculum. Teachers might involve students in planning the entire unit or simply give students a choice of doing one of three assignments. Project-based learning, for example, allows students numerous choices around what form their finished product will take, while learning valuable content determined by the teacher, district, or state. The key is to make sure students have choices about their learning.
Keep in mind that giving students choices does not mean “let them do what they want.” We don’t ask toddlers, “What do you want for dinner?” But we might say, “Do you want peas or carrots with dinner?”
The same is true of students. We would never think to ask them “what do you want to learn?” But we might say, “We’re starting a unit on the Great Depression today and we’re all going to read a novel about the depression. But let me tell you about these three outstanding books so you can choose which one you want to read…” We might progressively structure more and more choice for students so that they can take on more and more of their own learning. But that would only come with careful scaffolding, just as we might give our own children more and more choices about what they eat, and as they develop the ability to make healthy choices, eventually get to the point where we do ask our teenager what she would like to eat for dinner.
This is why Student Voice and Choice is one of the Focus Five of Meaningful Engaged Learning and why it is one of the critical components of Customized Learning. It is so powerful that teachers should use it was their secret weapon in working to motivate students and help them be successful.
Deci, E. L., and R. M. Ryan. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.
Deci, E., Vallerand, R., Pelletier, L., & Ryan, R. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational psychologist, 26(3 & 4), 325-346.