Using Student Voice in Planning Curriculum & Learning Activities

Instructor: Alicia Taylor

Alicia has taught students of all ages and has a master's degree in Education

Using student voice in your classrooms will help your students learn and learn about learning. But how do you incorporate their thoughts into your lessons? This lessons describes principles for listening to and applying student voice.

Why Student Voice?

In the 1760s and 1770s, the British found out what happens when you try to rule people without giving them a voice. They rebel. America was founded on the belief that authority figures should respect the opinions and beliefs of those they lead. Well, it's taken almost 250 years for that idea to enter the American classroom, but it's finally taken a seat in the front row.

This idea of democracy in the classroom, called student voice by educators, is growing in popularity.

The Importance of Student's Ideas in Curriculum Design

Student voice has two major virtues. First, it allows students to think about the way they learn rather than just the things they learn. Building strong skills in metacognition, or thinking about how you think, helps students learn how to learn.

Let's say a student zones out during lectures, but perks up when there is a demonstration. The student may never have thought to himself, 'I learn from examples better than lectures.' But, if the student realizes that is the case, he learns to seek out examples for himself when he doesn't understand a lecture.

The second major virtue of student voice is in the curricular changes the students' votes bring about.

If a group of students is keenly interested in science experiments, but the science teacher had planned few experiments, the students may request a change to the plans. A student's desire to learn is something a teacher should always encourage, so if the teacher discovers an area of interest, she and the students both benefit. The opportunity to request certain lessons leads to greater engagement in class.

Hearing the Voice

Surveys help teachers gain anonymous feedback that values each student's voice equally. They can be used at the beginning of the school year to get a sense of what students are interested in learning or their learning styles. They can also be used as check-ups throughout the year. Surveys can be used for lesson evaluations to give the students a chance to tell the teacher what was effective or confusing about a lesson.

The idea of such evaluations is not to create students who think they are in a position to judge the teacher, but rather to give them a sense that they are working together with the teacher to make the class effective.

Anonymous feedback isn't the only way to promote student voice. Make space in class for students to share ideas, answer one another's questions, and discuss other ways of understanding material. Student voice elevates each student to a co-teacher in a classroom. Pay attention to their recommendations and their methods of explaining concepts to other students.

Making the Change

There are many ways of using student voice in curricular design and lesson planning. A few examples follow, but all include these key features:

  • Student input is gained beginning early in the process.
  • Teachers share their reasoning for pedagogical choices with students.
  • All student input is given equal weight.

Example: Create a Rubric

On the first day of English class, the teacher says, 'We're going to create a rubric today that we will use to grade all your writing. What do you think it takes to be a good writer?'

One student says, 'You have to include a hook.' So, the teacher writes 'Hook' on the board. Another chimes in, 'You need good grammar.' One more adds, 'You need a thesis.' Soon, the students have come up with a list of 25 things it takes to be a good writer.

The teacher asks, 'Could we organize this? I feel like there are some things like 'logical connections' here that seem different from things like 'correct punctuation.'' So, the students decide everything fits into three categories: Big Ideas, Organization, and Grammar/Punctuation.

Now the teacher asks, 'Which is most important? Should the rubric give equal percentage points to each category?' One student says that it makes sense for them to be equal, but another says he thinks Big Ideas are much more important than the other two, so it should be 50% of the grade. Someone disagrees.

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