Moving beyond student voice to empowering students in designing their learning

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Student-centered learning has exploded as a mantra in many education circles. For the schools involved in Fuse Architects, this is no different. Schools’ applications and design meetings were and continue to be infused with this theme. From involving students in designing a new project-based learning space to students redesigning the 9th grade experience, Fuse Architect schools believe students should have more of “a voice” in how they learn, where they learn, and what that learning should be. Instead of typical systems driven by the decisions of adults, Fuse Architects want their schools to truly become more “student-centered.”

But what does it mean for these Fuse Architect schools to be more student-centered? What does it mean to give students “a voice” in their learning? And how can schools move from just saying they want to incorporate more student voice to fostering an environment where students are empowered to play a central role in school-level decision-making? Through Fuse Architects, schools have been challenged to actively wrestle with these questions. As they move beyond simple nods to student voice to empowering students to be a part of designing learning experiences, Fuse Architect schools have realized that shifting towards being student-centered means rethinking their philosophy on how they approach “doing school.”

To become student-centered, teacher and students may have to adjust how they “do school.”

While not surprising, the Fuse Architects project is centered on adjusting the idea of how students experience school. Historically, school is run by adults. Teachers, administrators, and parents make the decisions on behalf of students. And while some Fuse Architect schools report past efforts to solicit student feedback on school policies or gather student opinions via survey, this type of student involvement has not brought about the student-centered learning environment that Fuse Architects are striving to achieve.

Yet to have a student-centered school environment, students must move beyond seeing school as a place where they are told what to do, when to do it, and how. If a school is going to be student-centered, students must not only realize that they have a voice, but that their ideas for how to strengthen and design their learning environments are a part of the culture. According to one Fuse Architect school, they want “to empower students so, in addition to having a voice, they would have the agency to make decisions that improve the learning environment for themselves and for the entire student body.” To do this though, schools must foster a culture where students see their own empowerment as a part of the fabric of the school. For some schools, like 360 High School for example, this is a part of their school’s original fabric. However as several Fuse Architect schools have experienced, this culture shift is hard not only for students, but for their teachers and administrators as well.

To become student-centered, teachers and administrators must also adjust how they think about how students participate.

While teachers and administrators have focused their careers on educating and providing the best experiences possible for young people, they too have to adjust how they “do school.” As Highlander reported, the teachers from one design team reflected that their perspectives changed quite a bit during Design Day because they realized the challenge was to make this process stem directly from the students’ needs. While the adults were coming up with experiences, the students came in and told them that they were approaching the ideas in the wrong way. They were approaching from an adult perspective rather than a student perspective. There was a realization that the teachers needed to let go so that the students could run with it.

As Highlander reflected, “Teachers entered the process with what they wanted to provide the students through the space and then their perspectives shifted to the students taking control over their own design.” For one school, the teachers reported seeing a change in the students who were asked to be part of the project’s focus groups and student shadowing — they were more empowered to share their thoughts with their teachers and administrators. Yet shifting this perspective on student involvement also means incorporating students in meetings and planning periods, letting students run with ideas, and taking students’ ideas for change seriously.

For Narragansett High School, this shift in teacher and administrator thinking was a turning point. Moving beyond their fear of letting go to having students drive the redevelopment of the 9th grade experience, they have seen the shift that can happen when students move beyond just having a voice to being empowered to be a part of the “student-centered” change that their school wanted to see.

“You can’t make school better without student voice.” – Fuse Architect student

Yes, student voice is important. For Fuse Architect schools, however, incorporating student voice may not be enough to truly make their schools “student-centered.” Teachers and administrators have learned that they need to be ready to let students be a part of the process of designing and making their schools “student-centered.” This type of change can’t be driven by adults. And to do this, students, teachers, and administrators need to do school differently than they have done it in the past. This is the challenge of the Fuse Architect project.

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Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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