Making Learning Student-Centered: Providing Voice and Choice

We know that not all students learn in the same way. Why is it then that in the traditional model of education, we expect students to learn along the same pathway at the same time?
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In June of 2021, we published the report Student-Centered Learning in Michigan K-12 Schools: Factors That Impact Successful Implementation. This study aimed to capture the ways in which Michigan schools are implementing student-centered learning practices along with the factors that impact the successful implementation of such practices. 

To inform the report, we interviewed teachers and both building- and district-level administrators from five Michigan school districts: Berrien Springs Public Schools, Hamilton Community Schools, Oxford Community Schools, Portland Public Schools, and the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium, & Keweenaw. These school districts belong to a larger network of districts that are early adopters of student-centered learning called the Michigan CoOp (MiCoOp), which is led by Lisa Sitkins. 

This mini-series Student-Centered Learning in Michigan K-12 Schools—which is part of our larger student-centered learning blog series—is meant to accompany the report and further explore the practical implications of the research. In addition, the mini-series celebrates these schools as well as other K-12 schools throughout the state of Michigan who continue to work toward implementing student-centered learning models that include elements of digital learning, personalization, and competency-based learning progressions

In our conversations with teachers and school leaders about how they are making learning student-centered, talking about voice and choice is where the conversation typically begins.  

Although voice and choice are related and often discussed together, they are not interchangeable. Choice is when students choose, from a set of predetermined options provided for them, the path or process that works best for them. Voice is when students are actually responsible for and included in designing the learning options. 

However, voice and choice are both ways in which students are encouraged to take ownership of their learning.

Providing voice and choice for families: Learning options 

Now, maybe more than ever before, students and their families have choices when it comes to learning. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools offered—and are likely to continue to offer—virtual learning options and hybrid options (a mix of both virtual and in-person instruction) for students and their families to choose from in addition to the more traditional face-to-face learning option. 

Taking choice for families a step further, some school districts actually include parents and community members in the design of learning options, allowing them to have a voice in the process. 

Within the community of Oxford, Michigan, there is a large homeschool population made up of parents who want their children to have different learning options, to have voice and choice, and to have more support. In listening to the voice of the community, learning options were designed to fit families’ needs, namely Oxford Virtual Academy (OVA) and their hybrid learning pathway

“They [homeschool families] wanted a flexible schedule. They didn’t want to be in a traditional public school classroom and fully online education wasn’t cutting it for them,” Jordan Dennis, OVA’s hybrid learning coordinator said. “They wanted more support. They wanted some classroom experience, some hands-on things. So the hybrid program was that blend between a public school setting in a physical classroom with a more structured day, but with the flexibility in the pacing that is afforded to online students.”

Just as teachers strive to incorporate voice and choice for students into student-centered learning environments, OVA school leaders listened to their community to understand what parents wanted and needed, designing learning options specifically to meet those needs.  

A traditional school model and schedule may not work well for students and/or their families for many reasons such as involvement in traveling sports team, student work schedules, anxiety, bullying, a desire for more flexibility, or health issues that make in-school attendance difficult. 

Allowing parents and the community to have a voice and giving them choices in terms of their children’s education may help to bridge the gap between school and home—resulting in stronger communication, collaboration, and support—and may give students a chance to learn in a way that will allow them to succeed. 

“They [homeschool families] wanted a flexible schedule. They didn’t want to be in a traditional public school classroom and fully online education wasn’t cutting it for them.”

Providing voice and choice for students: Personalized learning pathways

We know that not all students learn in the same way. 

Some students need more or less time to master a skill. Some students need more small group or individual instruction to understand a new concept while others may be able to master it on their own. Students have different interests, strengths, weaknesses, learning styles, background knowledge, and learning needs. 

Why is it then that in the traditional model of education, we expect students to learn in the same way at the same time? 

Is it because it’s more convenient to design learning with a single plan? Is it because it’s easier in terms of lesson planning and pacing through a unit to try and keep all students on the same page at the same pace? Or is it because it’s easier to design and grade a single type of assessment? 

Coming from the perspective of a former teacher, I’ll admit that it is. But it’s not what is best for kids.

However, this is how education was designed when I went to school, it was how I was taught to teach, and how I saw teaching modeled for me. 

I was taught to come up with detailed lesson plans, stay on pace within each unit, make sure to cover the standards I was responsible for teaching, and maybe incorporate some differentiation here and there. 

I was ill-prepared for the reality of a classroom of 20–30 students who learned at different paces, many who needed more individual attention and guidance than I could provide during the whole class, teacher-led instruction. 

However, instead of trying to make students learn along the same pathway at the same time, what if we provide opportunities for students to work at their own pace, allowing them to move forward when they are ready and giving them extra time and instruction when needed? What if we allow students to tap into their interests and use their strengths as it relates to the topics or standards being taught? 

Providing choice can increase student engagement, student performance, and students’ perceived value of their learning. 

When students have choices related to the format or content of their learning, the manner in which their learning is assessed, and/or have a voice and some degree of control in the learning process, they are more likely to be active participants in their education, to take responsibility for their learning, and to be engaged in their own learning. This is evident in the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium, and Keweenaw (CLK): 

“Two of our classes are project-based—one English and one social studies,” explained Joel Asiala, principal at Horizons, an alternative high school within CLK. Students are able to come up with their own individual projects or “choose from a variety of projects in order to portray their understanding and demonstrate their learning.”

Allowing students to choose their own learning pathway, to learn at their own pace, to have a voice in some aspects of their education, and/or providing them with project-based learning opportunities are just some of the ways in which teachers are implementing voice and choice in Michigan K-12 classrooms.

Giving students a voice through leadership opportunities

At the classroom-level, encouraging student voice and leadership by co-creating classroom rules or policies, rather than having teacher-created behavior expectations that are simply explained to them, can give students a sense of ownership and help to make them feel comfortable using their voice in other ways in the classroom.  

Another way to incorporate student voice in terms of leadership at the classroom level is to provide opportunities for students who have mastered a concept to explain it in their own words to a peer who may be struggling and may simply need to hear it explained another way, in a student’s voice. Students benefit from hearing a concept explained in a peer’s voice, and in turn, it benefits the student leader’s learning as they think more deeply about the concept by explaining it to others.

During our interview, Will Heath, superintendent of Portland Public Schools, shared that he believes that there needs to be some intentionality behind creating leadership opportunities for students at the building and district levels. 

Heath elaborated: “We have to actually set up avenues in which students feel that they have a voice—more than just student council.”

While the chance for students to have a voice when it comes to building and district leadership may indeed not be as common, there are many ways to include student voice in education policymaking at the school, district, and state level.

“We have to actually set up avenues in which students feel that they have a voice—more than just student council.”

Final thoughts

When learning is student-centered, teachers design learning that is flexible and includes voice and choice. The learning pathway that each student takes doesn’t have to look the same. 

This may require teachers to completely shift the way they think about and approach teaching. 

As Dave Eichberg, superintendent of Berrien Springs Public School explained: “Our focus, as educators, for so long has been on the teaching part of education. In order for us to really embrace voice and choice, our focus has to shift. The lens through which we look at education has to be through the eyes of the learner.”  

I couldn’t agree more. 

“Our focus, as educators, for so long has been on the teaching part of education. In order for us to really embrace voice and choice, our focus has to shift. The lens through which we look at education has to be through the eyes of the learner.”

Student-centered learning blog series

In our Student-Centered Learning blog series, we lead a discussion about student-centered learning: what it is, how it can help students and schools, and how to make it a reality. Our hope with this series is to provide practical insights to school leaders, teachers, and parents on how to make education more meaningful to students. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

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Christa Green

Christa Green

Christa received her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Kent State University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She taught middle school language arts and social studies for seven years before coming to work for Michigan Virtual in 2018. As a research specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, Christa enjoys using her passion for education, curriculum, research, and writing to share and shape best practices in online and blended learning with other educators within and beyond Michigan.

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