In reviewing my student surveys, I noticed a few trends:

  • Students want more procedures. They generally think the class runs smoothly, but they want more clarity on what they are supposed to do. 
  • Students are not as crazy about choice as I had thought. For example, they prefer the visual writing prompts to free writes. 
  • Students don't like the twenty percent concept. Every time that we've tried a totally independent project, they have felt lost and disconnected - even when they worked in a group. 
  • Many of my students see the class as well-behaved and they see me as "strict but fair," and yet they want me to return to seating charts. 

So, I'm going a little more traditional. I'm ignoring the Twitterverse utopian visions of letting students do whatever they want in the name of autonomy. I'm giving them more math problems to practice (because they asked for it). I might just set up seating charts for certain subjects.

It has me realizing that it is easy to advocate for democratic classrooms and student choice when it seems to affirm the ideology of alternative education. Sure, let them play some Minecraft. Yeah, let's let them choose their own reading. Go for it! Start with some inquiry in science.

But what happens when democracy looks different? What happens when students want more structure? What happens when they don't want a mess? What happens when they advocate for rows instead of tables? What if they want seating charts? What if they ask for more rote-based, repetitive practice because they feel overwhelmed by constant authentic math problems? What if they beg for stickers?

It's the same issue with student voice. Hand out megaphones and see who yells loudest. Shake your first. Point out the flaws of the system. Go for it. But what about the students who embrace the structure of high school? What about those who like feeling competent by mastering a subject in a more traditional way? What about those who feel grateful to the teachers who have helped them think better about life?

It is easy for me to scoff at that idea, because I was wildly idealistic, creative and outspoken as a high school student. I wore John Lennon t-shirts. I wrote op-ed pieces in the school newspaper without ever joining the class.  But what about those who are thriving in band and drama and athletics? What about those who show pride in their school, not out of coercion or popularity, but out of a sense of gratitude for getting an education? You won't hear them in #stuvoice, because their voices are often too quiet and nuanced.

If you want to embrace student voice, it can't just be a megaphone of shouting. If you advocate for democratic classrooms, it might not look project-based or inquiry-driven. And before blaming it on the socialization of the system, consider this:

If you really open it up to choice and democracy, understand that students might not be as radical as you think.  

24 comments:

  1. Schools are still set up as deficit model rather than a talent model. The old achievement gap rather than a talent analysis. Whichever- students do need some structure. The absence of which breeds breakdown.
    As a retired teacher leader, I find most classrooms mirror the interior garden of the teacher.
    www.owlmountaincoaching.com

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  2. Funny, but I was your opposite number in high school. Not only did I work well within the "confines" of the system, but I partially was the system, serving ad the editor of the student newspaper. And I think that is why I am continually turned off by the constant temper tantrum that is #stuvoice. Not that I think that I know what's best, but those holding the megaphone seem so out of touch with the actual needs of their peers. I have tried the very loose approach to things like writing and very often have found that students flail and flounder because they lack a lot of the skill or discipline necessary to be successful. Then, when I try to teach those skills, I am contributing to their deaths or something.

    Okay, I'm rambling. Just remember this: it's your fault and only ever your fault if they fail.

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    1. And yet, I probably would have gotten along really well with you in high school. I wrote a ton for the newspaper, even though I wasn't on staff.

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  3. in the middle of my teaching day, so i'm rushed for time. i just wanted to let you know your post resonated with me. kids *like* structure, and classroom structures help ensure equity, an important tenet of NZ society. i've shared your thoughts with my dept. thanks!

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  4. I too struggled with the idea of "freedom". It was @neilstephenson who clarified my understanding of freedom in a learning environment. He presented me with the idea of liberating constraints. Constraints are necessary. Structure is necessary. http://www.thinkinginmind.com/2009/11/questioning-student-centered-learning/

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    1. I like the way that you've defined that.

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  5. John,

    This question is something I have been trying to figure out this year. Perhaps the most important thing you say is "utopian." I am trying to create the perfect classroom environment and system. The truth is that it does not exist, but is different for every student.

    I having been talking pretty loudly about getting rid of standards and personalizing education. I actually really appreciate anyone who challenges my points with thoughtful and practical responses so I really like this post and it has me thinking.

    My pushback to these reasons is to ask why students prefer some of these things? Is it because they are what they are used to in school or do you feel that they have legitimate reasons that they find them helpful. I am not saying this in a judgmental way. I believe only you, as the teacher in the room can answer this question because you know your students. Also how much of it is related to their age and maturity?

    I will be thinking on this post for awhile...

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    1. I see a point in personalizing parts of education. And, as you know, I am a big fan of project-based learning. But a part of what I am realizing is that the transition might sometimes need to be slow and sometimes it doesn't work best for all kids. True, the socialization of school is a part of it. However, some of this comes from the conflicting needs of freedom and safety.

      There's another part to this post, though. It's the idea that sometimes quality education isn't democratic. Sometimes we do things (good things, like student choice or open seating) that students don't like. In these moments, it might be more freeing but it isn't truly democratic.

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    2. "Sometimes quality education isn't democratic" Another great question for me to contemplate. What is the role of force and coercion in the classroom? Is there ever a place for it?

      Recently my students biggest pushback on every project is that they want to form their own groups instead of teachers doing it. They are to the point of being entitled about it and apparently started a petition for it today.

      We have tried student chosen groups in the past and have seen many groups fail, so are reluctant to do it again. On the other hand, the truth is that we have enough students in our classes with low motivation that most groups have someone who is dead weight on the project.

      Democratic would let them chose their own groups. Best practice might say not to....

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  6. I noticed in my French classroom last year that as I gave my students more freedom, they didn't always appreciate it. They liked when we had a book and followed it exactly. They liked the rules and procedures. Most of them seemed more comfortable in a controlled environment. Was this because it was simply what they were used to by the time they reached HS? What if they had been in a truly inquiry based system for their entire education?

    There are a limited number of teachers who are 'connected' and participate in #edchat. We complain about education being controlled by politicians, not educators. It seems so difficult to make REAL change. What about students? Why aren't we asking to hear more from the student perspective? And...have we realized that there are a limited number of students who are 'connected'? If we are hearing from students, are we hearing from 1% of them or the majority?

    Thanks for making me think (again) John!

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    1. Excellent points. Your comments have given me a lot to think about as well.

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  7. Few of us are arguing for more Summerhills. As always, our time with students is a fine balance between what we want for them and what they want for themselves.

    The fact that you're even having these thoughts/conversations lets us know your students are in good hands. Because in most classes it's just what we want for them, their opinions be damned.

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    1. The down side of being away from the classroom is that you miss the nuance. The downside of being in the classroom is you grow myopic and miss the big picture. All I really know right now is my classroom. I have a very vague sense of what's going on in most of the classrooms in our country.

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  8. Student choice is one of those feel-good teacher created things. Research does show that people perform better and are more creative when placed into a box. Brainstorming, 20% time, group work....blahhhh.

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    1. I see those things as valuable, but I also see them as part of a blended approach.

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    2. Paul - What studies are you referring to here? I am thinking of Dan Pink, who refers to examples of increased productivity when individuals are given the freedom to pursue the work they want to do. I recognize that adult professionals operate differently than our students at high school do. They want to succeed and they are used to success being somewhat narrowly defined. If we give our students more freedom (even if they claim they don't want it) then we need to be more open in our definition of success and allow sloppiness to creep in without it being penalized. It's a tough balance to strike, isn't it?

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  9. I don't think that the things that you talk about happen overnight. I could also use the same argument in my experiences with teachers; I have dealt with the situation where they simply want to know the action-consequence as opposed to being trusted with using their own common sense and making a decision. So would it be better if I just took that opportunity away from them and decided for them? They want it at that time but in the long term, is it better for the culture that I am creating in the school to stay the course?

    Yes many kids want structure but what different do they know in school? Many kids say, "I don't want a mobile device in the classroom because it will distract me." Are they talking about an experience they have had with deep learning or only about what they know at the time?

    There is no perfect classroom because learning and relationships are messy. The question I have is are you stepping back into what is comfortable or are you moving forward to something better?

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    1. I'm not moving back into what's comfortable. If anything, I'm more comfortable with freedom and autonomy. But I am suggesting that there is moderation and nuance and that's been a part of what I've seen in the student voice reflected in surveys.

      And often what I see on social media and in blogging (especially with people who are not in the classroom) is an advocacy for certain pedagogy (in the name of student voice and democracy) that does not always reflect the nuance of student experiences and student desires.

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    2. A kid does not necessarily want to use a computer in class but they should have the option right? I believe that more of the "pedagogy" is not about a standard for every kid but that kids have diverse opportunities.

      Thanks for your post John. I think that you are starting extremely important conversations and I really believe in questioning even what is now being embraced as "best practice".

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  10. We wrote an entire blog post as a response ... we thought the comment field would be too small for all we had to say! Thanks for the insightful post.

    http://blog.solaro.com/post/43022733274/solaro-responds

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  11. John-

    I like to think of it as a balance between structure that allows for student choice within the structure. There were procedures to how we did things, systemic processes for the how of the class... but gave the students choice in how they presented their learning, what to research (related to the content topic) and flexibility for when/how they worked on assigned work. This was not something that was always confortable for kids, the choice ... and I have found that creating a space that is safe for kids, with certain procedural structures that also allows for student choice worked for me in the classroom.

    I guess what I wanted for the students was a broader capacity to identify and solve their own questions and problems. This then led them into an investigation that wasn't necessarily like anyone else's in the class. I didn't do it because they wanted it, but because it expanded their capacity. When I was in the 7th and 8th grade classroom, this looked differently than it did when I was in the 11th and 12th grade classroom, but the basics of the mindset were similar. I like structure, but insomuch as it allows for student-directed learning... not because its what they want to be doing necessarily, but because it pushes them forward in becoming a more resilient and adaptive learner.

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    1. "I guess what I wanted for the students was a broader capacity to identify and solve their own questions and problems."

      That's what I'm hoping for. That's what I'm trying for. I guess I'm just feeling worn out by it.

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    2. Diana - I'd say that this is my goal as well. Unfortunately, by the time I meet my students (generally juniors and seniors) many of them have decided that their questions are not of value, it is only the questions that teachers have for them that have value. I fear that many (most?) students attach value only to what is assessed and it is not THEIR questions that are on our assessments.

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Please leave a comment. I enjoy the conversation.

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