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Our ever-evolving globalized and digitized economy will demand that our workforce be more self-reliant, creative, innovative, collaborative, solution-oriented and entrepreneurial. Experts predict 40% or more of that work will be ‘freelancing.’ (See The Rise of The Freelance Economy, Forbes magazine).

These seismic shifts are at the heart of why education must change. Ultimately, students will need to be more involved, to “own their learning.” The path to increased student ownership correlates directly with a core part of PBL pedagogy: Student Voice and Choice.

Teachers can facilitate many ways to allow students choice, including how they pursue challenging problems, how they address the questions, how they deliver their products, and even with whom students collaborate. Student voice is also enhanced with opportunities to publicly showcase one’s work, whether face-to-face (presentation) or online (digitally).

Beyond Student Voice and Choice in Projects
However, Student Voice and Choice is not something just reserved for the project. What if we gave our students voice and choice in how our classrooms, and ultimately our schools, operate? Can they help design and contribute to the culture? I would suggest that the fundamental future structure of school will be a joint venture where teachers and students collaborate on everything from project ideas to project implementation, as well as classroom/school norms, policies, expectations, procedures and priorities.

As a former high school media teacher and activities director, I made a career out of engaging, inviting, celebrating and empowering the student voice. I believed in students and wanted them to believe in themselves. I was able to see students do amazing, high quality work that they wanted to do all because of the student voice and choice I encouraged.

Years ago, my school was faced with a crisis centered around racism and diversity challenges—so serious that it resulted in an investigation from the Office of Civil Rights. I put my students on this challenge, and they came up with an ingenious idea. They wanted to create something that sent a powerful message to the campus and the community that students could be united and supportive of one another. They moved beyond tolerance into mutual acceptance with a performance-based project called HARMONY that showcased all groups on campus including every cultural group and special education students. (See Beyond Tolerance: Challenges Create Opportunities).

This is just one example, but here are some concepts that all educators can begin to approach throughout all of their learning environments:

Traditionally, we have defined student voice as that of student governments. I am not saying this can’t be effective, but it’s not enough. Ideally, students could and should be represented on all teacher/staff hiring panels, committees and workgroups. What if teachers and site leaders solicited student participation in everything from PLC’s to Professional Development to Staff Meetings? For several years at my previous student-focused high school, we had students participate in a panel for the first teacher in-service day of the school year. We also had students represented on all interview and hiring panels for all staff positions. Students could and should be represented on all decision-making bodies and their voice should be represented throughout all school operations. True transformative learning will not take place until our students are consistently consulted and listened to as well.

Roles and Responsibilities
For years, students have been teacher assistants, cafeteria volunteers, attendance monitors, drum majors, ASB officers, and many other roles. But it’s time to ratchet this up a bit—or even a lot. Students are ready, willing and able to take much more responsibility related to the success of the learning environment and school culture.

For example, what if a class or program had a Media Coordinator responsible for coordinating the video work? Or a Social Media Coordinator handling the class Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter Accounts? How about a Project Coordinator responsible for calendars, roles, timelines and deliverables? We could keep going with a Design Coordinator, Social Coordinator, Web Coordinator, YouTube Channel Coordinator, Community Coordinator and many others. How about Peer Coaches? If it’s good enough for adults, why not students? It’s not about titles for titles’ sake (although students do respond to having them). It’s about students taking greater responsibility for strategic roles in the classrooms. It’s about allowing students to bring their expertise and experience forward for the greater good, while also enhancing their skills, resumes and portfolios.

Another former school of mine created the Student Project Coordinator as a means to expand the role of students. Students who were advanced in a given curricular area, or showed tremendous enthusiasm and skill, could apply for this position that had students in the role of facilitator of learning. Instead of teacher’s aide, or gloried gopher, a Student Project Coordinator led sessions, coached small groups, organized model lessons and demonstrations, and much more.

Feedback from Students
Students have good ideas and are more than capable of providing feedback on what works in the classrooms and what can help facilitate learning. We have great digital tools now like Google Forms and others that allow teachers and school sites to survey students on a regular basis about their learning experiences and growth needs. My last school decided to survey our students quarterly in each class about how their learning was developing, what instructional practices were helping and what they needed in terms of specific academic support. Site Leaders can also learn by surveying students about everything from school culture to school safety. Additionally, students should be providing their peers with feedback on their work and projects. In a project-based environment, peer critique and feedback are essential in formative assessment. 

Start and End with the Student in Mind
As with almost everything, it’s really about a mindset. In the end, do we believe in students or not? Do we trust students or not? And do we challenge students or not? I have always believed in the raw power of students. When they are unleashed, they can not only enhance the learning, but truly change the world.

It’s time to stop being afraid of losing control and giving students too much freedom. It’s time to let student voice and choice guide our thinking and their learning.

Follow Michael Niehoff on Twitter @mwniehoff
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