Designing Learning to Prioritize Student Voices

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Excerpted from "Teaching for a Living Democracy: Project-Based Learning in the English and History Classroom" by Joshua Block. Published by Teachers College Press.

Prioritizing Student Voices, Decentralizing the Classroom

In our society, it is widely believed that because young people lack experience, they aren’t smart, capable, or insightful. These beliefs are often referred to as young people’s oppression or adultism. In reality, young people see the world differently and are able to recognize injustice and question dominant paradigms, make intellectual connections, and take action in ways that adults often will not. Paolo Freire explained that learning to read the world and discovering the power of one’s own voice are transformative experiences (Freire, 1983). Designing learning that prioritizes student voices also benefits the teacher, who can leave the position of authority in the front of the room and be side by side with students as they transform themselves through their work.

School matters to students when they are given opportunities to engage with the world around them and ask questions about issues that are often ignored or overlooked. As students engage by reflecting on their experiences, learning about our society, and both envisioning and working for social change, they learn that there is substance to their ideas and that they can inhabit multiple roles in the world. When learning is designed in ways that prioritize student voices and thought, there is a clear pathway for students to invest themselves fully and genuinely in quality work that matters. Another way to think of this is to allow students to make meaning of content on their own terms.

In addition to regularly sharing both rough work and finished products out loud, students can generate questions and facilitate. When I prepare students well and successfully set them up to develop their own ideas, my students facilitate their own discussions by quoting sources, calling on each other, and questioning each other deeply. During these times I remind students to speak to each other and not solely to me. I position myself off to the side or behind other students, in order to make sure students speak to each other and shift away from a model where the teacher is always the center of the action.

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Facilitating group class discussion can be a revolving classroom role, or classes can develop guidelines and systems for collectively run discussions. (An example would be having each speaker call on the next person to speak.) Classes can self-evaluate their performance and learn more about discussion and facilitation skills in the process. These are not moments when the teacher is invisible but rather when the role of the teacher is that of an assistant or guide who is ready to step in when needed before returning to the periphery.

My work, and I believe the work of schools, is to create more opportunities for students to connect with content and produce work that they feel they own. Rather than submit to something that is based on a distant administrator or outside authority’s priorities, students should have opportunities to create work that allows them to investigate issues that they regard as meaningful. It is not that project criteria should be forgotten, but rather that we should design learning to provide students with choices as well as generative opportunities and possibilities. It is not enough to expose students to information; deep learning happens when we make space for students to do creative, challenging work in response to meaningful content. While that learning is happening, students should have multiple opportunities to explore and articulate their thoughts and discoveries.

Joshua Block teaches public high school students English and history in Philadelphia. He is a teacher educator, a national board certified teacher, and recipient of a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching. He is the author of Teaching for a Living Democracy: Project-Based Learning in the English and History Classroom.