The world, in general, has very antiquated views of childhood and student capabilities. Despite the research supporting children’s ability to understand complex ideas with proper scaffolding and support from adults, many parents, educators, and leaders choose to withhold a multitude of topics and activities from students citing that they’re “just not able to get it.”
We see it quite a bit regarding curriculum development and lesson planning in education. Adults decide what students are introduced to every year and how students must show mastery of the concepts. Rarely are students, especially in upper grades ironically, allowed to make decisions regarding the what and the how of their own learning. The constructivist learning theory is a major framework of Western education, but it can often contradict the accepted belief that students are incapable of making their own educational decisions. In fact, Montessori-style preschools are taking America by storm yet little to no Montessori concepts are integrated in public schools, especially not in higher grades–even as students are developing more autonomy.
What does it cost us to promote student voice in curriculum design? What do we gain by cultivating active students?
Meaningfully engaged learners
One of the most common focus areas in the learning environment is student engagement. Observers spend a significant amount of time assessing the level of student engagement in the classroom. Teachers determine how much engagement students show with every lesson. In my own research study, I found that what teachers perceived as engagement was more readily seen by students as requirements. But, what makes the engagement meaningful? How can we transform mere requirements for participation into valued and desired commitment to the learning process? Empowering students to make decisions about what and how they learn is the first step. We already know that buy-in is required to support long-term change, so why do we continue overlooking student buy-in when we discuss student achievement and learning?
One day my (then) seven year old asked me how to spell ‘Mario.’ Being the teacher-mother that I am, I said, “You should sound it out, love.” I mean, how many times has an adult told a child to “sound it out” when the child needed assistance with spelling, right? Instead of using my suggestion, my son paused his game, sauntered to his bedroom, and returned to the living room with his Mario Bros 3DS game case. He looked at me with a bright-eyed smile and said, “Never mind, mom! I got it!” I sat on the couch – partly annoyed but mostly proud. To be honest, I wasn’t worried about his reading and writing skills; I was attempting to teach him how to problem solve without using me as his answer source. While I had not anticipated his particular solution, I did a fist pump (in my head) and added a mental tally point to my son’s solution finding column. If we want students to depend on themselves to solve problems, we need to give them more opportunities and responsibilities to practice. In school, this looks like students deciding on how to showcase their learning and mastery of teacher-selected curriculum standards.
Self reflection and evaluation are cornerstones of higher level thinking. We expect them from professionals and adults in general. Adults don’t miraculously learn these skills though; they develop them over time. Why not start the process much earlier? When we develop curriculum, we ask ourselves many questions and then we ask those questions again after implementing what we’ve created. This debrief and evaluation process is something that students can contribute to in a variety of ways. It also teaches them all that goes into creating courses for their consumption. Place some of the responsibility for learning in the hands of the people the system serves, and teach them how to be active learners.
It’s not enough for adults to debate what it will take to move student achievement in the right direction if students are never involved in the conversations. It’s not enough for adults to assign classwork and readings to students in hopes that they will find it relevant if students are never involved in the planning. We’ve done it one way for so long. What is stopping us from trying it another way? If we use the research and theory in every aspect of education, why haven’t we made it our goal to value what our students have to say?
Check out our Current Research page for studies on student feedback in curriculum
Featured photo credit: NASA/Goddard/Bill Hrybyk