Student Voice and Learning

IMG_6125I can’t imagine a school without a discussion. I teach 4th grade, but I’ve had great discussions with my kids in 4th and when I taught 5th as well.

When I’ve visited a 1st grade classroom many times this year, they are always involved in some kind of discussion. How could a school function without it?

I’m afraid with the emphasis on standardized testing and the need for data, that we’re losing kids’ voices. Their voice, their choices.

Reading a recent article by Alfie Kohn, educator and researcher, he said;

…in the best student-centered, project-based education, kids spend much of their time learning with and from one another. Thus, while making sense of ideas is surely personal, it is not exclusively individual because it involves collaboration and takes place in a community…

Just recently, I facilitated a discussion with my students. We are looking at choices and rights, how they work and our responsibility in this world. Students were given 20 items to take with them to a new world, and they needed to narrow it down to 10, then 8. The things came from an idea published in this Unicef site. They were items like clean water, shelter, fast food, computers, fashionable clothes, no racism. They worked in this order:

  1. Individually…Silently, thinking on their own.
  2. With a partner, narrowing it down to 8.
  3. In a group of 4, narrowing it down to 8 between the 4 of them.
  4. As a whole class without any teacher intervention.

The project ended up as 1 hour of complete engagement from a class of very energetic students, many with learning challenges and some with limited English communication skills.

Before we began the discussion, we started by looking at social skills: collaboration, accepting responsibility, taking different group roles. We discussed how important these were in talking and listening to each other.

I frontloaded vocabulary, making sure everyone understood the items they needed to narrow down. We also added “love” and “no racism” to the list.

As you can see from the videos, the final group collaboration was animated and typical 4th graders, but it morphed into an organized vote. I sat back and observed the kids, their leadership skills, their participation skills. I let the ones go who seemed to drift out of the group, allowed them to shout and to step forward. Because I’ve observed my class enough, their roles in a group didn’t surprise me, but what did surprise me was how fast they arrived at a decision.

Our unit is around “How We Organize Ourselves,” and these kids have learned from other class discussions and from paying attention how to decide things fairly and how to come to a decision. It took them about 12 minutes to work out 8 items between all of them.

Reflecting later, they said they were all happy with the decisions. They re-thought their learning process and many had the same perception:  I think it was challenging with a larger group because lots of people have different ideas and it is not easy to choose what everybody likes.

Did my students learn during their exercise? Yes. Absolutely. They seemed to learn about organization, group collaboration and also about what’s important.

Did they learn from each other? Yes. They took charge of the discussion, listened, voted.

Did they learn something about themselves. Yes. Who are they in a group? Can they follow? Do they lead?

Did I learn something? Yes. I need to continue to let out their voices, give them choices. Allow them to learn in the best student-centered way possible because it works.

The Beginning of the Discussion Toward the End

About kdceci

I am a grade 5 teacher in a PYP school in Chicago, Illinois, USA. From the US originally, I worked in Asia the last 13 years. I am passionate about inquiry-driven education, collaboration, and ensuring kids get to continue to be kids that play, create and think as long as they can. Outside of school, l love to write, read, hike, run, meditate and travel.
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2 Responses to Student Voice and Learning

  1. sherrattsam says:

    Discussion is a vital part of the classroom culture and yet it can sometimes be something that we assume happens, or happens well. I noticed several years ago that I was always needed to facilitate a discussion in my 5th grade class – without me to look to, the kids struggled – they couldn’t figure out who should talk next, what to do about interruptions or how to make the discussion flow rather than just be a collection of disconnected statements. That year (and all subsequent years) it was a yearly goal that the students would be able to run their own conversations – no hands up, no looking to the teacher to keep order etc… By teaching them strategies, like the one you described above, they were able to develop skills and then apply them independently or as a group – nothing more satisfying than a student suggesting they use Think-Pair-Share to make the discussion more effective!!!


  2. kdceci says:

    Just had a follow-up to the decision-making process with students, and they were able to use their new skills of decision making to make another decision. It was great. We brainstormed how we make choices and decisions and they reflected on their decision making process where they came up with 8 things they needed to take to a new land. We had a new decision today…what to do with our just-harvested vegetables…and they referred back to making partners, than small groups and then a larger one as the best way to do it. They said that way they can hear everyone’s opinions. Once again, we had to devote some time to how we make decisions, and I had to let them run with it (and be loud), but it worked. Now, I feel like they have some decision-making strategies they can call on. It gives me a sigh of relief because they transferred some learning and because they can act more independently.


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