The Spectrum of Voice by Barbara Bray @bbray27 was adapted from the research “Motivation, Engagement, & Student Voice” by Toshalis & Nakkula at Students at the Center @studentcntrHub. The content in this post was originally developed by Bray and Kathleen McClaskey as the Continuum of Voice* and is a derivative developed by Bray with the graphics by Sylvia Duckworth @sylviaduckworth.
I added “Learners…” to the Spectrum of Voice and removed the arrow from teacher-directed to learner-directed that was on the original graphic. Voice is personal. One learner may be in the Expression level because they feel uncomfortable sharing in a particular class or situation, yet, at the same time, in another environment or situation, they may be in leadership. The WHY around the Spectrum of Voice is from the perspective of the learner. The original continuum implied that voice was the result of the environment or a teacher’s responsibility. Yes, teachers can be the catalyst for students to find their voice and own the learning. Yet, learning is personal and voice is very personal to each learner.
“Who owns the learning?” ~Alan November
According to Eric Toshalis and Michael J. Nakkula in their toolkit “Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice,” a student’s voice demonstrates a commitment to the facilitation of agency and to the creation of policies, practices, and programs that revolve around the learners’ interests and needs. “In this era of standardization, the practice of elevating student’s voice might seem counter-cultural but given the importance of agency, autonomy, and self-regulation in learning, it is really rather commonsensical.”
Without motivation, there is no push to learn.
Without engagement, there is no way to learn.
Without voice, there is no authenticity in learning.
Toshalis and Nakkula
Toshalis and Nakkula explained that the spectrum of student-voice-oriented activities is where students can start articulating their perspectives as stakeholders in their learning to directing collective activities. They can move from data sources to leaders of change. The goal is for learners to have a voice in the partnership, activism, and leadership roles. As one moves from left to right across the spectrum, then roles, responsibilities, and decision-making authority grow.
Voice gives students a chance to share their opinions about something they believe in. There are so many aspects of “school” and “learning” where students have not been given the opportunity to be active participants. Some students, especially those that are concerned about extrinsic factors like grades, may not feel comfortable expressing their own opinions. Giving students a voice encourages them to participate in and eventually to own and drive their learning. This means a complete shift from the traditional approach of teaching compliance that develops a “learned helplessness” to an encouraging voice where there is authenticity in the learning.
The idea of “school” is supposed to be about building relationships that develop a culture of learning. If you ask students what they think about school, you open the door to discussions about them wanting to be heard, having their teachers care about them, and about teachers really listening to what they are saying. When teachers and students engage in meaningful conversations based on real-world issues where they have a voice in decision-making, then they are building a collaborative community of learners. Dropout rates, student achievement, and workforce readiness will improve by integrating students’ voices in the classroom and in society.
“Encouraging voice refers to those pedagogies in which youth have the opportunity to influence decisions that will shape their lives and those of their peers either in or outside of school.” (Mitra, 2009)
A child comes to school with preconceived ideas about what it means to be a learner. They may have been taught at home to obey and follow directions at school. Or you may have a child who was taught to ask questions. Voice is personal at any age at even this level. As the teacher introduces a lesson, they determine the students’ prior knowledge. Students may volunteer their own opinions, praise others, or possibly object to what they are asked to do. The teacher asks questions inviting students to provide the right answer or encourages students to come up with more questions. The teacher can be working at giving students more voice in different activities such as art or constructing something in a makerspace. However, at this level, students tend to be more compliant and present a sense of learned helplessness. Students may be more interested in what their grades will be or if what they are learning will be on the test.
- How do you identify a student is at the Expression level?
- What can teachers do to encourage the student to feel more comfortable in the class?
The teacher invites students to take surveys and polls for a consensus on issues. The students consult with the teacher to share how they learn best and have conversations about their strengths, interests, and challenges. During the consultation, the teacher and student determine the most appropriate tools, resources, and learning strategies to support their learning. This is where the teacher starts developing the relationship with each student that changes as they learn. The student discusses how they plan to meet their learning goals and the best way to assess what they learned with the teacher. These conversations validate them as a learner. The teacher then designs the lesson from the feedback, surveys, and opinions to determine the best instructional strategies based on the diverse students at the extremes based on Universal Design for Learning.
- How do teachers identify a learner is at the Consultation level?
- How can teachers work together on activities that empower a student’s voice?
Students define their learning targets with the teacher, how they plan to meet learning goals, and articulate how they will demonstrate mastery with evidence of learning. The student’s voice is encouraged because now they are more invested in how and what they learn. They are encouraged to attend meetings and participate in brainstorming ideas. Each student is working alone or with others where they use the design thinking process around different topics either individually or in groups. They are responsible for how they design and meet their learning goals. They demonstrate evidence of their learning and their participation in a group.
- How can you involve learners in goal setting and defining learning targets?
- What type of evidence will be expected to demonstrate mastery?
Students take on roles in decision-making in the classroom and school, i.e. committees, clubs, student council, etc. As part of a member of a project or group, they are learning together and how to collaborate. They learn from and teach each other and design and create together. Students contribute to the design of lessons and projects based on their interests and questions. You will see students in multiple areas in the room working in pairs, small groups, one or two students in a corner of the room, or a student working one-on-one with the teacher. Some students are sharing information virtually. You may even notice a group where one student is leading a brainstorming session with their peers using collaborative tools. The noise level changes and is beginning to sound more like a coffee shop with “controlled chaos” or “messy learning.” You are now hearing an exciting buzz of voices from around the room.
- How do you see the Partnership level in your class?
- Is it possible for teachers to let go and empower students to take on more responsibilities for their own learning?
Students have identified an authentic, real-world problem or challenge that they want to tackle. You may see students in the hallways or other areas in or outside of the school with excitement about information or resources they discovered that could solve the problem. They are brainstorming ideas and generating solutions. Students are using technology effectively to make connections and build a network of peers. They are showcasing evidence of mastery demonstrating how they tackled the problem. They may even create a call to action in an exhibition, on a website, or for their peers. This is where students are starting to advocate for themselves and are developing self-regulation skills. This is also where you see students protesting about crucial local and national issues like gun control and school safety. You will see more students at this level participating in global projects like the UN Sustaining Development Goals.
- How can you empower Activism within the curriculum?
- Is there a way for students to discover a problem they would like to solve or do something about?
This is where students take on a leadership role around their passions, interests, or what they want to do to make a difference. They believe in the cause to the point that it drives everything they are doing now. They self-direct their learning and take responsibility for the outcomes. The teacher takes on the role of advisor, providing feedback and any support needed in finding connections and resources to meet goals around what each learner believes is their purpose for learning. They take on their purpose to make a difference and change the status quo. This is where students are advocating for others and what they believe in and have autonomy and agency. You may see students running for office, for school boards, for planning commissions, or running political campaigns. Their voice not only matters, in their leadership role they make sure their voice is heard.
- Are there students in the class who started out at the Leadership level?
- How might teachers step back and encourage students to take on leadership roles?
“Young people want to be heard. They have ideas and perspective on their lives and the world around them, and when their voice is incorporated in learning, good things happen.” [Source: McCarthy, John. Activating Student Voice Empowers Learning. p.65]
There are so many aspects of “school” where students have not been given the opportunity to be active participants in their learning. Some students, especially those that are concerned about extrinsic factors like grades, may not feel comfortable expressing their own opinions. Providing opportunities for student voice encourages them to actively participate in learning, to own and drive their learning, and eventually to discover their purpose for learning.
Thank You to Sylvia Duckworth @sylviaduckworth (http://sylviaduckworth.com) for designing the graphics for the Spectrum of Voice. I welcome you to use and share the Spectrum of Voice. You can download the graphic by right-clicking on the image (Control-click on a Mac) with a link back to this blog post. If you have questions, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Bray, B. UDL and the Why of Learning. Rethinking Learning. October 23, 2017.
- McCarthy, J. Activating Student Voice Empowers Learning. Openingpaths. org
- Toshalis, E. and Nakkula, M.”Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice” Students at the Center.
Why Spectrum with new content and graphics and not use the Continuum?
*The original Continuum of Voice created by me and Kathleen McClaskey appears in our book, How to Personalize Learning. I created derivatives with over 40% changes to the content and graphics with several of the continuums mentioned in the book because I am starting with the WHY of learning instead of the What. I am basing the changes on new research I am finding, the feedback I am getting from educators, and the new direction I am going.
In particular, for the concept of voice, I believe that in the continuums the focus on the environment was what impacted where learners were in the continuum (i.e. teacher-centered or learner-centered). I now discovered that the activity, the environment in or out of school, the relationship students have with the teacher or mentor, and their mindset about learning could impact how they use or not use their voice.
For example, let’s take one student who has a passion to change the status quo and is advocating for gun control. They may even be leading a protest about the issue. That same student may not be doing that well in their math class, may not have a good relationship with their teacher, and tends to be compliant or just working toward a grade. Does this mean they are in the Expression level or Leadership level or both? The idea of saying that one student or teacher was at a specific level concerned educators I talked to. Some teachers may not be that comfortable teaching in a learner-centered environment all the time. But if teachers understand that a student can be affected by a situation or the relationship they have or do not have with different teachers, or extrinsic factors like grades, then they can look at the Spectrum of Voice to understand the whole child.
Think about that and then let’s discuss more situations with different students.
Questions to consider when discussing voice:
- When do you feel like you have a voice in the direction of your learning?
- Have you ever been in a situation where you did not have a voice about what and how you learn?
- How did that feel? Were you able to change that situation? How did you do that?
- Do you know students who are at the Expression level and tend to be compliant?
- What could you do to empower those students to take more ownership of their learning? How can you encourage them to have a voice in what and how they learn?
- Do you have examples of students who found their voice and self-advocate for what they believe?
- Do you know any students that could be compliant in one class and in the partnership level in another?
- Any other questions you would like to share about voice?
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