Voice and Choice in Project-Based Learning

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By: Jess Blauwkamp, Middle School Facilitator

Gateway to Success Academy

Scottville, MI


Voice and choice is an important part of project-based learning that often gets overlooked for various reasons related to the way a majority of schools function. Voice and choice happens in a classroom when the teacher gives up the leadership of the lessons and projects to students, allowing them to design their own projects that show off their learning in unique and individual ways. Oftentimes, this does not happen in the maximum capacity that it could because we as teachers are often reluctant to let go of the control of the project and let students take over for themselves. Schedules, budgets, time management, and resource allocation often leave teachers wary of placing the power of the project into student hands. Will everything be completed on time? Will the resources be used appropriately? These are some of the questions that cause teachers to hesitate with the idea of passing along the power to their students. However, voice and choice is an essential part of the PBL model because of the responsibility it gives to students, and the level of engagement it often inspires. 

Student-led trial & error.

Student-led trial & error.

First and foremost, voice and choice in a project inspires both engagement and ownership of a project. A student who has the opportunity to act upon their own ideas rather than recreate the project the teacher has in mind are more engaged and ready to learn than those who do not have those same opportunities. In my classroom this spring, I led an environmental science project for my students. In my framework, I had my students beginning their own recycling program in our school. It hit the major bullet points of PBL, and it was something that many of my students already felt passionate about. However, our classroom discussions strayed away from the impact of humans on the world as a whole, and ended up being more and more about the individual impact of students at my own school, in my own classroom. In the end, my students decided they would rather take the project in a different direction. Instead of the recycling program, my students started 4 separate initiatives within our school to reduce the impact of individuals on their own school, in their own neighborhood.

Students created a plan to reduce waste in three separate ways. First was to use reusable plastic trays in the cafeteria instead of styrofoam. The second was to create a composting program to reduce food waste. In addition to this, students also created a plan to recycle the cardboard milk cartons leftover from both breakfast and lunch. The fourth group created an initiative to clean up trash around our building, including additional trash and recycling receptacles around  school and an incentive program to encourage students to pick up after themselves. Changing the framework allowed for students to take their own path, one of four paths created by the students themselves, and to own the project in ways that I as a teacher would never have thought of trying. In the end, all 4 groups wrote budget proposals, presented their work, and initiated their work at the school wide level, hitting on english and math standards as well as the initial science work. Students worked hard to promote their ideas to the school board, other teachers, and other students in their building. The engagement level in these students was so amazing to see. They created their own project. 

In addition to creating more engagement and responsibility in a project, voice and choice also creates more authenticity. Authenticity is created when students see the real world impact of a project they design, implement, and adjust. At the end of this project, our school hosted an exhibition day for the public to come and see the work they had finished this school year. Many students presented on their environmental impact project, and were able to show how their work was going to have an authentic impact on their own communities. Reducing waste, cleaning up trash, and composting were all practical things my students learned, and then taught to others that day. The way students presented on and spread their learning outside of our school building shows how voice and choice led to an authentic impact, and engagement in learning as a result. 

Finally, voice and choice helps teachers to avoid “dessert projects,” or projects that happen only at the end of the learning process. Students who are engaged in their work don’t wait to the end to show it off! Allowing students to voice their ideas, gather feedback, and experiment will give them more opportunities to learn more through the process of the project than students who wait until the end to prove their learning. Voice and choice allows for more trial and error in a project, which leads to more unique solutions that are geared towards students, which leads to a more polished end result. Trial and error also teaches students soft skills like discussion, collaboration, and both oral and written communication, as well as helping them build their confidence in their own work. 

The benefits of student voice and choice are clear, but as a teacher, it is still hard to relinquish control of the project to students. Here are 3 ways to make the transition from teacher led to student led in a PBL project. 

Scaffolds to guide independent student learning.

Scaffolds to guide independent student learning.

1. Provide scaffolds: Scaffolds are tools and structures teachers provide to students to help guide their learning. Scaffolds in voice and choice can look very different, but it is important to have a set that you can use in your classroom daily to help reinforce independence within the project. In my classroom, I hold daily meetings with each group or individuals to ensure that the students are on the right track to completing their project. Other scaffolds could include detailed rubrics, a list of expectations, or even specific tools the students may use to complete the task. These specific instructional tools put boundaries on student ideas, helping students to focus their energies on the tasks at hand. 

Chalk Talk for student input and feedback.

Chalk Talk for student input and feedback.

2. Establish routines: Even with scaffolds in place for voice and choice, it’s easy for one or two vocal students to overwhelm the class with their thoughts and ideas. Establishing routines and protocols for the projects can help all student voices be heard. I like to use “chalk talks,” where I have all students use my front whiteboard and markers to write their thoughts, opinions, or evidence of learning. During this protocol, students have a timeframe, usually no more than 4 or 5 minutes, to write all their ideas on a common space, like a chalkboard, whiteboard, window, sticky notes on a wall, or a virtual common space, like a shared Google document. After the chalk talk, we go through the answers as a class, and students have the opportunity to share specific details about what they wrote on the shared space. Other routines that can help all student voices be heard could look like a jigsaw activity or critical friends. Critical Friends activities are designed to help students give feedback to their peers in structured, well managed formats. My students participate in critical friends activities to review each other’s work at least twice per project, though usually more when the ideas are student generated through voice and choice. Here is the critical friends protocol used by Gateway to Success Academy teachers and students. 

Student-led Critical Friends group.

Student-led Critical Friends group.

3. Give structured feedback: Students think big! One of my favorite parts of project based learning is giving students the opportunity to imagine and explore. However, students do not always have a firm grasp on what is practical. As teachers, it is our job to encourage them to accomplish great things, but also teach them the skills of project management. These skills include time management, budgeting, and collaboration. Each of these things can be taught within a student led project with specific and detailed feedback to the groups. Providing students with this feedback helps them to make more informed choices in their own project work. Just like with scaffolds, our feedback should provide boundaries for our students to show what they know, but also accomplish the tasks they set out to complete from the beginning. Set aside time each week to reassess the goals of the project with the students, and help them to gauge whether or not the direction they are taking the project aligns with the learning targets of the project. For my students, this looks like me providing them a driving question, and students finding various solutions and answers for that driving question.

The part of project based learning that I love the most as a teacher is that I am not the keeper of all knowledge. As a teacher, I function as a facilitator of discovery of projects that students design, adjust, and implement on their own. Voice and choice allows for students to show off their own ideas, and build confidence in doing so. So don’t be afraid, let kids come up with their own ideas, design their own projects, and show off what they can do to the world. There’s no place like middle school to start experimenting! 

Student voice and choice is part of Magnify Learning’s Core Components of project based learning. For more information, visit:  https://www.magnifylearningin.org/what-is-project-based-learning

Jessie Blaukamp (1).png

Jess Blauwkamp is a middle school teacher at Gateway to Success Academy in Scottville, MI, a school with a project-based focus. She fell in love with PBL during her time student teaching and hasn’t looked back! Her favorite subject to teach is science, but she teaches all 4 core subjects in a self contained setting with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. In her spare time, Jess likes to crochet hats and blankets, and go hiking in the nearby state park.


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