“Listening to Their Voices”
Barry Sommer, Director of Advancement, Lindsay Unified School District
We often hear that a key to educational transformation is putting learners at the center and giving them legitimate voice. When they own their learning, exercise choice, and customize their education around their interests and passions, they are intrinsically motivated to learn and grow. Are we poised and patient to truly listen to what they say? Listening helps us focus on understanding others, promotes trust, builds empathy, reduces conflict, and increases our ability to motivate and inspire learners. Listening to learners orients us to put our attention in their world, which cultivates connection and builds relationship. But are we truly listening?
“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)
Deep listening begins with the choice to pay attention to what the speaker is saying. Yet there’s more to listening than simply choosing to pay attention. How are we listening to them? Are we listening for full understanding, to hear what we want to hear, or to judge? What are we thinking as we absorb what they’re saying? Are we listening with the openness to be influenced, persuaded, and affected by what we hear? When we do, the listener’s instinct to observe and judge is transcended.
Most of us are never explicitly taught how to listen at this level. Many of us take the act of listening for granted, believing we’re good listeners. Yet when we ask others how often they feel listened to, most will say rarely. We often think that we are listening but we’re actually just considering how to jump in to tell our own story, offer advice, or even make a judgment—in other words, we are not listening to understand, but rather to reply or respond.
In Mass Customized Learning, we are redesigning schools to be uncompromisingly learner centered. Giving learners voice and providing the Ideal Learning Experience goes far beyond the tools and structures that we traditionally use in our institutions for student representation: student government, student officers on school committees and school boards, student newspaper, and leadership opportunities. All of these demonstrate a commitment by policy makers to listen and respond to students. But structures don’t have voices – people do. Learners do. We need a way to think about student representation not just for the few learner leaders, but in a way that is centered on every learner — on their perspectives, passions, dreams and struggles – on the contribution they each make to the whole. This is what we mean when we talk about learner voice.
We recently asked our learners to tell us what’s working about learning for them in Lindsay Unified School District’s Performance Based System. So here are some of their voices:
“In Lindsay’s Performance Based System (PBS), a learner shows their mastery of knowledge through a variety of media; for example, instead of writing a 10+ page long essay, you could demonstrate your mastery by creating a PowerPoint presentation, or even make a video. That’s what’s so amazing and works best about this system, Lindsay learners are encouraged to demonstrate their mastery in various ways. It’s because of this that I’m able to express myself in a way that I couldn’t with a paper and pen, it enables me to think more creatively and express my knowledge in an entertaining way. Lindsay’s PBS has helped me gain confidence, learn social and presentation skills, and has made me more comfortable in my learning journey.”
“This system brings out the best in me as a learner because I always want to be ahead, and with the PBS system, I can make that happen. This system brings out the best in me as a person because it teaches me the life-long lesson of never giving up in anything, unless it’s something bad like drugs, give that up. It teaches to never give up just because things get hard.”
“Lindsay’s Performance Based System’s flexibility works best for me because it has allowed me to truly learn and experience while I was going through a rough point in my life. When my mentality was not set to learn, the flexibility and voice and choice allowed me to continue to learn at my own pace. The sense of independence the Performance Based System also created, would motivate/allow me to finish assignments at a faster pace. This gave me time to better myself as a person, friend, daughter, and learner.”
“PBS works for me very well, because I always get a second chance to learn something again I didn’t learn in the first time. “
“Lindsay’s Performance Based System works best for me by letting me go ahead if I am advanced in my work. I love this option because I don’t want to be slowed down and I want to run at my own pace. This system brings out the best in me as a learner and as a person by teaching me collaborating skills for the future.”
“Lindsay’s Performance Based System is a real motivator of me, and from what I see, my peers as well. Knowing I will have the support of my learning facilitators when I want to excel in school is something that gives me more drive. This system taught me that if I set my mind on a goal and work for it my goal can be achieved.”
“What works best for me is the opportunity to get ahead and work at my own pace. This allows me to go above and beyond and have opportunity to get level four projects. The Performance Based System brought the best out in me as a person because it made me an independent person that will not settle for being average.”
According to Eric Toshalis and Michael J. Nakkula in their report “Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice,” learner 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 and the Common Core, the practice of elevating student (learner) 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.
Let’s continue to build relationships and be uncompromisingly learner centered by empowering learners to find, cultivate and raise their voices. Then let’s truly listen.
“The system brings out the best in me by helping me work both collaboratively and independently. It used to be all about the teacher. Now it’s all about us.” Crystal Medina