Student voice and choice within restricted space and movement
“When you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place”
Personalized education promises to consider every child’s choices in order to better serve their educational journey and needs. Personalization therefore necessitates a system and environment that invites voice and choice to develop those needs. Choice gives power to voice. A freedom to choose among numbers of different spaces and resources grants learners the choice and the power to decide on their educational journey.
Tackling this challenge during Covid-19 with its restrictions on movement and limited use of space is requiring a creative way of thinking about resources and school environment. Increased restrictions regarding movement within the school spaces and social distancing during children’s educational experience does not come without challenges.
School context: The school in this article describes itself as a progressive one with a philosophy explicitly stating:
Children's Agency: Our job is to set a positive and supportive environment that sparks interest and learning. We trust that the children will take it from there. They are free to choose topics they want to dive into and learn and free to learn at their own pace.
During an interview with a member of school, the limited accessibility to all possible spaces at school because of the Covid-19 restrictions, was considered the most troubling consequence as it clashes with the school’s philosophy.
According to this school member, last academic year, learners were exposed to a wider variety of resources and spaces with no limit to what is possible in a day. Nowadays, because of the restrictions imposed on the school due to Covid-19, the time and space allocated to the learners is limiting that possibility to a few spaces per group with a shorter time spent at school. Learners have less accessibility to resources as these cannot be shared by all learners at all times. The interviewed person mentioned that these restrictions were felt by the students as one of them asked: why can’t I go to the sand area now to play with any of my friends?
When touring the school, the educator explained that the school space was divided into three “bubbles” or smaller spaces that are assigned to a group of students. No interaction among those three bubbles was allowed to limit exposure of students to a small group of friends. These bubbles are fixed and use only the specified spaces allocated to them. In addition, groups have to follow a schedule because common spaces have to be sterilized following every group’s visit. This limitation in space and time leads to less choice and access. Learners have little freedom to decide to go to different spaces within the school as no movement between rooms and groups is allowed.
During classroom observations, children were mostly engaging with a limited number of activities co-planned by the collaborators and learners; both were limited by the resources available in the room.
While these imposed constraints limit the learners’ choice and voice, they can push collaborators to look for voice and choice beyond the accessibility of resources and spaces and the freedom to choose to go anywhere at school.
From “voice as choice” to “voice as empowerment”. Participation of young children in community decision-making is necessary to be active community members. Corsaro (2005) suggests that voice and empowerment focus on the opportunities for children to be ‘‘social agents expressing opinions, making decisions, and enacting social actions as an expression of civic responsibility’’. Along that line of thinking, the learner can be an ‘‘active citizen’’ in the school’s community. With their unique perspectives, knowledge, and experiences, children are competent reporters of their own worlds. Gandini (2012) advocates that children are capable of expressing their views and engaging with others as powerful and capable citizens. This image of the child as a capable child when viewed as such by the adults, invites empowered learners who realize that their decisions and contribution to the school community is taken seriously and impacts their life at school. When learners are empowered to suggest and take decisions about their school activities and projects, they become active agents in a participatory culture; a culture that invites voice and choice for decisions about space, materials, resources, engagement within the school and with the wider community.
Empowerment of learners as co-planners who decide on their own goals, on what they are planning to do today, how they are going to get there, what resources they will need, which format their product is going to have, who their audience is going to be… allows collaborators to act as partners in thinking about processes, challenges and success criteria. The voice and choice of learners is then in how they learn something and not only what they learn. They can plan and participate in group projects and each can take responsibility for a specific role within a project where they collaborate and produce an end product together. They have a voice and choice in the design of the project, its process, the needed materials, the audience and the ways of sharing that project.
Voice and choice through consultation. Learner’s voice matters when consulting with them about issues affecting them. It is important not to impose adults’ frames of reference or put words in children’s mouths. Children are insightful human beings, consulting with them involves sustained engagement over time. In addition, what happens before and after the consultations is as important as the consultations themselves. Collaborators can explicitly invite children’s views through questions like ‘Tell me, what do you think about…?’; ‘How do you feel when…?’; ‘What do you like about…?’; ‘What makes you think that?’; ‘What makes you feel that way?’. When learners are animated by hands-on experiences in which they explore and express their ideas, collaborators may observe and document to then ask lead questions. This becomes an important tool to clarify what learners are expressing and to prompt them to elaborate on their ideas, which can help further discussion and personal growth. For example, collaborators can seek learners’ views in relation to some new services, provisions or facilities. Collaborators need to keep in mind that effective consultation strategies draw on understanding the multiple ways in which young children express themselves – including talking, drawing, painting, information technology, photography, construction, music, dance, drama, collages, sculptures, movement, storytelling, pretend play and socio-dramatic play; the hundred languages (Gandini, 2012).
Voice and choice through self-realization, power and control. When learners play, they are not necessarily socializing, they are seriously coming to terms with the external world while constructing a controllable and secure world of their own. When play is viewed as an ego-building function where children put forth their own agenda, develop their physical and emotional skills and enhance their self-esteem, then self-realization allows for more power and control over their own development. The gradual development of self through play, when documented and shared with the learners, consolidates the presence of voice and choice irrespective of the physical restrictions and movement.
Children have their personal perception of what a piece of equipment means to them or what others do. When they play freely, in a chaotic and creative way, they are expressing power and control over the equipment. They are finding out who they are and who they can be when they are identifying a role, they are comfortable with in that context and with others. Sometimes, when playing, children create hierarchies and give themselves status. They are practicing control and power and that is voice and choice. When collaborators allow these independent choices, where play and power take place without their interference, they are allowing for the development of voice and choice through self-realization, control and power.
In conclusion, when learners are active participants in school life, when they say what they think and are heard by their peers and collaborators, then they know their opinions and perspectives are valued and appreciated. An environment that invites participation and partnership with the learners is a place where voice and choice are developed and acted upon.
Corsaro, W.A. 2005, Collective action and agency in young children’s peer cultures. In J. Qvortup (ed.) Studies in modern childhood: Society, Agency, Culture. Macmillan, Basingstoke.
Edwards, Gandini, Forman, Edwards, Carolyn P, Gandini, Lella, & Forman, George E. (2012). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia experience in transformation (3rd ed.). Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger.
How Professional Learning Impacts Student Progress in a Blended Learning Model
Located in Doha, Qatar, this secondary school is an International Baccalaureate World School and a member of the Qatar Foundation family of schools. The school currently employs 114 teaching staff for an overall student body of 602. The Early Years Program (EY) and Primary Years Program (PYP) are situated on their own primary school campus serving Pre-3 through grade 5. The Middle Years Program (MYP) and the Diploma Program (DP) serve grade 6 through 12 at the secondary campus located approximately one kilometer from the primary school. The focus of this inquiry was the MYP and DP secondary school, consisting of 35 teaching staff serving 206 students.
Since the introduction of online learning, school leadership have continued to develop, redevelop, and modify their systems and schedules in order to meet the evolving educational requirements and standards surrounding COVID-19 safety measures developed by the country’s Ministry of Education as well as Qatar Foundation’s Pre-University office. Secondary school administration has implemented a blended learning program that serves their students in three ways: face-to-face, synchronous online, and asynchronous online. For the purposes of this inquiry, face-to-face is when students are attending classes at the secondary campus with their teachers, while synchronous online sessions are “real-time” online classes remotely with their teachers, and asynchronous online sessions are days wherein students’ complete individual online tasks off campus.
Each grade level within MYP classes is separated into 4 to 6 different cohorts in order to keep class sizes at 10 or less (any class that is 11-15 students uses the cafeteria, Creative Commons, or is divided into 2 rooms). A typical weekly schedule for a cohort of students attending grades 6 through 10 consists of a rotating three-week schedule that has students in face-to-face sessions Sunday and Monday, in asynchronous online sessions Tuesday, and in synchronous online sessions Wednesday and Thursday. Other cohorts will run an opposite schedule that has synchronous online sessions at the beginning of the week and face-to-face sessions at the end of the week. Due to the rigors of the Diploma Program, DP students have three face-to-face sessions per week and two asynchronous online sessions per week, with no synchronous online sessions (see Appendix, Table 1).
MYP students stay in designated “bubble classrooms” as teachers rotate to them in order to keep student exposure to a minimum. The DP students rotate in the traditional fashion to their teachers’ classrooms. Within the classrooms all students from grades 6 through 10 are working on project-based, interdisciplinary activities in order to allow for more teacher collaboration on tasks as well as supporting content area crossover connections for students. Grade 6 is evaluated on their own project and MYP criteria, while grades 78, 9 and 10 work on parallel projects and criteria. This structure allows teachers to have some alignment in class preps and gives students additional peer support across grade levels.
Pedagogical Challenges: An interview conducted with the school’s curriculum coordinator concerning pedagogical challenges encountered in the new blended learning system revealed the following concerns:
According to the interview, the timetable challenge was something that took many reworkings in order to get it as it currently is shown in Table 1. This has resulted in a much “calmer” day. Connected to timetable challenges is the reduction in staffing that many QF schools experienced this year with the freeze on hiring that took place due to COVID-19 restrictions and budgetary redundancy reviews. Teachers are now required to have a minimum classroom prep load of 80%, while all coordinators, counselors, assistant principal and principals are also required to teach at least one class in order to assist with the larger number of cohorts.
COVID-19 safety regulations have required smaller class sizes, and this has resulted in additional classes across the grade levels an increase from the previous 11-12 across grades 6-12 to 23. This results in repetition when it comes to teachers teaching or presenting content and these repetitive class preps have had varying effects on teachers depending upon perspectives. Some teachers prefer to teach the same content repeatedly for each cohort, whereas other teachers prefer to teach different content across cohorts in order to minimize the monotony of repetition. (Curriculum Coordinator, personal communication, September 9, 2020). Additionally, the school principal stated that “many of our teachers also crossover between DP and MYP, which means they teach their MDU content as well as one or more DP classes, which either breaks up the monotony or adds to their workload. Either way, we are grateful that our staff is balancing the workload in order to accommodate the MOE mandates.” (personal communication, October 26, 2020).
The leadership team spent many hours over the summer creating and revising timetables that would accommodate the staff cuts and the COVID-19 health and safety requirements. The choice to have all staff members, including leadership, absorb additional teaching hours shows their flexibility and commitment to student learning and support.
School leadership have also established a team of teachers and school leaders to research and develop the most effective and appropriate blended learning program. Current literature on blended learning expresses that “little research exists that examines trends in blended learning and the challenges and possibilities of utilizing this method of instructional delivery at the K-12 level” (Kumi-Yeboah, 2014). As further explained by Joanna Poon in the MERLOT Journal of Online Teaching (2013), “blended learning is a fundamental redesign of the instructional model with a shift from lecture-centered to student-centered instruction where students become active and interactive learners.” This secondary school has adopted a project-based approach as a basis for the blended learning program which aligns with the understanding that this new method of online delivery requires students to become the leaders of their own learning, while teachers increasingly take on the role of facilitator and resource provider.
Teaching and learning online requires teachers to upskill in areas that may or may not be familiar to them. One such example of these needed skills and tools has been made visible by Pulham & Graham (2018) by way of a blended teaching matrix that identifies categories of interactions (see Appendix, Figure 1) and accompanying skills required for each quadrant (see Appendix, Table 2). One example wherein school administration has demonstrated their understanding of need for staff upskilling is their willingness to participate in ongoing professional learning support from a collaboration project between the school and a WISE EdTech Testbed project that aims to address the following question:
How can the adoption and implementation of an EdTech solution (e.g. Smart Science) enable teachers to identify specific challenges (e.g. flow, assessment, differentiation) and make data-driven decisions for practice that support student progress and improve student outcomes?
Additionally, WISE EdTech organizers have created session content that addresses use of EdTech tools to inform practices. The process of the collaboration will include:
Leadership at this school understands the importance of developing professional learning opportunities for their staff to better understand the dynamics of blended learning while also providing the knowledge and tools required to support student learning.
Blended teaching matrix identifying categories of interactions (Pullham & Graham 2018, p. 413) [accessed Sep 16 2020]
K–12 Blended Teaching Readiness: Model and Instrument Development. Available from: Click here [accessed Sep 16 2020].
Graham, C. R., Borup, J., Pulham, E. B., & Larsen, R. (2019). K-12 blended teaching readiness: Model and instrument development. Journal of Research on Technology in Education. 51(3), 239–258.
Kumi-Yebaoh, A. (2014). Blended learning in K-12 schools: Challenges and possibilities. Practical Applications in Blended Learning Environments: Experiences in K-20 (pp. 25-42).
Poon, J. (2013) Blended learning: An institutional approach for enhancing students' learning experiences. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 9(2), 271-288.
Head of IB Training
Education Development Institute