During my three weeks in India, the Teachers for Global Classrooms program asked me to undertake an investigation into a educational topic of interest to me. Last spring, as the trip drew nearer, I bounced back and forth between several topics before settling on student involvement in learning. In the past few years, Rutland High School has undertaken more project based learning and a key part of this learning method is allowing students to have voice and choice in what they study and how they show learning. This is probably where my interest in the topic originated. The Buck Institute for Education says student voice and choice is one of the essential elements of project based learning. Additionally, both our Global Studies concentration and our STEM concentration give students opportunities to delve deeper into specific subjects that interest them. As RHS continues to move towards giving students more say in their education, I was curious to find out what sort of voice Indian students have.
I should be clear that increasing student involvement is not simply for project based learning. Research from Penn State University indicates there are numerous benefits to be had by increasing student involvement. Because of their unique perspective, students can be essential in improving school climate and academic quality. Instant feedback from students can improve curriculum and when students attend meetings with teachers, the teacher behavior is often more professional. Moving to some of the upper rungs on the ladder shown below can clearly bring about educational improvements.
To a large extent my suspicions ended up being confirmed. Class sizes were indeed much bigger than Vermont schools. Of all the classes I observed, I would say the average class size was around 40 students. It would indeed be a challenge to effectively manage increased student voice and choice in a class of that size. Most classes I observed were also following a mandated curriculum, in some cases from the state and, in other cases, a national curriculum. Indeed, I heard almost the same English lesson, centered on the story of a dog, in two different schools, which also, perhaps, speaks to the lack of teacher choice in designing learning experiences. Given the large class sizes, the mandated curriculum, and the importance of end of year tests, especially for standard 10 students, it would be extremely hard for any public or government school teacher to successfully introduce more student choice into the course.
On the other hand, I saw several unexpected examples of student voice during my numerous school observations. To start with, every school I visited started the day with a full school assembly. In all the schools, the assembly was run by students. At the Kendriya Vidyalaya Malapurram School, the assembly was completely run by students. Students made all the announcements, led the singing of the national anthem, emceed, adjusted microphones and attended to other technological needs, and shared the news of the day. The standards (grade levels) rotated the duties of preparing, orchestrating, and executing these assemblies, which lasted 10-15 minutes. These assemblies were very much student driven.
Of the numerous reasons for increasing student voice and choice, giving students respect, responsibility, and autonomy are several of the important ones. At the KV Malapurram school, I observed that while the upper school students may not have voice and choice in their education, they most certainly were given respect, responsibility, and autonomy. This was clearly evident in those few classes where the teacher was absent for the day. To my surprise, there were no substitute teachers. The students were in their classrooms without a teacher for that block of the day. They were expected to be in the classroom, do any work that needed to get done, and behave. From what I observed, those classes without a teacher did just that. While this is not exactly getting students more involved in their education, it is treating students as more than just passive recipients of knowledge. They were treated as responsible and trustworthy citizens of the school.
As educators, we all need to work to find ways to involve students more in their education. It is something that both Indian and American educators must address. In both cases, however, good things are happening. Some U.S. schools, like Rutland High School, have begun to give students more voice and choice in what and how they learn. In India, students are trusted with autonomy and responsibility. Students who are trusted and respected and who are allowed voice and choice are active learners. Active learners are likely to become active citizens and dealing with today's global issues requires active participation. Therefore, if we want our students to graduate and go on to become active world citizens, we cannot treat them as only passive receptors of information.
Further reading on student voice here and here.
Information on Project Based Learning from the Buck Institute here.
Want to add a student to your school board? Here is a guide for that.