Voice and Choice: Agency in Personalized Learning Environments

by Francis Redmon

What makes you happy in your work? A sense of accomplishment? The ability to do work that is important to you, your family, and your community? Engaging and interesting work? A work/life balance? Appropriate compensation? For me, and for many of the people that I have worked with over the years, it is these things, but with a caveat – all of the above are shaded by the extent to which we have the ability to influence what we do, how we do it, the pace at which the work is done, and the people with whom we do the work.

In short, if we have some agency, or voice and choice, in our work, we are much more intrinsically motivated, and therefore more inclined to devote time and energy to get the work done. Creating intrinsic motivation to learn in children is no different.

Psychologists know that intrinsic motivation is determined by a few factors: The excitement drawn from solving intricate and difficult problems, curiosity, a desire for control and influence of one’s environment, connections to areas of interest, and self-determination. Throughout my own experience in public education over the past 20 years I have seen all of these factors ebb and flow into and out of the teaching, curriculum design, leadership, and learning spheres (mastery learning, learning styles, problem- or project-based learning, differentiated learning, and understanding by design, as a few examples).

While the conversation about fostering intrinsic motivation is not new, personalized learning environments shift the power dynamic between students and teachers. While most of us are accustomed to making decisions about what, why, where, how, and with whom to learn for the children in our classes, teachers in personalized learning (PL) environments make those decisions with the students. In the most evolved examples, the choices are made by the students. A cornerstone of PL is student agency, characterized by “a learner’s ability to control the pace, place, means, and ends for learning.” Agency, then, is developed through helping students learn how to make appropriate choices and then giving real power to student voices.

Getting to know students, and helping them learn how to become agents of their learning, requires listening. Learning what is important and interesting to each learner, what and how they want to learn, who they are and want to become, and how they work with (or struggle to work with) others is the first part of incorporating student voice. The second part of incorporating voice is perhaps more difficult, as it requires a shift in the power dynamic, allowing children to craft their pathway through learning. It shifts the art of teaching from designing powerful content lessons to focusing learning on developing skills like maintaining a growth mindset, being able to regulate, and perseverance or grit.

Knowing learners well is a significant part of designing appropriate learning environments and opportunities. Based on what they know about each student as an individual, teachers in PL environments help students learn to make choices about their own learning. Letting the students design their own path, giving that power and control to children, is a significant shift in thinking, and is often challenging for teachers. A student’s voice becomes the primary driver of determining the “pace, place, means, and ends” of learning, with the teacher acting as a learning coach and mentor.

The ability and power of students to make choices within the realm of teaching and learning comes with certain boundaries. A student in a PL environment may be free to choose the topic of a project, or the method of demonstration of mastery, but they ultimately must show that the learning demonstrates meeting some set of standards (common core standards, for example). While students often help determine where, when, and with whom they will work, attendance at a structure called “school,” typically during normal work hours, is still compulsory. Knowing where those boundaries exist becomes an explicit part of learning in PL environments.

In personalized learning environments the nature of teaching and learning changes, evolving from teachers as brokers of discrete subject area knowledge to teachers as learning “gurus,” guiding children to learn and make choices. Teachers help students learn what the standards are, possible methods to demonstrate mastery, and how to connect those standards to their interests. Students explicitly learn how to learn in parallel with what they learn. In addition, PL environments teach students to think about their individual processes of learning. They become agents in their education.

To be sure, I have characterized PL environments as having one set of attributes with similar structures, motivations, and ways of educating students. However, the range of methods, systems, and pathways to develop and use student voice and choice is vastly varied. At the core of each is reconceptualizing how we think about the position and role of students in schools. Personalized learning environments empower students through nurturing agency, voice and choice, ultimately increasing the intrinsic motivation to learn.


Francis RedmonFrancis Redmon is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education and is concurrently pursuing his District Administrator license. His research interests are in the area of personalized learning, specifically investigating student voice and agency in personalized learning environment. Connect with Francis at redmon@wisc.edu.


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