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Learner Voice and Choice Leads to Engagement

What do voice and choice mean across the stages of personalized learning environments? And what does engagement look like in each of these stages? This article gives leaders observing a classroom better understanding of where teachers and students stand when it comes to personalizing learning.

The current education system was built around teachers being held accountable for their students' learning instead of the students themselves. This is how most of us learned in school and in teacher education programs, but the approach tends to create a sense of compliancy and “learned helplessness” for both students -- the learners -- and teachers. It puts the responsibility for what is learned in the teachers’ hands versus the learners' hands.

In a personalized learning environment, educators can encourage learners to build more capacity to initiate, manage and maintain their own learning -- which can then be a high-priority activity throughout their lives, and they have the skills and tools to manage this process. In this culture shift, teacher and learner roles change. Leaders can provide guidance for teachers by offering options for flexibility, creativity and even risk-taking in teaching practice.

How can a leader offer guidance during this culture shift?

Before we jump into engagement, it is important to frame the culture shift that happens in a personalized learning environment (PLE). The best way to do that is a summary of the Stages of PLE.

Stage One: The teacher universally designs lessons and projects that encourage voice and choice. As the teacher understands how learners learn best, they give more responsibility to the learners. Stage Two: The teacher and learners are co-designers of the curriculum and assessment. The learner identifies how he or she learns best, and works with the teacher to design learning strategies to meet learning goals. Stage Three: The environment is learner-driven with the teacher serves as a partner in learning. The learner is self-regulated, and has the skills to monitor and adjust his or her progress while learning to meet learning goals. The learner designs challenging learning experiences based on interests, talents and passions.
What does voice and choice look like through the Stages of PLE?

In the following chart, there are specific activities that address what voice and choice mean in each of the stages of PLE.

  Stage One

Stage Two

Stage Three





  • invites learners to volunteer their opinion and feedback
  • listens to complaints and praises
  • encourages learners to articulate how they will meet learning targets
  • contributes to the design of lessons and projects with the teacher
  • has role in decision-making
  • collaborates with teachers and other learners
  • identifies problems and generates solutions
  • organizes and advocates for change within and outside of school
  • accepts responsibilities for outcomes

  • provides a menu of options to access information, engage with content, and express what they know
  • is a tour guide for options and then gets out of the way
  • invites input from learners
  • chooses topic based on interests or questions
  • identifies and presents ideas for brainstorming and designing
  • identifies and chooses challenges or  problems to address
  • chooses strategies and people to develop action plan for advocacy
  • self-directs learning based on passion and purpose
  • expands purpose by inventing product, creating or joining business, or advocating for a cause
What does engagement look like in a class?

Stage One PLE When teachers introduce a lesson, they can request that learners either offer background information to determine prior knowledge or give feedback on the lesson. Learners articulate their learning targets and how they plan to demonstrate mastery. Learners can choose from a list of products that includes the use of technology. You may observe opportunities for learners to work individually, in pairs or small groups along with teacher-directed instruction. Stage Two PLE You may see learners in multiple areas in the room working in pairs, small groups, one or two learners in a corner of the room, or a learner one-on-one with the teacher. Some learners are sharing information virtually. You may even notice a group where one learner is leading a brainstorming session with his or her peers on the interactive whiteboard. The noise level changes and the teacher is walking around the room checking in with different learners. Stage Three PLE This is where learners take the lead and self-direct their learning. You will see learners in the hallways or other areas in or outside of the school with an excitement around a problem or challenge they are tackling. Learners are using technology to make connections and build their personal learning network (PLN). The teacher takes on the role of advisor, providing feedback and any support needed in finding connections and resources to meet goals around their purpose for learning.
Not all activities in a class may be exclusively stage one, two or three. One lesson may have multiple activities at different stages, so when observing a classroom, you can use the chart above to determine what types of voice and choice strategies can be addressed. The culture changes when the teacher gives more responsibility to the learners. You may want to visit the class at different times if a teacher is encouraging voice and choice. Also make sure you ask the kids what they are learning and to share what they think of having more voice and choice.

Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey

Barbara Bray (@bbray27) and Kathleen McClaskey (@khmmc) are co-founders of Personalize Learning, LLC and co-authors of the book, Make Learning Personal. You can contact Barbara and Kathleen at and follow them on Twitter using @plearnchat.