“Voice and choice” are some of education’s newest buzzwords, associated most closely with student-driven, personalized learning. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) is not alone in recently defining personalized learning as a pedagogy that “involves the student in the creation of learning activities and relies more heavily on a student’s personal interests and innate curiosity” (2018).

Enter voice and choice.

ISTE’s vision for personalized learning is aspirational–no doubt–and to the untrained eye, it is the ideal which all of us should strive to achieve. Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that this aspiration is neither grounded in empirical research nor is it sustainable or scalable to all settings. Further, it’s unrealistic to expect a child to design his or her own learning activities. Designing learning experiences is a skill developed by trained professionals, and most children possess neither the knowledge of curriculum design nor an understanding of what children their age should know and be able to do to actually design their own learning activities.

But that’s not to say “voice and choice” are not important in the classroom. It’s important for our students to feel seen, heard, and valued, and it’s imperative that they learn to make decisions on their own. I’m simply saying that there are limits to voice and choice, and that perhaps we’ve taken this notion of voice and choice too far: we’ve forgotten that we need to scaffold autonomy and teach our children how to make decisions before we release the responsibility of making academic decisions entirely.

Progressive Permissivism

While the intentions were good, far too many schools have implemented voice and choice upon a foundation of permissive classroom management techniques, only exacerbated by permissive parenting styles at home.

Permissivism is, first and foremost, a parenting style. While associated with a “nurturing and loving” style of parenting, it’s also associated with few rules, a lack of structure, and in some cases, even a fear of disciplining or redirecting children. In progressive circles–and oftentimes in affluent circles, as well–it’s not uncommon to see a permissive style of teaching, as well. This style of classroom management is sold as whole-child, and teachers who frequently use a permissive style of classroom management often label themselves as “laid back” or “casual.” In reality, these are euphemisms for a lack of structure or even a fear of disciplining or redirecting children. This style of teaching and parenting has marked effects, many of which teachers and parents are not aware.

The Effects of Permissive Teaching and Parenting

The essence of being a child lies in testing boundaries. This is a good thing, and we want our children to test boundaries. By testing boundaries, children make mistakes and discover new things. When they do this, they are able to learn. That said, it’s impossible to learn if they are never made aware of the boundaries they’ve crossed.

Here is where we, the adults, come in. Our job in these situations is to redirect and to clarify boundaries. Our job is to educate them on what the boundaries are and why they exist. This necessitates an authoritative approach to teaching and parenting–a style that promotes holding students accountable to boundaries by thoroughly explaining consequences, albeit in a loving and nurturing manner. Should we neglect to hold students accountable to boundaries and redirect them when they cross them, we set ourselves up for compounding frustration and failure in the future.

The fact of the matter is this: chaos is traumatic, and structure is healing. Our children cannot learn in the face of chaos; on the other hand, they can learn when given clear structures in which they can flourish. While they may not be entirely aware of this or able to communicate it, structure provides psychological safety for our children. When children do not feel psychologically safe–when their environments are chaotic–they have no other option but to revert to their reptilian brains, putting them into an instinctual mindset that is both physically and emotionally dysregulating.

In essence, when we teach and parent in a permissive manner–despite the fact that our intentions are good–we actually act in opposition to our goals. “Compassionate people draw boundaries,” says Brené Brown, shame and vulnerability scholar. Boundaries show compassion because they show a consideration for others and for a learning environment that is truly nurturing and educative. A permissive learning environment limits this.

Promoting Voice and Choice with Responsibility

But that’s not to say that we should stop talking about voice and choice in our classrooms. Instead, we need to scaffold voice and choice, so that we are gradually releasing autonomy to our children over the course of the 13 or more years they are in school.

Here are a few ideas for how to do this:

Step 1: Clearly define voice and choice for your age level and setting.

Vision is key. Every class is not created equal. Some classes come ready for a high degree of autonomy, while others come needing much more structure. Be sure to define what this looks like for your class, your age level, and your setting before scaffolding choices within your classroom.

Step 2: Put clear boundaries around voice and choice in your classroom.

Take time to establish classroom agreements and natural consequences before opening up choice. In elementary school, I generally recommend waiting 4-6 weeks before opening up choice throughout the day. I find I need this time to build trust and otherwise reinforce the routines and expectations that we build together.

Step 3: Hold students accountable to established boundaries for making choices.

Remind your children that making choices for themselves is a privilege, not a divine right. I go so far to tell my students that, as the teacher, my job is to make sure our classroom is a place where all can learn. “If you are crossing boundaries or doing things that stop others from learning, I will start making choices for you,” I tell them.

Moving Forward with Voice and Choice

Autonomy is, of course, important in our classrooms. We want children to connect meaningfully with their learning, and the only way to do that is to let them be the protagonists of their own learning narrative. But this doesn’t mean we allow them to become fiercely individualistic, largely ignoring the social context in which they find themselves. They must remember that they are a part of a community, that making choices is a privilege, and that the choices they make have an effect on others. Tempering voice, choice, and autonomy with compassionate boundaries and mindful expectations can provide the best of both worlds: it will empower students with their own autonomy and support teachers in creating healthy and sustainable student-driven environments.

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