Student Voice isn't a Noun

What is Student Voice?

How has it progressed over time?

I’d been thinking about writing this post for a while, and wondering where to start. Then, out of the blue, inspiration struck. Two memories triggered a run of ideas.

The first memory was of my experience as a deputy principal, in a large school, in the mid 1980s. The principal had been out at a meeting, in another school, and had asked to look around. A class meeting was underway in one room he visited. The idea so inspired him, that he wrote a policy and resource pack for teachers overnight, and handed it to me to implement the next day. 

This was the beginning of an interesting journey for ‘student voice’ and me. I’ve seen it through many iterations, and, if it is possible, I am even more excited by the possibilities now, than I was 30 years ago.

Through the 80s and 90s, we learned a lot about class meetings, talking circles and other processes where students could express ideas and ask questions. My first deputy focus was to help teachers to hand over some responsibility for chairing the meetings, taking minutes, adding items to the agenda and following up on decision made, to the students themselves. Many teachers were concerned about student skills to appropriately manage the responsibility and the low level of the concerns that were repeatedly raised without solutions being found. Recognising that students would not learn these skills without doing them, we practiced and explicitly taught the skills of managing meetings, working issues through to decision making and modelling follow through. Painstakingly, and with varying degrees of success, helping students to take more responsibility and teachers less responsibility for the outcome and more for their support role.

My second shower memory was of my 2002, mid year arrival at the last school I was to lead as principal. I was introduced to a group of 30 enthusiastic young people, of a range of ages, sitting at tables in a classroom, ‘This is Student Voice’. An OMG thought of, ‘What about the other 620 kids and their voice’, wasn’t vocalised, but became my personal mission over the 7 years I led this school.

I dedicated myself to moving the school culture away from seeing ‘Student Voice’ as a noun; a thing or an event, to seeing it as a process that was available to as many students as possible. We revisited the basics of class meetings and I helped the staff to see that the then ‘Student Voice’ was actually a student governance process, not really a voice mechanism at all, especially as the group was hung up on obtaining a Coke machine and selling lollies in the school Canteen, neither of which were possible under Departmental Health policies.

During the 90s and into the 2000s, there was an increasing foci on students taking on ‘out of class’ responsibilities and helping with the running of schools and participation in various committees. 

At our school we explored a number of ways of managing this. The biggest issue was teacher concern that students might be missing classwork in order to chair the Canteen Committee meeting or to be part of the selection of new novels for the library, or any other of the myriad of roles they were called upon to play. Identifying the skills students learned and demonstrated in filling these out of class roles, testing different timetable structures to enable student and staff participation, and innovations to enable student initiated and student led activities (including fundraising, planning flexible space usage, research and more) tested us and contributed to major professional learning and culture change.

Students had the majority say on committees directly related to their school life, such as canteen, library and break time activities, they supported major school functions, such as the OHS audits, grounds committee and fundraising and they learned leadership skills and responsibility as they problem solved and managed issues such as littering, running in unsafe areas and bullying in the playground.

The culture of this school was revolutionised by these changes. Relief staff, who had refused to come to the school, now enjoyed their bookings, staff morale rose and parent satisfaction sky rocketed. Student engagement was dramatically improved and citizenship a celebrated expectation.

In hindsight though, many of us say that we could have done so much more, especially when considering the learning process. The introduction of the South Australian statewide pedagogy framework, Teaching for Effective Learning (TfEL), triggered greater explicit understanding of the true nature of democratic relationships in learning and prompted greater consideration of student initiated learning processes. 

Learner agency, student initiated learning, student led projects, students-as-researchers and many other names are applied to this third wave of innovation around ‘student voice’. The foci for teachers was more ‘just in time’ learning than ‘just in case’ learning, seeing themselves as facilitators and supporters of students’ self management, team work, prioritisation, time management and development of learning skills for inquiry and project based learning, such as questioning, researching, investigating and analysing.

So, what is next?

Technology is opening up so many new doors. Constant innovation and technological opportunities enable students to have a voice in and to be empowered to make choices and decisions about their own learning. Students can make choices related to the learning process; choosing the mode of learning (independent, group, connected, paper based), curating to support learning and record keeping with tools such as Pinterest, Twitter, Storify, Storehouse and more, and also choosing presentation methods (blogs, wikis, powerpoint, Prezi, podcasting, video, VoiceThread, narrated slideshows and more).

Blogging is a favourite tool of mine. @stumpteacher, Josh Stumphurst, #ITSE2015, tweeted: The refrigerator at home can no longer be the showcase for student work: connect, share and give your students a real audience. Blogs are a wonderful way to build a community and to facilitate sharing of student voice, about learning in and beyond the classroom; within the class, school district or globally. Blogs can also be a showcase for student reflection on their learning content and process, a way to highlight learning about learning, a demonstration of learner efficacy, and provide opportunities for assessment of learning skills, learning content and learning processes.

Technology is also opening opportunities for our students to have global contact, to extend their developing ownership and sense of responsibility and to move into opportunities for social action, within their community and globally. 

Making a difference, having an impact and bringing about change are opportunities open to all of us with an internet connection and a device. Empowering our students to understand, access and use this power is our new responsibility.

In the words of a dear friend and fabulous educator, Jen Parker, though, we must not lose sight of the imperative to make student voice ordinary. We need to aim to make student voice so much part of the fabric of our schools and the learning within and beyond our walls, that we no longer see it as an ‘add on’, an extra or optional and we no longer see ‘token’ student participants in events; our young people learn with us and teach us, as a matter of course.