My student voice research


Are you interested in or passionate about STUDENT VOICE? 

I definitely am! 

‘Student voice’ or ‘pupil voice’, ‘student initiated’, ‘student driven’, ‘learner controlled’, ‘learner voice’ … this concept comes in a variety of iterations and meanings! 

Always passionate about student voice, I am now faced with a new dilemma. I am doing a doctorate, with a focus on student voice and technology, and am SO excited about what I am reading! I plan to share my insights with our blog readers, but where to start?? How to tell enough, but not overdo it for those of you not as interested in this topic??

So for this post, when one starts a doctorate, reading the current research; to scope the territory and define terms; is the first challenge. 

At this early stage, I am adopting Gunther and Thomson’s (2007) definition of student voice. 
Student voice means students as subjects actively involved in their own and others’ education - classroom learning, participation in school governance and active citizenship in the school and community.

I am finding that there is lots of research on why student voice matters and how it makes a difference, especially for secondary/high school and older students. No surprises there from my perspective, and I’m keen to add primary/elementary students to the research base, because they too respond positively to having a voice in their learning, schooling and as citizens.

Also not surprising is the increasing top-down pressure to engage with student voice, because it works. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989; UN General Assembly Resolution 44/25) gives children a right to participation; to express their views, to be heard and to take part in decisions that effect them (Robinson and Taylor 2007). Gradually health and education systems across the globe have responded, placing a focus on hearing children’s voices. 

Since 2005, the UK Ofsted inspectors were instructed to look for evidence of seeking and acting upon pupil voice. This engagement with an idea that works is repeated as systems scramble to improve their status through improved outcomes. The challenge as Gunther and Thomson (2006) write, is that ‘student voice’ can be used as a ‘toxic make-over’. They point out that mechanistic implementation of student voice can lead to implementation where, ‘despite a rhetoric of agency, students remain objects of elite adult plans’. Food for thought, especially as in some jurisdictions student voice is being mandated as part of improvement processes, and certainly something I will research further.

In contrast to top-down approaches, a current South Australian innovation pilot project has a focus on student voice in learning, that is co-constructed with students. The Teaching for Effective Learning (TfEL) pilot resources are very useful for any of you considering this pathway. 

In reading about the history and teachers’ responses to student voice, two things I found particularly interesting this week were:

  • Apparently teachers frequently underestimate their students’ ability (Sweeney and Greer, 2012; Thiessen and Cook-Sather, 2007). It seems that when appropriate scaffolds are in place, that students are involved in things/learning/projects that really matter and adults trust them to get on with it, they do! From quite a young age, kindergarten even, students can have an idea and follow through. If they don’t, we need to reflect on the enablers and whether they were in place. It’s not students’ ineptitude, but the lack of access to information/tools/equipment in the environment, limiting/controlling teacher behaviours, lack of scaffolding etc that are the problem. Sounds somewhat like my ‘Thinking for Themselves’ blog post.
  • It also seems that there is quite widespread mistrust of students’ points of view (Sweeney and Greer 2012; Savin-Baden, 2003). The research is pretty clear though, generally kids are pretty honest about their ideas, their feedback and their reflections on their effort. The research in the formative assessment area seems to say that, if anything, students will tend to err on being harder on themselves when self assessing, than teachers are when marking.

What this suggests is that we need to be self reflective when engaging in change, and deciding to enable greater student voice. We need to think about where we sit on the ‘believing they can’ and ‘trusting them’ scales.

It also suggests that we need to consider ‘Why?’ we are engaging in greater student voice (Greer and Sweeney 2006; Thomson and Gunter, 2005; Tomlinson, 2001; Fielding 2004; Rudduck, 2006). The research offers extensive cautionary tales about the failure of student voice ventures ‘because we have to’ or in response to a top-down mandate. As I mentioned earlier in this post, consulting students to improve learning outcomes and raise standards has only a superficial impact in comparison to a change process that is motivated by personal and social development, active citizenship, embedding democratic principles, and moving from students-as-consultants to students-as-researchers. 

Professor Michael Fielding’s hierarchy of students roles is a great scaffold to consider where your classroom or school sits on the scale from teacher initiated / teacher led to student initiated / student led. On the link below, you will find a draft variation of this scaffold with examples at classroom, school and community level, taken from the references listed and our own experience in attempting to build student voice and agency. The categories we chose are:

  • Students as Data Sources
  • Students as Active Respondents
  • Students as Co-Enquirers
  • Students as Teachers
  • Students as Active Citizens
  • Students as Researchers
  • Students as Activists

I'll post much more about this as I go along.

This scaffold might be useful in thinking about what initiatives are already in place, what you have planned and comparing them to the Fielding based hierarchy. Are the values needed to engage successfully at each level in place to ensure that you are moving beyond a mechanistic, compliance based, potential ‘toxic make-over’ to embedded democratic principles that are supporting the development of an inclusive and just society together?