Student Voice and the Future of Education

I’ve been thinking more about student voice and the future of education. What voice do student truly have in most learning organizations? What are our biases and assumptions about student voice? What happens when we move from education as something done to students to something that students do themselves? What amazing visions for education could we make a reality if we tapped into the perspectives and brilliance of young people in our K-12 and higher education institutions?

Ask a group of educators how to solve a problem and, more often than not, we will suggest some sort of educational solution. We are wired that way. Ask a sociologist, psychologist or theologian about a social problem and there is a good chance that they will do the same thing. They will look at it from their distinct lens and provide a sociological, psychological or theological assessment, drawing from solutions most common in their fields. What does this mean for how we aspire to find solutions to education’s greatest challenges today?

Interestingly, there is a voice that is often muffled in education. More often than not, these voices are not involved in hiring decisions, exploration of new possibilities, plans for quality improvement, innovations in teaching, learning and curriculum, along with broader aspirations to address the digital divide, access and opportunity, workforce development, and more. We rarely involve the students.

In 1995, Kathryn Church wrote a groundbreaking book about mental health called Forbidden Narratives: Critical Autobiography as Social Science. Unlike many other books about mental health, this text included the author’s own lived experiences, finding herself in the curious position of being both a mental health professional and a mental health patient. Reading this lived experience of a researcher and patient changed the trajectory of my work and research. I was introduced to this important world of auto-ethnography and autobiography as research.

This research method continues to be challenged by more than a few in the social sciences, but for me, it opened my eyes to the fact that much research fails to take us deeply into the lived experiences of people from their own perspectives. Researchers, as much as we try, paint the picture of other’s lived experiences, but we hold paintbrush. Apart from select excerpts that illustrate a theme or concept, the subjects do not have opportunity to let their voices be directly heard.  It is a controlled and systematic reporting of the findings from the researcher’s standpoint, but it does not necessarily represent the nuance and voice of each subject in the study. Some researchers are better at this than others, but they rarely achieve what can be experienced when we hear directly from those subjects.

Applying this lesson from Church’s work, I contend that we have the same challenge as we pursue opportunities and innovations in education. We survey students. We might run focus groups. We observe and analyze student motivation, engagement, persistence, learning, and more. Far less often do we invite the students into designing the schools, curriculum, and courses. How often do they help shape what, how, when or where they learn? How do we engage them in prioritizing, budgeting, establishing policy and practice?

Some argue that it is wise not to engage the learners in such important work, that it is best left to the expert educationists or academic professionals. Yet, look at higher education institutions around the world and academics are making educational decisions when they often have little to no formal training in the field of education. Policy makers are making important decisions that shape the future of education when many have done little to read, research and study deeply in the areas that they are influencing. Even those trained in education are consistently making education decisions based on their personal experience or preferences as much or more than their study of the research or by tapping into a solid body of evidence-based practice. Given these realities, why would it be out of line to empower students to own not only their learning but the communities in which they learn?

Student voice is also important because we are trying to nurture of generation of people who have a voice and use it in the world. We want active citizens and participants in communities. If we want to nurture a generation of compliant consumers who just do what they are told by authorities then not giving voice is a great plan. If we want then to help shape their communities, then we need to help them learn how to own and participate in a community that they can influence in positive ways.

The good news is that this is happening.

  • When I visited Western Sydney University recently, I saw this beautiful University library rich with collaborative spaces, study spaces, “silent” spaces, and even a sleep pod for those students needing a quick nap between a day of work and evening classes. When I asked about the design decisions, I learned that the students had an active say in much of it. In fact, there is a portion of the annual library budget that the students control, allowing them to pursue ongoing innovations.
  • In classrooms and schools around the country, school leaders and teachers invite students to establish and shape everything from classroom rules to what and how they will learn. This is especially true in many schools embracing the self-directed learning movement making its way around the world.
  • In some democratic schools, students decide which salaried coaches and leaders stay or go each year.
  • Learning about the original formation of KM Global, a project-based and personalized learning charter school with a global focus, Dr. Valerie Schmitz explained that much of the original vision for the school came from a team of students that she consulted.

How does a learning organization get serious about this? Here are somes areas to consider.

  • Create a team of students who help make decisions about the physical spaces in the learning organization.
  • Have a combined team of students, teachers and other related stakeholders to meet 4+ times a year to plan key curricular innovations, including school-wide projects and timely elements of the curriculum.
  • Involve student voice in the interview process of new employees ranging from administrators and janitorial staff to teachers and coaches.
  • For secondary and higher education especially, create a student advisory committee for each department/college/school.
  • Create a means of obtaining formal feedback about the school culture, curriculum and experience at least once a week.
  • Encourage teachers to establish small teams of students that work with the teacher to design, revise and adjust lessons and units as the school year progresses.
  • In formal and intentional ways, invite and create specific ways for students to become growing experts on teaching and learning research and practice.
  • When new projects, innovations, practices, models and resources are being considered; have teams of students play an active role in the research, review and decision. In fact, why not have means by which students can propose and initiate such things?

Student voice matters in education today. Listening to those voices and, even more, entrusting students with decisions about the nature of their learning communities, has tremendous benefits. I am not just referring to future benefits in terms of test score results and measurable academic gains. I am also looking at the benefits of creating more equitable and humane learning communities for today. We see this happening in promising ways, but what if we saw it even more? What if we found ways to persistently engage students in tackling some of education’s greatest challenges and pursuing some of its greatest opportunities? What if the students had more room to imagine the possibilities and to pursue them?

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.