Student Voice in the Curriculum: Schools as Propaganda Factories

The argument goes like this. Students often don’t know what is good for them. If we left it up to students what we would learn and study, they might never discover a topic that is currently hidden to them. Their world would be smaller because they never got to explore beyond their existing familiarity. They may never have the joy of developing an acquired taste for that which didn’t capture their interest or curiosity at first. Giving students voice in the curriculum might sound like a good idea, but their voice could become a prison instead of some paradise of free will and expression. At least that is how the common argument goes.

I’ve heard such rebuttals quite often when we start to talk about the role of student voice in the curriculum, and there is indeed wisdom in the perspective. It is true that many of us are brought kicking and screaming into our callings. Students do develop acquired tastes for areas of learning that were undesirable at first. Students (or rather people) don’t always know what is best for them. I’ll add to all of this that students preparing for specific jobs might not have the insight to know which topics are more important than others to do the work well. They are not yet experts, so they don’t have the insight of the expert.

All of this has a good and important role in the conversation, but such statements can also be a way of creating a strawman out of the student voice argument. Or, people take an idea and represent it in its most radical expression in order to diminish its perceived value. I see that happening, albeit seemingly unintentionally, when it comes to talking about the role of student voice.

Student Voice Defined

Dennis Harper, in Students as Change Agents, gives a good working definition of student voice. “Student voice is giving students the ability to influence learning to include policies, programs, contexts and principles.” Notice the definition says nothing about silencing teacher voice, parent voice, or the voice of any other number of stakeholders. Instead, it is looking at students as key stakeholders in the educational enterprise. Education is not just something done to them or for them. It is something that they are invited to join in helping to shape. The extent to which students have a voice from one context to another can vary significantly. As such, this conversation doesn’t need to be about whether or not students should have a voice. It is a matter of how much voice in a given context, and how we are equipping them to have a voice for the rest of their lives.

Going Deeper

To answer questions about how much voice, we can look at the core values and convictions of a given learning organization, along with the goals and desired outcomes. Yet, too often, we don’t take conversations down to that level. We jump into the what and how without clarifying the why, and I contend that this is why people talk past each other so much in the debate. There will indeed still be important differences of opinion, but we are likely to have a far more fruitful conversation if we change the focus to the role and extent of student voice, rooted in an understanding of the why in an organization.

Agency

Advocates for increased student voice often point to the desire to nurture agency and to prepare students for life in democratic society. They argue that students must learn to use their voice, to take a stand, to see themselves as agents of change in their lives, families, communities, and the world at large. They express concern that we don’t do that if we don’t invite them into having some sort of voice in the what, how and why of their learning. If they are only trained to “sit and get”, to be “seen but not heard”, to be “compliant and complacent”, to be “submissive and subservient to those in leadership”; how does that prepare them to have a voice in their greater world? They might learn the material more efficiently, but what else will they learn?

How to Give Voice

This perspective argues that, at minimum, we are wise to find ways, even if they are small, to help student discover the importance of their voice in education. In a democracy, it is a dangerous idea to suggest that citizens just don’t know what it good for themselves, so they should just compliantly submit to what the government tells them to do. The citizens are treated like the children and the government is the parent. “Be seen but not heard.” If that is the description of a good citizen and that is what we seek to shape in our schools, then I fear that we no longer have a democratic education system. We have instead turned our schools into propaganda and indoctrination factories.

Again, and I write this to myself as much as others, this need not be a battle of the extremes. There are times when others will have more voice than students. Yet, when that happens, we must do it in light of the fact that our greater responsibility is to give students a voice, not to silence them.

Empowering Students to Create, Enforce & Amend School Rules

What would ike look like if we found ways of empowering students to create, enforce and amend school rules? Schools have rules, lots of them. Interview teachers and you will hear about their individual rules. “In my class, we do ________ this way.” Some have more rules than others, but making rules is a large part of school today. In fact, without rules, schools would be chaotic and unbearable. Even in the most democratic schools, there are plenty of rules. It is just a matter of how creates them, changes them, and enforces them.

Yet, the nature of rules in school make up a massive part of the hidden curriculum education. As you likely know, the hidden curriculum consists of that which is taught and learned in school, but is not explicitly planned or taught in the formal curriculum. It can teach lifelong lessons and cultivate mindsets in students that help and hinder them.

This is why I argue that rules are an incredibly important part of school. What students learn about themselves, community, and authority figures in school can set the stage for how they interact with government and the larger society.  This is why people like John Tayler Gatto have been so outspoken about the claim that schools too often just teach students to be complacent, compliant consumers. Others set the rules and tell the students what to do, when to do it, how to do it, even why to do it (if why is even explained). Students learn to be good rule followers, at least the successful students. They learn to submit. They learn to comply and conform to the standards. That is how you get ahead in school. The good students are compliant. The non-compliant students are labeled as problematic.

Yet, there is a very important difference between living in a democracy and living under a dictatorship. I recently re-read Gene Shar’s classic, From Dictatorship to Democracy, and I think plenty of his ideas speak to our modern education system. I’ll reflect on that in the next couple of paragraphs. As explained by Sharp, in a dictatorship you are controlled by someone else and you don’t have voice or choice. You follow orders and conform. If you don’t then there are often severe consequences. Over time, few people resist. They go along with what the dictator and his/her regime say. In a democracy, this is very different. People have voice. They have say in the rules of the land. They can resist. They can speak in opposition to leadership and other groups. They lobby for their own convictions, and that right is honored and protected. It is not just about the most powerful forcing their convictions and rules on everybody else. There is a genuine commitment to embracing a diversity of beliefs and values, even some that might disturb another person.

Sharp explains an important element of a democracy. In a democracy, people create a wide array of communities and they are free to do so apart from government control or influence. The family unit is valued and given autonomy with limited government oversight and mandates beyond protecting basic rights of indivdiuals. There are religious groups that gather around shared beliefs, and they often shape and contribute to the overall culture in a community. There are groups of hobbyists, activists, and much more. Within a democracy, these groups are not controlled or carefully monitored by a central unit. The role of these gorups of conflicting beliefs and values are protected, even encouraged, because we know that they are close to something that is quite central to a virbrant and healthy democracy.

Let’s return to schools. How many such groups do we see in schools? Where do students experience the joy and possibility of creating and participating in such groups? Where do they get to create new groups, join existing ones, and let their voice and values be expressed within the community and beyond? There are certainly examples, but too often this is on the peripheral of school. School is first and foremost about the rules of the centralized power and expectations that peeople get in line with those rules.

Yet, what would happen if we invited studnets into more of the rule-making? What if they had greater say in how the rules are enformed and amended? What if students learned to create independent groups that aligned with their diverse beliefs and interests? Imagine the value of such a learning community as a way of preparing them for a more active and virbrant citizenship.

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?