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.
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.
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.