Empowering Student Voice

I just received my latest issue of Entrsekt, a quarterly magazine published by the International Society for Technology in Education – or ISTE as most educators know it.  The lead article carries the same title as this blog post, and provides a refreshing classroom-based perspective about how technology can open up new opportunities for students to share their thinking and make choices about their own learning.  It seems that student-centeredness is on the rise – and thank goodness for that.

Yet all this talk about student empowerment and student voice gets me worried.  Specifically, I worry that in our discussions about empowering students, we don’t take the time to talk to them – much less listen to them.  In our rush to develop systems and adopt programs of choice on behalf of our kids, we don’t exactly practice what we preach.  It’s not intended to be ironic.  When education digests a new concept and brings it out to scale, it is often stripped of the essence that made it exciting and effective in the first place.  Our good intentions can become monsters.

Take high school for instance.  When students walk into high school, they are virtually stripped of their agency.   Students are generally told the classes they need.  Students have little say in selecting their teachers, or how classes will be taught.  Phones are on lockdown.  Students are told when to eat and when to use the bathroom.  The walls belong to the adults.  So let’s be frank about the inherent conflict that comes from restructuring and reculturing schools and classrooms that seek to authentically empower students.  Let’s not underestimate the huge change implications of transforming a system to orient itself to the student experience.

If we believe that students bring meaningful perspectives and insights into their own educational experiences, then we might ask ourselves how we are systematically attending to students’ thoughts, hopes, and dreams.  The best teachers, of course, already understand this – they don’t need new initiatives to practice true student-centeredness in the classroom.  At a school or district level, things can get more complicated.  As a district administrator myself, I can attest to how easy it can be to allow the day to day workflow to disconnect us from the very students we are committed to serve.

So, we’ve been experimenting.  We began with a question – how can we authentically connect district administrators with students in a setting that facilitates honesty and open dialogue?

We started with seven of our high schools.  We brought together district leadership and groups of 300 students, chosen in a manner to approach a random sample across the school, to respond to essential questions related to a range of school-related topics.  Individual students recorded their personal responses, and then discussed them with student colleagues and school and district staff.  We then collected this data, transcribed or photo-captured student responses, and shared back with site leadership teams.  While we offered nearly a dozen discussion topics, students across schools overwhelmingly chose to discuss issues related to school discipline and the school to prison pipeline, expansion of opportunities to pursue personal interests, and experimentation with alternative and personalized school schedules.  The request for better food was a constant.

When we went to talk to younger students, we realized we would need a protocol that would be more appropriate for younger learners.  Each school selected 90 students who were divided into three rotations.  One rotation focused on capturing student narratives about powerful learning experiences, another rotation engaged students in a discussion about their perceptions of their current school learning environment, and the final rotation brought in high school students to facilitate a dialogue around the high school experience and how it could be improved.  We again collected student responses – scanning student written responses in both the high school and school learning environment discussions, and collecting the student video narratives.  While our intermediate students were more reserved in their critiques of their experiences, they did offer lots of helpful feedback in terms of their perceptions of academic rigor and challenge, their desire for more universally available support and guidance, and at some schools, a call for improved safety and supervision.  As is the case with the high school sessions, we return the input data to school leadership teams for their discussion and review.

When taken together, we saw a number of interesting patterns amongst our students’ responses.  In terms of the academic experience, students voiced a clear desire to have more ownership of the path through intermediate and high school: access to more course choices, fewer required courses, and more flexibility in daily schedules.  They also expressed some impatience with elements of their experience that lacked meaning or authenticity, including disdain for busy work, unnecessary homework, and having to endure some classes where teachers didn’t seem terribly interested in their personal goals or challenges.  “Believe in us more.”  “Trust us more.” These were common statements we heard from students.  Some comments were hard to hear.

We also heard a lot of students talk about what is working for them at school.  Many students shared anecdotal evidence of teachers who had gone out of their way to support, encourage, and mentor them.  Similarly, many students talked about enrichment experiences and field trips that stood out as significant to their learning.  There was a strong call to make these types of experiences both more widely available and in greater quantity.

Student voice and empowerment are not boxes to be checked off a list.  It’s an ongoing commitment and it’s never finished.  As our intensive, albeit imperfect efforts can attest, students have plenty to say about the educational experiences we are offering them.  We just have to take the time to listen.

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