Ari Sussman coordinates the Student Voice Collaborative. He also serves as an academic coach with the Children First Network 102.
Why student voice matters
It’s surprising how hard it’s been to make a clear case for why student voice matters. The small circle in and outside academia that's interested in student voice and promoting it has struggled with this for years.
The link most people make is through engagement, though student voice is somewhat different than engagement, however much they are related, too. The good news is that the academic research clearly shows that student engagement can positively affect “measurable” outcomes. Kids who take part in decision-making, who meaningfully participate in school, research shows that they're more successful in their academic endeavors, that they score better on tests, that they do better in classes, that they attend school more regularly.
But there are so many mediating factors and so many important outcomes beyond test scores that applauding the academic impact is only part of the story.
Those of us who believe in student voice try to demonstrate or explain that when students feel heard, they feel more valued, and when they feel more valued, they become more motivated to participate in school. We try to make the case that when students are listened to, they develop better relationships in school and then use those model relationships to develop good, healthy relationships outside of school. We talk about how student voice is the beginning of the process of democratizing schools, and we remind people that if the purpose of school is to prepare young people to make change and to participate in the democracy, then walking them through that process in school increases the chances that when they leave school, they will know how to exercise democracy and believe in it.
Really, it's hard not to see the benefits of student voice.
What gets in the way
I think the busyness of schools is a big factor. Having been in schools and worked for the system, I’m constantly amazed at how both are such incredibly busy places. In the rush, people understandably become hyper vigilant about tests and compliance. It's easy for student voice to take a back seat when the stakes for testing, school accountability and compliance are so high.
I’ve learned that even the best-intentioned and most progressive-minded people sometimes need to take a step back and reflect and ask themselves if they are doing the little things that matter and living up to, you know, the vision and the values they hold. I'm lucky to work with some of the most progressive, hardest working, thoughtful, and creative schools and, even so, it's a challenge to work through the daily busyness and the press of mandates and find the time and space to prioritize student voice.
It’s so tempting to treat student voice as an add-on. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned, if student voice is to be successful, it must be woven into the everyday fabric of school—it needs to be rooted in meaningful activities and it needs to be routinized. If it's not a routine and if it's not found in all of the areas in which it should be found, then it's just not happening. You can have a student council that mostly plays a token role, that participates in school spirit activities. Don't get me wrong; I'm for this too. But if that's the extent of student voice, then there's a problem. However, if there are decision-making committees in the school and students are part of them, then there’s a good chance positive change may happen. If there are classrooms where the direction of the curriculum is decided on a periodic basis as part a planning committee and students are part of that committee, or there's a process and a protocol within the classroom that supports student voice, then the chances are good that the class will become a place that engages students in learning. But if there's no system, no routine, I fear student voice will fall far short of its potential.
The principal as the biggest advocate
Another thing is the key role played by the principal. Speaking of busyness, some of the busiest people in the universe are school principals; they have so many responsibilities and burdens and challenges resting on their shoulders. We ask them to be Superman or Superwoman, to make constant choices between how much of the “chatter” they will to listen to and how to prioritize their time and efforts. Their days are exhausting. But if student voice is not part of the principal’s routine—not woven into the fabric of the school—then it’s not going to happen. It will get lost in the chatter.
We had this idealism when we first started the Student Voice Collaborative that a small group of kids in each school could drive change. We quickly learned the students need a larger body of students. They need teachers. And most of all, they need a principal who believes in the importance of student voice—and is its biggest advocate.
I know it's not fair to ask too much of the principal, to expect him or her to spend full time on student voice and student-led school improvement efforts. But if she or he can lay out an infrastructure for how student voice runs through the school, and can assign good teachers and other staff to make student voice a priority, then I think the principal can be present at important times along the way and count on the faculty to make empowering students daily practice.
Getting the balance right
One of the hardest issues with student voice is getting the balance right between adults taking over vs. handing everything over to the kids. I've seen situations where you have student councils, for instance, where the facilitator feels crunched for time or questions whether students can do it themselves, and so takes on a controlling role and does more than he or she should be doing. Sometimes the adult ends up speaking for students in an effort to increase student voice—and actually squashes it.
Then there's the other side where you have people who say, “I'm going to make this a completely student voice environment and I'm going to let the kids run this themselves. I'm going to sit in the corner here and the kids can do it.” This may be a nice idea in theory, but it doesn't usually work out that way. Kids need adult allies, facilitators, who are able to structure the training and the development and who know when to step up and step back.
It's incessantly challenginge to figure out the balance of how much to do and how much not to do. I think everyone who believes in student voice, in empowering students to be active in their education, struggles with balancing adult guidance and student initiative.
The term “student voice” is truly a difficult one, because it doesn't capture completely what we want it to. Over the course of the past year, I've realized a couple things about the term “student voice.” The idea that we give students voice rather than the fact that students, like us, have a voice of their own, developed or not, skews the process. The issue isn’t giving students voice, but giving them opportunities, forums, places for it to come out. Last year the students and I were making t-shirts for a big event and wanted a motto. One of the students said, “How 'bout for the motto 'The Voice is Yours'?” And I thought to myself, “Oh, that sounds kind of cheesy.” Then I was like, “Wait a second. That's actually kind of hits exactly the center of what this is about, the fact that students don't need...well, students need adults clearly. They don't need them to give them voice. They have a voice, and it's about listening.”
And speaking about listening, I feel like another struggle with the term “student voice” is that it focuses on broadcast, the speaking. While students do need time and space to speak, they need to listen as much as teachers. One of the things we’re recognizing and trying to promote with kids now is that voice is as much listening as it is speaking, for both students and adults.
Then there's a final issue: student voice doesn’t end with voice. There has to be an implicit expectation that voice leads toward action, to a collaborative plan for change.
If you're interested in being part of an ongoing discussion among student voice researchers and practiitons, sing up for the Facebook group, Student Voice Research and Practice.
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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”
– Deborah Meier, educator