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What does “student voice” mean to you?

April 28th, 2011

“Student voice” is talked about a lot in education, but what does it actually mean? Does it mean listening to students’ opinions? Does it mean involving students in decisions about their learning? Does it mean students should have an equal say in decisions made about their entire educational experience, including decisions made at the level of school management and governance? Does it mean ALL of these things?

Recently my colleague Rose Hipkins and I have been unpacking some of the different ideas that tend to get lumped together under the rubric of “student voice”.  We were both very interested in this finding from NZCER’s last National Survey of secondary teachers:  When presented with the statement “there is too much emphasis on ‘student voice’ and similar ideas nowadays”, teachers were almost divided in thirds: 26 percent agreed or strongly agreed, 34 percent were unsure, and 39 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed (See p. 89 of this report).

Why did these teachers have such divergent opinions?

More importantly, how exactly did each teacher interpret the term “student voice”?

What did they imagine “too much emphasis” on student voice might comprise?

For me,  answers to these questions would be a lot more illuminating than the raw statistical responses to the original question.  Rose has described it student voice as “a catch-all phrase that appears to be underpinned by at least five different types of pedagogical application, each of them linked to a different body of theory…”. If that’s the case, no wonder there was such a range of opinion!

You can read her full analysis and commentary about this data in Chapter 10 of  this report (see pp. 85-94). Her key message is that teachers (and the rest of us) probably need to think a lot more about the different sets of ideas that are contained within different interpretations of “student voice”.

I think she’s right, and I also wonder if we need to find a better way to think and talk about how to involve and collaborate with young people in education. For me, the most problematic issue is that some interpretations of  “student voice” don’t actively acknowledge or address underlying power differences between young people and adults—particularly in schools, where adult and youth roles are already tightly framed and the power differentials between adults and young people are deeply embedded.

Lately I’ve become interested in the term “youth–adult partnerships” as an alternative to “student voice”.  Youth – adult partnerships are described by authors such as Mitra (2009) “as relationships in which both youth and adults have the potential to contribute to decision-making processes, to learn from one another, and to promote change (Jones & Perkins, 2004, cited in Mitra, 2009). The idea of youth–adult partnership has a more overtly transformative intention than some interpretations of student voice. What I like about this concept is that it requires us to reconsider the roles and responsibilities of both young people and adults when thinking about how to engage young peoples’ perspectives – including how to address the existing power differentials between the partners.

You can read more in a working paper I have posted on the NZCER website.

I am interested in how a shift away from the discourse of “student voice” in favour of the discourse of “youth-adult partnership” might help all of us with an interested in education to have richer and more provocative discussions about young peoples’ rights, responsibilities, and roles in co-constructing their educational experiences. I am sure that there are already good examples of youth-adult partnerships occurring in some schools (for example, restorative justice approaches).  What conditions might allow youth–adult partnership ways of thinking to play out further in schools? What can these partnerships might look like, (including for students at different year levels?). I’m interested to know what other people think about “student voice”, and whether (and how) we might need to shift our thinking about this concept if we are to really change the way we think about teaching and learning in the 21st century.


Bolstad, R. (2011). From ‘student voice’ to ‘youth – adult partnerships’: Lessons from working with young people as partners for educational change. Working paper from the Families and Communities Engagement in Education (FACE) project. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Hipkins, R. (2010). Reshaping the secondary school curriculum: Building the plane while flying it? Findings from NZCER National Survey of Secondary Schools 2009. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Mitra, D. (2009). Collaborating with students: Building youth–adult partnerships in schools. American Journal of Education, 115 (3), 407–436.




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  1. Pat.H
    | #1

    Student voice seems always a contentious and perhaps even scary concept to many educators. At a glance, the five constructs outlined by Rose Hipkins seem a fair summation of differing avenues of student voice. A caution though, unpacking too far creates confusion especially at the outset.
    Simple is always best to begin and I personally have no doubt that we are still at the very beginning of any shift towards a more student centered approach to education. The very fact that one third (of the NZCER survey p.89)admit to seeing student voice as over-emphasised, my pessimistic streak warns me that that perhaps half of the rest are simply not admitting to the same feelings.

    A start point for student voice perhaps, is not so much a construct but a question – what is it we want to hear from students that will help improve their learning outcomes? (which is what we’re all about after all.)

    Perhaps this where the idea of students being ‘assessment capable’as suggested by the DANZ might be a useful approach. To have a voice to assist their own learning means being capable of such conversations – in what currently is a hierarchal, power over, system.

    How that is to happen is perhaps the real discussion needed.

  2. | #2

    I think this needs to understand the idea of who is listening. From my perspective, the voice should be understood as the collective view of the students. The listeners are primarily the members of the group.

    That’s the real shift from 20th to 21st century which I’ve developed into a practice in the network mediated classroom. I call it Shared Thinking http://sharedthinking.info

  3. | #3

    In software, we use the “voice of the customer” to mean that we have the wants, needs, and scenarios of the customer that we’re designing for, captured and reflected in some way.

    We do that so that the “business” or the “technical” or our internal perspectives, don’t over-shadow or can be balanced with the end goals of the customer. It’s also how we co-create the future vs. throw it over the wall and hope it sticks.

  4. | #4

    If you were a student, would you prefer a 20th or 21st century education?

  1. | #1
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