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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.

References/links

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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