Posts Tagged ‘students’

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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Students “mapping out their own futures”

November 10th, 2010

I’ve neglected to check my pigeonhole at work for a while, and hence I almost missed seeing this  Education Gazette article about learning pathways at Hauraki Plains College.

This is a pretty exciting article for me, partly because the the school’s approach was “significantly influenced” by a book Jane Gilbert and I wrote, Disciplining and drafting, or 21st century learning?

The article describes how the school has taken some of the ideas we talked about in the book (and talk about often on Shifting Thinking), combined with their own analysis of their students’ needs, and re-created the way they think about timetabling, coursework, pathways, and student support. This quote illustrates the school’s vision for its students.

As students understand their strengths and abilities they are supported in shaping a purposeful direction through their learning which fits with their aspirations for a life beyond the school gates. They see their time at school as relevant to their future and they can plan for it.

How, precisely, do they do it? Read the whole article here.

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Students as co-contributors to education design (new NZCER report)

April 19th, 2010

Another NZCER report has just gone online: It’s called Better than a professional? Students as co-contributors to educational design

This report concerns a sub-project of NZCER’s Families and Communities Engagement (FACE) project which is investigating ideas and practices involved in bringing together teachers, families, local communities and students to contribute to collective conversations and decisions about education.

We aimed to develop and research a process to engage small groups of secondary students in becoming critical and informed contributors to curriculum and education design, and developed workshops to support small groups of students (mostly in Years 9 and 10) in two girls’ schools to undertake small-scale research on their own and/or others’ views and experiences about learning and school. When given the opportunity to discuss big-picture curriculum ideas and undertake critical close readings of The New Zealand Curriculum, students could begin to articulate how these did or did not match their own experiences or those of others, including their fellow students, teachers and their family members. Students also recognised some of the key dilemmas that educators and policy makers grapple with.  Students in both schools presented their findings at a range of forums, where students could also discuss their views, answer questions and pose suggestions to teachers and school leaders, family members and other students.

The report describes what we, the students, and school leaders/key staff learned through this process. I welcome you to download the full report if you are interested, and I will endeavour to get some more blogpostings up about some of the ideas connected to this piece of research that we can all discuss!

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O! She doth teach the torches to burn bright!*

February 26th, 2009

I’ve just read two shifting thinking blogposts about Shakespeare, one by Jane and one by Jim, and it’s inspired me to segue to a favourite topic of mine: Television.

From Shakespeare to Television? That’s a bit of a plummet isn’t it, from the heights of Western literary culture, to the morass of mass stupefication?

Not so! At least not the way I’d like to approach it. Here’s what I’m interested in – looking at fictional stories from television (or books, or film) and deconstructing these to examine some ideas about:
- how they represent how schooling/education “is”
- what they say about how we think schooling/education “should be”
- and (if I can find some good examples) what kinds of possible futures they can help us to imagine for schooling, learning, and education.

I’ve chosen my first television show/character to discuss: Loretta West from the utterly brilliant New Zealand TV series Outrageous Fortune. The show is a refreshingly original comedy/drama that is unashamedly grounded in kiwi (or perhaps more accurately, the mythological “Westie” – West Auckland) culture, language, and humour.

When Outrageous Fortune begins (season 1 started in 2005), Loretta is 15 years old and a student at Shadbolt High. The youngest child of Cheryl and Wolfgang West, Loretta has grown up in a family that makes a living on the wrong side of the law – through burglaries, break-ins, car conversions, robberies, and otherwise dodgy deals orchestrated by her father, usually aided and abetted by at least one of her older twin brothers. However, at the beginning of season 1, all this starts to change when Wolf is sentenced to prison for his last “job”, and Cheryl decides to turn the family around and go straight. Cheryl doesn’t receive rousing support or enthusiasm from her offspring. Yet she battles on, doing her best to carry the family through the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Naturally, enormously entertaining complications ensue.

Anyway, back to Loretta. What does she have to tell us about schooling, learning, and education? (And where is the connection to Shakespeare?)

During season 1 we learn that Loretta has been frequently truant from school. The reason for this is pretty clear: Loretta finds school boring, pointless, and an utter waste of time. What makes Loretta’s attitude towards school interesting is that she is obviously extremely intelligent. She’s a talented writer, she’s articulate, can speak confidently and argue her opinions. She’s no slacker; she has big goals for herself. Her single-minded goal at age 15 is to become a film-maker, and she’s already working on a screenplay with her teenage friend and fellow video store employee, Kurt.

Yes, Loretta is highly intelligent. However, she is also rather devious .

She discovers the perfect way to avoid her mum finding out that she’s not going to school: blackmail. Several years earlier  young Loretta took some incriminating photos of her young female teacher in “compromising” positions with Loretta’s older brother, and now years later is using them to keep her teacher quiet on her truancy. However, through a series of plot twists and turns this plan eventually falls through and Loretta has no choice but to go back to school.

In season 2, Loretta turns 16. This is both the legal school-leaving age in NZ, and the age at which each of her three elder siblings has left Shadbolt High. She is momentarily overjoyed – only to be foiled by her parents’ insistence that she remain at school to develop her full potential. So Loretta tries get herself expelled. But even this backfires, as her parents decide that she will have to attend a private Catholic Girls’ school instead. Finally, in a stroke of genius, Loretta cuts a deal with a young homeless woman of a similar age and appearance. The homeless girl will attend the school as “Loretta West”. In return, she receives a free education, a place to sleep, and payment. This frees the real Loretta to get on with her “real” life – managing her video business, and working towards her first film. As you can imagine, things don’t work out exactly as she planned, but again, I can’t give too much away….

In a truly digital-age convergence of television and the internet, you can read Loretta’s view of school in own words, right here on Loretta’s Blog. (Hint: that’s where you’ll find our first connection to Shakespeare….)

So what can Loretta West of Outrageous Fortune tell us about how schooling is? I know that Loretta is a highly fictionalised character, and many elements of her life have been exaggerated for dramatic and comic effect. But I think there’s something interesting simmering underneath this portrayal of a student’s deep antipathy towards school. In representing secondary school, Outrageous Fortune has played on a stereotype or cliche not uncommon in television or filmic portrayals of school: The disaffected student, who finds teachers boring and uninspiring, doesn’t do what she is told, and eventually goes on to become so disruptive that the school is happy to see the back of her. These kinds of students are rife in the film world – although usually they’re often set up to be saved by a charismatic teacher who “won’t give up on them” even when every other teacher has. Thus re-engaged, the delinquents become stars, show the world not to dismiss them while they’re at it. Think Dangerous Minds, Sister Act 2, Take the Lead, etc. These cliches about students “work” partly because they are grounded in truth. Plenty of kids are disengaged by school by the time they reach secondary classrooms. Plenty of kids, like Loretta, have extremely complicated lifeworlds that sit at odds with the culture and practice of the secondary classroom. Plenty of them leave early, as soon as they are legally entitled to, with few or no qualifications. And not all of them are as resourceful and resilient as Loretta West. The question is, do we think this is just “part of life”, “the way things are”, “the way they are always going to be”? Or can we imagine something different?

*The title of this posting is a line from Romeo and Juliet. In case it’s not obvious, this is an homage to the writers of Outrageous Fortune (the television series) who have borrowed both their show’s title, and the titles of each episode, from William Shakepeare.

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