Schools will frequently claim they’re big on ‘student voice’. And many are. Too often however, what we believe to be ‘allowing’ young people to voice their wants and needs (why do we think they need permission?), can actually dial the volume down, not up. Here are some ways in which well-meant intentions have harmful side-effects:
1. Put them in a very small box – who wants to design the new school uniform? Yay! What colour scheme should we use for the school canteen? Hurrah! It’s not that these kinds of participation are bad, per se – it’s just that it says to students ‘leave the really important stuff to us’. A report, published by the DEMOS think-tank, was reported in today’s Guardian as an almost counter-intuitive confirmation of what those of us who work in schools already know: that today’s students are socially concerned, caring and, well, really sensible. Counterintuitive because their portrayal in the media is just the opposite: feckless, celebrity-obsessed and hedonistic. The Guardian, with no apparent sense of irony, blamed the media:
“In this BuzzFeed-driven journalistic climate, there’s very little space for young people interested in writing about education and poverty issues in any depth; and yet, according to Demos, these are just the things that today’s kids care about. It’s time someone catered to them.”
2. Put our fingers in our ears – we ask them to get involved in that really important stuff – how we should teach and learn and assess…but then we don’t do anything with the answers we get (perhaps because they’re not the ones we wanted to hear) When I’ve seen student voice at its best, the end result hasn’t been wholesale adoption of their ideas – just an honest dialogue after which both students and teachers have a lot more respect for each other. Students understand that not all of their ideas will work. But they do want to hear why they can’t be implemented. Too often there’s simply no response – and that’s worse than not asking them in the first place. Real student voice takes the genie out of the bottle, and once out, you can’t put it back in. Student voice ignored is a recipe for cynicism.
3. Make them speak with a funny accent – There was a period, a while back, where you couldn’t go to a conference without cringing at a panel debate, complete with a slightly-patronised student, asked to ‘represent’ their fellow students. Would any of us claim to represent educators? But the poor student would inevitably be asked to tell delegates what students ‘really think’. We do it for all the right reasons, but it’s wrong on so many levels. I recently did a presentation in Brisbane at a conference with a youth panel, who were asked to prepare a kind of response to my talk. Halfway through, I saw them whispering to each other, and scribbling away. ‘I’ve lost them’ I thought, but ploughed on to the end. Facilitated by the amazing Eugene Skeef, the students then proceeded to perform a rap that they’d written, as I was speaking, about the issues I’d raised. It was funny, irreverent, and brilliant. They were in a formal setting, but speaking with their own voice.
So, it follows that if these are the three ways we stifle student voice the opposite should be the way to encourage it: put them centre stage, talking about the big issues that matter to them; listen, I mean really listen, and then begin a respectful dialogue, but commit to action; and let them use the language and vehicles that they choose.
I was recently sent a good example of this. Chris Woldhuis of Northern Beaches Christian School in Sydney asked his students to respond to the issues I raised in OPEN, and describe the way learning needs to change. That was it. They could say whatever they liked, in whatever form they liked. Here’s what they produced. It’s student voice, unmediated: