Two things that I hear a lot when discussing student voice and agency with teachers is that a really clear rationale for student voice is important and also, that it is devilishly difficult to implement in schools. This article is a summary of some elements that contribute to its trickiness and commentary on strategies that are working.
If you’re wondering ‘why student voice?’ or why should teachers care about student voice, I suggest that teachers check out this PD, this policy document or the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It isn’t the focus here. I could also give you persuasive anecdotes about how student voice can profoundly change your experience of teaching for the better but the focus of this article is on a discussion of the factors that can help teachers with student voice.
So, if we can agree that including student voice in our practice is good, why is it likely to be difficult to implement?
When we’re talking about starting and implementing student voice initiatives, there are a few things that make it tricky.
We don’t like to talk about the way that power works in schools – we can say informally that teachers feel really disempowered in their roles but engaging with what this means for our experiences of school-based professional learning (as something that is done to us), professional trust (we are overly timetabled which removes time to autonomously plan, mark or collaborate with colleagues) and myriad other things, big and small, seems too big a conversation to get into. Compared to other, more high performing, school systems (in many Nordic countries for example), teachers in Australia aren’t given a heap of autonomy; they already feel disempowered, which makes the prospect of potentially sacrificing what little authority or power they have to students unattractive. It can feel like an affront to their professionalism, which is experienced as another in a series of affronts to their professionalism. Yet I don’t necessarily see this as an accurate reflection of how power is distributed in schools, I find it empowering to support my students to have a voice. However, it is a factor that impacts teachers’ willingness and capacity to take risks with student voice.
Support teachers – there is no student agency without teacher agency
Many of the factors that limit student voice and agency are also limiting teachers’ ability to feel like they have agency in their teaching and a voice in their schools. In the absence of clear direction and supports from leadership, student voice is almost doomed to be seen as an add-on to what teachers do. With inadequate support, voice initiatives are one of the few things that teachers can say ‘no’ to in exchange for say, looking after their elderly parents, feeding their fish or sleeping eight hours.
When we are stressed and overworked, it isn’t an environment that nurtures innovative practice – we are more likely to be resistant. A really useful practice when exploring student voice is to use some of the same mechanisms for staff input (one example would be teacher perception surveys as well as student perception surveys).
Towards a shared vision for student voice
My idea of student voice in education is that students have authentic input into their education and their schools. This is sometimes described as maximalist – I think a lot about the convention of the rights of the child that says that children and young people have the right to a say in the things that affect them- so I don’t see a lot as off limits in terms of student voice. Many people would say this is too extreme, and that the school should put limits on what decisions students can make. Many school leaders will make the decision that having some sort of leadership program, having a few students sitting on school council (as is mandated in government schools in Victoria) and students occasionally getting to choose their own case study in class are as far as student voice efforts should practically go.
Get comfortable with discomfort – As teachers, we are really used to cognitive dissonance in our work. We support students to thrive in exams we think are a limited way of assessing learning, we implement stuff that we don’t believe will support students all the time. Student voice, and the inherent threat to teacher power and authority that this involves, is a different kind of discomfort.
Sometimes, schools with really coherent leadership, that is concerned with limiting teachers’ workloads will have a laser focus on the school priorities 'doing less well’ which I’ve seen result in a really cool literacy program, with very little student input, and a continuous delaying of student voice because we aren’t going to focus on it until we have our other priorities achieved. The issue here is that those other priorities will be in progress indefinitely and without significant changes to our education system focus, it will be tremendously difficult to be able to focus on student voice rather than literacy or attendance BECAUSE, and I would argue inaccurately, a genuine partnership with students about literacy and attendance could really help in these areas – and more importantly, what are the students’ priorities for their school? Or do we not care? Or do we really, genuinely think we know better?
Things that can help
Define your terms
Understanding what you mean by student voice – we think of it as an umbrella term that includes everything from student’s feeling in control of their learning through metacognition to students having a substantial say in how their school runs – what do you mean by student voice?
Some schools have done great work developing a shared understanding and some level of knowledge about student voice- some schools have assumed that everyone knows what it is and agrees. I would argue that we are working with simultaneous competing definitions and it is helpful for you to get clear on what you mean – if only so you can understand where it might not exactly fit with your colleagues or leadership.
Find your people
Here I mean staff and students – what teachers at your school are keen to work with student voice? Is there an Assistant Principal who really believes? Is there an English teacher who is arguing gently and patiently for more student-choice in English text selection? Are there students whose voices are not included in the current structures of the school? These are your people. Sometimes change occurs in schools because a critical mass of staff and students are asking for it – in order to make your student voice projects thrive, you need to be working in a team. This is not to say that a solo teacher seeking authentic student input and feedback on classes, and working in partnership to plan classes and choose topics and assessments is not incredible: it is, and you’re amazing – it just depends on if the goal is to be one teacher in a school being amazing or to create change at your school as a whole.
Build slowly on whatever foundations you find
If I were a broken record, I’d be stuck on the phrase ‘schools are complex ecosystems’. Whichever school you are at, there is guaranteed to be, or have been, some attempts at student voice in the past. Never assume that because you don’t know about it, it never existed. Student voice is not new: students were mandatory on school council for 15 years in Victoria until the mid 1990s when the policy was changed. Your best ally for creating student voice change at your school might be the teacher whose initiatives weren’t supported by the school 10 years before you arrived at the school and who is disappointed that their attempts haven’t worked – curiosity and humility will do wonders in finding out who these people are and not offending them by saying things like ‘this school doesn’t do anything for student voice’.
Similarly, build on whatever foundations are working for your school now. I began my student voice journey by taking on the student engagement program – which covered the student leadership and extra-curricular activities. For a while, we focused on things like harmony day or school assemblies, because this is what was working, and then, gradually, began to build into other activities which I considered to be more substantive opportunities for students to make decisions. For this gradual change to be sustainable it is worth understanding the existing program fully rather than continually trying to reinvent programs. It is difficult to discover exactly why a program works or doesn’t work if you don’t have an in-depth understanding of how it works.
Document what you are doing
School’s institutional memories are short, and student representatives, leaders (whatever you want to call them) are continually graduating, moving forward and being replaced with new students! You are in a continuous process of renewal – this is super exciting but also means that you will always be trying to catch students up on where projects are, help them to understand how student voice work is done at your school and bring in teachers who might be helping with these roles. Making videos, writing notes, getting students to create how-to-guides and using a platform like google classrooms to share resources for doing this is essential for you to be able to ensure you have a team of students and teachers ready to work in partnership.
So, good luck out there, and if you are the teacher leading student empowerment initiatives at your school, we see you, and well done.
Finefter-Rosenbluh, I. (2022). Between student voice-based assessment and teacher-student relationships: teachers’ responses to ‘techniques of power’ in schools. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 43(6), 842-859.
Mitra, D. (2005) Increasing student voice and moving toward youth leadership. Prevention Researcher, 13(1), 7–10.
VicDET (2018). Dimension: Empowering students and building school pride. (Melbourne, Department of Education and Training Victoria). www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/management/improvement/Pages/dimension3empowering.aspx.
Executive Officer, Social Education Victoria