Finding Student Voice in School Reform Debate

Tim Cook is mid-way through a research fellowship with The Sprout Fund. After conducting a literature review of texts concerning the Student Voice in School Reform, Tim is developing replicable programs that engage students as participants in the dialogue on education reform and the future of their own schools. The following is an introduction to this work.

In beginning my fellowship with The Sprout Fund, I focused on one over-arching design principle. It’s not a new idea, but it’s a phrase I came up with to remind myself of my approach: “the ‘how?’ must come from the ‘why?’”. What I mean is that, if you want to design something, re-design something, or question the design of something, just ask if it is living up to its purpose. Or, more seriously, if it even knows what its purpose is.

This principle–the how must come from the why–gets especially complex in the world of education. The why is multifold and hard to pin down.

For about a decade, I’ve struggled to apply this principle to a question in education: what is the connection between life and school? This question, of course, is really many questions: What is the purpose of school? Is it to prepare us to live better after we graduate? If school is about preparation for life, does our schooled-life have a different purpose than the rest of our life?

Students yearn for a purpose. They ask “Why am I here?” (or, for a specific example, “When will I ever use Calculus?”) and we rarely have a good answer. Maybe more importantly, we rarely facilitate the genuine asking of the question. In one of my early workshops with students, I posed these questions about the purpose of school and their life after school. Students had a unified response: “we’re always looking to graduation so we can actually do what we want to do.” Students recognize that their schooled-life has a culture that is constantly looking to what is after, and they follow suit. This post-school perspective severely limits student’s ability to engage now as full participants in their school community. Their school community, for all intents and purposes, is where their civic life takes place. This perspective promotes a culture of transience that will continually lack civic engagement until a student, now 30+, has settled down.

A favorite quote, by Henry David Thoreau, always resonates strongly with students: “One should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.” This quote has epic tones to it and calls us to build the world.

In addressing this, I want to identify a simple but difficult thing: how do we enable students to do what they want now? To build the world and have an epic sense of purpose now? To live earnestly now, and not merely study or play? The hypothesis is that if students better understood first why they are in school and why it is the way it is, they would enjoy it, work harder, and could help their teachers and administrators to improve the experience.

The question of school’s purpose and how we understand the meaning of life-in-school shows up in our conversations on civic engagement, school culture, and student voice /student agency. We can either say that school is about preparation for life after, or we can say that school is the best years of your life. A time when you don’t have to pay bills, a time when, more-than-ever, you have the freedom and room for error that allow you to experiment and think creatively. Instead of thinking of school as preparation for after, let’s think of it as a really well-resourced life. A life surrounded by wise mentors, materials, equipment, a community of collaborators, and a structure that keeps you focused and accountable.

Historically, many projects that focus on student and civic engagement fall short. Traditionally, there are two types of these initiatives: (1) token involvement in school governance and (2) mediated involvement in non-school, real-world issues.

The first type lets students “pretend” at real-world governance in the mostly ceremonial confines of the student government. The other lets students scrape the surface of engagement with genuine real-world problems. While excellent at times, these  experiences usually deal with problems that the student’s themselves did not pose, problems that have little to no meaning to the student’s everyday life in school.

Rather than token involvement with their schooled-life or minimal, mediated involvement with the real post-school life they have not yet reached, what happens when we embrace students as full citizens of their school communities? When they become authentic residents who are full participants in the dialogue of the school’s operation, instead of its passive consumers?

New conversations and technologies (like the Connected Learning initiative) are re-opening this old conversation concerning where learning happens and, therefore, questioning the traditional architecture of schools. Despite the momentum of recent Education Reform conversations and, separately, increasing numbers of Student Voice initiatives, the two rarely coincide.

In another recent workshop of mine, none of the 18 smart, engaged High School students I spoke with had ever heard of the Common Core Standards, they mentioned that “they only new things we hear about is what they’re taking out of our school…” “…we have no say in how it’s run, it is what it is, unless lots of adults get upset and change it.” The dialogue around the common core and its implementation is one of the most focused, national conversations on the purpose of school, but students have been completely left out of it. See the part around 1:20 in an official CCStandards YouTube video. Note who “came together” and who is left out?

In my work this year, I will hold serious conversations and design workshops that let students ask questions about the purpose of their schools and engage in the exciting reform conversations shaping the future of their schools. My hope is that these students who love to build the world (in Minecraft or ____craft) will come to love building the world they live in; maybe we just have to let them. Instead of preparing students to build a world they aren’t yet in, let us recognize that School (whatever that means) is their world and let them build it.

I have no doubt that we will learn something from them. Who knows, maybe they’ll learn something from us too.

To close, I’ll just summarize John Dewey who, it seems, we’ve been trying to learn from for over a century:

If, at the end of school, a student has not developed a desire and a responsibility to learn, then the entire experience has been miseducative, a waste and a detriment to all involved.

Developing this desire and responsibility is tantamount to everything else. Of course, we are all born with it. We just have to hold onto it as we grow up.


p.s. I invite you to watch the video at and think seriously about the narration and about how much students love to build a world of their own choosing: “No one can tell you what you can and cannot do.”

p.p.s If you are interested in more of this conversation, this year’s Pittsburgh Forum is a weekend to reflect on these questions. It’s part summer-camp, part design training, part feast, part think tank. Consider joining us.

Published June 10, 2013