Advice for Student Voice Initiatives

Remake Learning Fellow Tim Cook brings us his second piece on the ever-changing world of education, this time focusing on "student voice" initiatives and how to make them really work.

In my earlier post on the absence of the student voice in the exciting discussions on school reform, I talked about the disconnect students see between their schooled life and their life after school; a culture of pending personhood. As one student puts it, “High school is purgatory between childhood and life”. Rather than just “live from day to day” focused on “passing” school, how can we encourage students to not want to pass through, but to dwell and engage? How do we tell students to not pass their classes, but to dig into them?

Moving forward in my work this year, I want to listen more. To do this, I’ve been organizing a number of small student workshops that, I hope, will give students some time and some tools to engage critically with the questions: “Why School?” and “If we know “Why?” then, How?” The plan is, essentially, to bring students into the current discussion on education reform by asking them to redesign school. Using different human-centered design methods, student participants will research their school community, interview its members, grapple with current reform issues, and publish original ideas. Perhaps most powerfully, students will have the chance to reconcile their values with those of their teachers and administrators.

One of the most challenging parts in all of this, as I have both read and seen from experience, is not perpetuating the usual adult-student relationship. It is incredibly hard to facilitate without leading so that students own an experience and feel the freedom to speak their mind. As one student writes of school, “all it took [to get approval] was shutting up. Staying sweet and silent and complicit on the surface. Let’s start with that … Let’s make a cake, let’s bake bread. Let’s smell our work and eat our work but not our words. Let’s feed the world. Let’s make it real.” Authentic youth-adult partnerships require us to both deal with our own pride and years of cultural baggage.

Recent research, conversations with practitioners, and my personal trial-by-fire experience has brought to light some best practices that have been successful in ameliorating the youth-adult dynamic in a workshop setting. Hopefully this will be of help to readers who are considering working on a student voice initiative, or any project that requires genuine youth-adult partnership.
Here’s the short list:

  1. Be a Partner. Don’t try too hard to gain students’ favor, or force them to engage. I have noticed that nothing kills the discussion more quickly than trying to abruptly force a quiet student into the conversation. No matter how nicely you do it, you have to fight the teacher’s urge to make students engage. Dress casually and be on a mutual first name basis with all of the students (it’s easy to only engage with the students who engage you). I noticed that when I started to document student’s behavior (for my own research purposes) they shut down. They don’t want to be treated as subjects, but as peers. Put your notebook, phone, computer, recorder, and camera away. Most importantly, explain that you are excited to learn together, and to learn from them. Treat it like a casual conversation.
  2. Find the Right Place. Unless your school or organization has done some amazing work to give students ownership over certain spaces, it’s likely that the best place to meet will be somewhere outside of your normal locale. If possible, find a place that is much more theirs than it is yours. I think of it like this: whenever I visit my parent’s house on the holidays, I start acting 14 again; I leave dishes everywhere expecting mom to clean them up, and I eat a lot more cookies than I ever would at home. The strong psychological connections we have to places can either inhibit your students or liberate them to engage more boldly in the work of the group. Rent a room somewhere fantastic, or meet at a place that students already spend their time. If you can’t think of somewhere obvious, for early gatherings you could consider asking a student to host it at their house. In the long-run, you might be able to garner the resources and freedom necessary to give students their own space in the school. Find somewhere that inspires maturity and ownership, rather than regression into traditional student roles. It’s the difference between the standard classroom and the room of requirement.
  3. Let Them Create. This is, by far, the hardest part: let the students be the sole creators. In group discussions, carefully tread the line between re-framing their words and putting words in their mouth, or answering questions for them. In creative projects, let them draw outside the lines. In documenting the work, let the students take charge both in the recording, but also in the planning. Learn to be okay with whatever level of quality they produce, and let them fail if necessary. Remember that the primary goal of this particular initiative is not to improve their handwriting, or their vocabulary, or their sketching. The goal is to give them agency in their community; to let them feel responsible for completing meaningful work on their own. Of course this is not just the hardest part about student voice projects, it’s the hardest part about teaching. The patience, humility, and encouragement required to value and build up the work of a child is something we all need to learn. I find it so hard to not step in with a harsh “Oh no, you’re doing it wrong. Here, let me…”
  4. Give Them a Stage. This is important so that students recognize this project is not merely practice or pretending. Have a serious plan in place for sharing their work and acting on their ideas. Work with local publishers, and actors in your organization who will value what they create. Give them some money to budget for expenses and show them the work of other student groups to inspire competitive comparison. Of course, make it optional. They will not truly have agency unless they have chosen to be there without any sort obligation. Identify certain aptitudes in your group and choose students to be leaders of small teams, or key participants in ways that highlight their skills. If a student draws well, let them doodle concepts during planning sessions; let the writers write; let the money-minded control the budget. I’ve seen in my early sessions, that student skepticism is high. It’s one thing to tell them that their voice matters, it’s another to publish them in the Post-Gazette.

In my upcoming workshops, I’m excited to incorporate the well executed Human-Centered Design methods I learned recently at the Luma Institute. Serendipitously, I went through the Luma design workshop with Linda Lane, Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools. We were both excited about how to apply Luma’s methods for listening, understanding, and (re)making in our schools. A genuine way to value our student’s opinions is to engage them with the very same methods their Superintendent is learning. If the leaders and students are using the same design methods for thinking about reform, powerful youth-adult collaboration is one step closer.

The human-centered design framework includes a number of intentional methods that ensure the inclusion of all stakeholders and invite them into the process to offer critique, content, or opinion. These methods will give students tools to listen to their school, understand what they hear, and offer plans to (re)make it; give students the latitude to think creatively about the purpose of education and where good learning happens.

As one student says in the video: “This is way better than what we do at school! Because we usually just get a paper and it says ‘do this’ but you guys actually … let us design it and explain it, and I think it’s really really cool.”

I am excited to see what happens when we engage students in an innovative design workshop focused not on product design, but on improving the future of their own education.

In my research I’ve been amazed at how little writing there is on this subject. If you search for students who have joined the conversation on the future of their own schools, you will find very little. A web search for “student voice in school reform” is your best bet, but it mostly brings up the 15-year old writing of a few academic researchers.  One little-known book, “In Our Own Words” edited by Jeffrey Shultz and Alison Cook-Sather provided a number of the student quotes for this article as well as an ending. The dedication from the book reads:

“To all students who have spoken about school and to those whose voices have yet to be heard.”

In my next post I will share some of these unheard voices and their thoughts on the future of our schools. Look for their stories soon here, in the Post-Gazette and elsewhere online.

Published September 18, 2013