Listening to students can have an important role in education reform. It can provide the essential foundation from which education leaders can develop informed opinions and take practical action for school change.
There are a variety of limitations to simply listening to students, but not engaging them as partners in school change. One limitation is that students have an inherent lack of authority in their words. Whether spoken by a student or an adult, adults in schools have not been particularly interested in hearing students over the last 100 years of public schools. Another limitation is that students may face a poverty of imagination: even when asked to participate, they may not know of the range of activities, or the extent of their ability and power. Students often perceive adults as guardians of the keys to learning about learning, as if they were sacred relics. It can be rare for students to have the opportunity to know why, how, and when they need to learn something. Students cannot ask for something they do not know exists. There is also the limitation of reciprocal accountability: students are held accountable to many layers of adults in schools, including teachers, administrators, coaches, and others, not to mention home and community. However, who is accountable to students? Once a student has offered their informed knowledge, their thoughtful ideas, and their insightful critiques of schools, who is obligated to actually listen to them? Who is accountable to actually act on what students say?
There is a careful roadmap that details a growing movement for Meaningful Student Involvement. Critical education theorist Paulo Freire challenged teachers to “speak by listening.” It can no longer be said that listening to students is a fanciful way to dress up school reform efforts. Educators cannot afford to ignore students, because students will tell educators what is actually working in their classrooms. Administrators cannot deny the importance of students’ voices, because responding to the growing diversity of student populations demands hearing them.
Simply put, educators must listen to students because students are the reason schools exist. Faced with making decisions “on-the-spot,” classroom teachers and educators can be well-informed by listening to student voice. Through Meaningful Student Involvement, they can actually understand what is being said.