Student Voice, which I define as any expression of any learner in any setting focused on education, is a burning hot buzz phrase spreading across education circles today. Teachers are latching onto student voice to infuse it throughout their curricular practice; school evaluators are engaging student voice to measure school performance; education policy-makers are using student voice to rationalize radical decisions. However, student voice can be used and misused in many ways.
As soon as adults determine what student voice should be expressed about, they may be tokenism. Funneling, narrowing, focusing, or otherwise trimming the breadth, depth, or purpose of student voice poses the risk that it doesn’t genuinely reflect the attitudes, opinions, ideas, actions, knowledge, or beliefs of learners about education. This happens anytime adults ask students to express themselves about a specific topic in education, including bullying, academic achievement, school reform, or dancing on the roof. Any of this can be qualified as tokenizing student voice.
Tokenism happens because adults expect learners to represent themselves and all students on specific issues that adults want to hear about. It displaces the actual opinions, wisdom, ideas, and knowledge students have about schools and replaces it with conveniently chosen, adult-guided thinking. It does not respect student voice for what it actually says, instead insisting that it only speak to what adults in schools want to hear about.
Another way student voice is misused is when its used as decoration for adult beliefs. Adults make choices about schools and then use student surveys, speeches, ideals, and actions to shore up their choices. Posing students around adults at speaker’s daises, having student panels at education conferences, and putting students in suits to share their thoughts in front of school boards are some of the ways that adults use students as decorations, misusing student voice.
This is misuse because it invalidates anything substantive student voice might present. Instead, it only allows learners to be props for adult beliefs, reinforcing the old adage that “Children are to be seen and not heard.” Old world thinking, this couldn’t be more false today. Young people have the ability to make their authentic voices known in dozens of ways across the Internet and in real time that adults never had access to when we were young. Yet we still treat them as if they don’t. This disjuncture doesn’t serve anyone, and is severely damaging our schools.
The last popular way I’m going to highlight to misuse student voice is through manipulation. Adults force students to share their expressions. Faced with losing academic credit, acceptance of their peers, or the favor of adults in their lives, learners are sometimes forced by adults to share student voice. That pinching of students’ genuine interest in ensuring they are heard is insidious, even if its well-meaning. Making sure that learners fit adults’ expectations for student voice shows students that the authentic ways they reveal their thoughts, beliefs, ideals, and wisdom aren’t the “right” ways to be heard. This can encourage them to change their minds in order to fit the molds presented in order to get the grade or be accepted.
Manipulation is wrong because it teaches learners that student voice shouldn’t be heard without reward or punishment. It demeans their basic humanity by robbing students of their innate opinions, inherent knowledge, powerful actions, and secure wisdom that as adults we can only benefit from. Instead, it positions them as consumers of schooling, as people who are incapable or undesiring of having their voices heard simply because they have a right and the ability to have their voices heard. Schools, particularly public schools, have the responsibility of being incubators of democratic society, and manipulating student voice actively undermines that responsibility while taking away the rights of learners.
The way to make sure student voice isn’t misused is to pay attention to motivation. Adults don’t often ask themselves, “WHY would students want to share their voices?” Beyond grades, adult approval, or other forms of manipulation, why would students want to express their thoughts about education?
Perhaps even before that there is another thing for adults in schools to consider: Students ALWAYS share their voices. The seventh grade students fighting behind the building after school? They’re sharing their opinions about schools. That tenth grader with a Sharpy marker who runs out in the hallway after class and writes, “Ms Jones SUX!” on the lockers? He’s giving feedback about his teacher. The girls texting answers to the test, the bullies picking on loner in the locker room, and senior skip day are all student voice, because they all share student expressions about education. They aren’t convenient for adults, because they aren’t always predictable, presentable, or precocious enough for us to present to other adults in order to justify ourselves and our actions in schools. But they are real.
In the same way those cringe-inducing actions are forms of student voice, so is the engagement students who consistently show up in class, intellectually and emotionally. So are the students who bring their concerns about their school to the principal or the school board, and the ones who appeal the decisions made in appropriate ways. The students who created their own evaluation tool for teachers? They were sharing student voice, as were the ones holding a rally outside city hall for more funding for schools. Students who used school computers to make a school newspaper and generate a student survey were sharing student voice too.
Adults throughout education can learn to embrace student voice in many ways. The most valid way of all is to change the ways we interact with learners every single day. My proposition for Meaningful Student Involvement re-positions students from being passive recipients of adult-driven schools to becoming complete partners throughout the entirety of the education system, from classroom to hallway to office to boardroom. This will allow all learners to genuinely, wholly, and authentically share their voices. Meaningful Student Involvement is the only way for adults to stop misusing student voice. Learn more at the SoundOut website.
Other posts from this series include: