Yesterday, Malala Yousafzai spoke at the United Nations, detailing her experience and passion for education. As I watched and listened, I couldn’t help but wonder about this gulf that exists. Somewhere between North America, where so many students absolutely rue school, and Afghanistan where Malala is from, there is a gap of understanding, opportunity, trust, and engagement in learning.
Instead, it’s about student voice activities that balance different students’ voices. Those don’t necessarily have to be along the lines of race, socio-economic status, or similar lines either: balancing student voice can mean achieving and non-achieving students; dropouts and graduates; non-college bound and college bound; etc. This avoids the pedestaling effects of so many student voice activities.
In New York, I taught the schools concerned with democracy in education that the places they could most affect democracy were:
- How their buildings framed student voice,
- The ways educators frame it and,
- Students’ understandings of student voice for themselves
Ultimately though, the only avenue towards engaging student voice in democracy isn’t through student voice at all. As a simply expression, student voice can never be democracy. Only through intentional engagement in a larger concept can student voice affect democracy, and that’s why I developed the frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement. True engagement throughout the educational system is required for student voice to not be just another program in schools, and for students to experience democracy in education.
The North American Problem
The problem with schools in the United States and Canada, where I’ve done the vast majority of my work, is that they aren’t for students themselves – they’re for adults. They generally believe that students have the right to their opinions, and adults within the education system have a responsibility to engage those opinions. However, they don’t believe students have a right to share opinions adults don’t agree with. That isn’t democracy. This makes obvious the reality that adults generally don’t think all the way through what they’re doing with students. For lack of exposure, background research, or training, in their well-meaningness many adults actually do more harm to students through student voice activities than help them.
Malala’s schooling experience isn’t exclusively for students, either. They’re for her families, her community, her culture, and her nation too. Also, Malala understands that. North American students generally don’t, and haven’t for a very long time. In a society that values consumption over education, we don’t see the relevance of learning beyond its earning potential. If we come from cultures within our society that don’t value consumption or are seen as “failed consumers”, schools become worthless.
Student voice can be embraced within education systems towards the goal of building democracy, but not as democracy itself. As I frequently advocate for, it can be infused in educational leadership, integrated in classroom teaching and management, and acknowledged for its role in school culture. However, the simple act of student voice should never be confused for the complexity of democracy.
This particular problem allows adults to draw a lot of conclusions. Adults decide students are incapable of contributing meaningfully (e.g. how we want them to) towards school improvement.