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REL Pacific

Consider Student Voices: Striving to Understand Student Experiences to Support Learning and Growth

REL Pacific
Samantha Holquist
October 23, 2019

Incorporating student voice into the classroom and in school, district, and state-level decision-making is a topic of growing interest for educators across the United States and the Pacific Region.1 Teachers are increasingly asking students to provide feedback on lessons, school administrators are collaborating with students to address school concerns, and districts are creating advisory boards in which students provide insights into policy issues.2 In the Pacific Region, the Hawai'i Department of Education is one of the first states to incorporate student voice as a priority area in their statewide strategic plan,3 while the Northern Mariana Islands Public School System hopes to use student voice strategies to understand student experiences in the wake of Typhoon Yutu.

What is student voice?

Student voice is defined as “the ways in which all students have opportunities to participate in and/or influence the education decisions that will shape their lives and the lives of their peers.” 4, 5 Opportunities to incorporate student voice can occur in multiple forms and across levels of engagement and can include a variety of participants.6 These opportunities range from students participating in a survey or focus group to collaborating alongside adults in education decision-making. Essentially, any opportunity that enables students to share their voice and influence education decision-making could be considered student voice.

Why is student voice important?

Researchers show that students as young as nine years old (grades 3 or 4) can begin to separate themselves from adults and provide meaningful feedback on their education.7 Researchers find that students who begin to engage in student voice activities may experience increases in youth agency, self-esteem, belonging, competence, democratic skills, and leadership.8 Research also shows that student growth in these areas may lead to improvements in student academic achievement, social and emotional learning, and overall wellbeing.8 Finally, researchers have also discovered that student voice activities can lead to positive changes in education policies and practices that better serve student needs.9, 10

What are different ways to engage student voice?

There are many ways to structure student voice opportunities for maximum engagement. The way in which an opportunity is structured will depend on the model that a classroom, school, district, state, or jurisdiction is using to guide their engagement of students in decision-making. There are four different models that decision makers (such as teachers, principals, and policymakers) can use to guide how they will engage their students.11, 12, 13, 14 The model that decision makers choose to use will depend on their goals and purposes for engaging student voice.

  • The first model is adult-run, active listening. In this model, adults are soliciting student feedback and input through surveys, interviews, focus groups, and/or photo elicitation and incorporating student experiences into the decisions being made. An example of this model in practice is a teacher soliciting feedback on a lesson.
  • The second model is adult-run, shared decisions with students. In this model, adults are organizing the activities (such as meetings, agendas, and decided actions), but students are directly contributing to decision-making. An example of this model in practice is including a student representative on a school board.
  • The third model is student-run, shared decisions with adults. In this model, students organize the activities, but adults approve the decisions that students make. An example of this model is a student advisory group in which students are given the responsibility to make and execute a school decision (such as decreasing bullying between students) that adults must then approve.
  • The fourth model is student-run, limited influence over decisions from adults. In this model, students organize the activities and make the decisions with limited influence from adults. This model is at the same level as the third model, because it is not possible for students to hold responsibility for some education decisions (such as building redesign or curriculum decisions). Decisions that students may influence in this model tend to be limited to student activities and school climate. An example of this model would be a student club charged with completing a specific task (such as painting a school mural) with the support of an advising teacher.

Not all opportunities for student voice represent participation in decision-making. These opportunities are forms of non-participation where students may feel tokenized or manipulated when asked to share their voice in a decision-making capacity. Examples of forms of non-participation include:

  • Asking students to share their experiences in front of a decision-making body, such as a school board, and subsequently dismissing them from the forum to allow the adults to discuss the students' experiences.
  • Requesting that students fill out a survey, but withholding results from the students.
  • Providing students with talking points for sharing their experiences with decisionmakers.
Each of these may cause students to feel disengaged from decision making and may decrease their likelihood of wanting to share their voice in the future.

Wrapping Up

Providing opportunities for students to share their voice in decision making can have a great impact on their learning and growth. When considering how to engage students, it is important for decision makers to think about their goals and purposes for including student voices at the table, which can help guide decision makers in choosing the appropriate model for their context.

In the next blog post of this series, we will discuss the factors that educators should consider when engaging student voice in decision making. In our final post of the series, we will highlight sustainability concerns for maintaining student voice in decision making over time.

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Footnotes:

1 Conner, J.O. (2015). Student Voice: A Field Coming of Age. Youth Voice Journal. Retrieved from https://youthvoicejournal.com/2015/08/12/jerusha-o-conner-2015-student-voice-a-field-coming-of-age/.

2 Mitra, D. L. (2014). Student voice in school reform: Building youth-adult partnerships that strengthen schools and empower youth. New York, NY: SUNY Press.

3 Hawai'i State Department of Education. Implementation Plan 2017–2020. Retrieved from https://www.hawaiipublicschools.org/DOE%20Forms/Advancing%20Education/10step.pdf.

4 Holquist, S. (2019). Student Voice in Education Policy: Understanding student participation in state-level K–12 education policy-making (Doctoral dissertation). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Retrieved from https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/206658/Holquist_umn_0130E_20534.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

5 Mitra, D. (2009). The Role of Intermediary Organizations in Sustaining Student Voice Initiatives. Teachers College Record, 111(7), 1834–1870. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ849678.

6 Conner, J.O. (2015, June). Student Voice: A Field Coming of Age. Youth Voice Journal. Retrieved from https://youthvoicejournal.com/2015/08/12/jerusha-o-conner-2015-student-voice-a-field-coming-of-age/.

7 Flutter, J., & Rudduck, J. (2004). Consulting pupils: What's in it for schools? London: Routledge. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272159575_Consulting_Pupils_What's_in_It_for_Schools.

8 Mager, U., & Nowak, P. (2012). Effects of student participation in decision making at school. A systematic review and synthesis of empirical research. Educational Research Review, 7(1), 38–61. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ955284.

9 Holquist, S. (2019). Student Voice in Education Policy: Understanding student participation in state-level K–12 education policy-making (Doctoral dissertation). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Retrieved from https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/206658/Holquist_umn_0130E_20534.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

10 Mitra, D. L., & Gross, S. J. (2009). Increasing student voice in high school reform: Building partnerships, improving outcomes. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 37(4), 522–543. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ844677.

11 Hart, R. A. (1992). Children's Participation: From tokenism to citizenship (Rep. No. 4) Florence: UNICEF ICDC. Retrieved from Retrieved from https://ideas.repec.org/p/ucf/inness/inness92-6.html.

12 Holquist, S. (2019). Student Voice in Education Policy: Understanding student participation in state-level K–12 education policy-making (Doctoral dissertation). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Retrieved from https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/206658/Holquist_umn_0130E_20534.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

13 Mitra, D. L., & Gross, S. J. (2009). Increasing student voice in high school reform: Building partnerships, improving outcomes. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 37(4), 522–543. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ844677.

14 Conner, J. O. (2015). Student Voice: A Field Coming of Age. Youth Voice Journal. Retrieved from https://youthvoicejournal.com/2015/08/12/jerusha-o-conner-2015-student-voice-a-field-coming-of-age/.