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Uplifting Student Voices: Effective Practices for Incorporating Student Experiences into Decision Making

REL Pacific
Samantha Holquist
December 20, 2019

Students in classroom

This is the second blog post in our series on student voice in K–12 decision making. The first blog post covered information on what student voice is, how it can influence student outcomes, and different models for engaging student voice in decision making. This first blog post can be found here.

Increasingly, educators are recognizing student voice as a necessary component for improving their K–12 school systems, and are beginning to incorporate student experiences into their decision making.1 However, because efforts to uplift student voice can potentially have negative effects, such as student disengagement or frustration, it is important that research-based effective practices are considered when designing and implementing student voice opportunities.2 We are dedicating the second blog post in our student voice series to highlighting these effective practices and identifying several steps educators can take to begin to incorporate student voice into their decision making.

Effective Practices for Uplifting Student Voice

While context and purpose will both influence how student voice opportunities are designed and implemented, there are several practices that educators should consider as they begin to incorporate student voice into decision making.3

Decide on roles and responsibilities. Before sharing their voice, students need to understand what their role is, and is not, and who is responsible for the decisions being made.4 Therefore, educators should work with students to create clear roles and responsibilities within student voice opportunities.5 For example, if teachers are asking students to provide feedback on classroom instruction, students should be informed of how and when their feedback will be used to make decisions. Studies suggest that clarifying roles and responsibilities promotes openness and trust between students and adults, which enables students to feel more comfortable and willing to participate in student voice opportunities.6

Offer diverse forms of participation. Studies show that not all students feel comfortable speaking to administrators, responding to surveys, or participating in clubs.7 Therefore, educators should strive to offer multiple ways for students to share their experiences. Examples of different ways for students to participate include asking students to take pictures, write a short story, or create an art project.8

Identify an adult ally. Asking students to participate in decision making can be uncomfortable for students, as this is often a new role for them.9 Research suggests that to help students share their experiences, it is often essential for educators to identify an adult ally with whom students can collaborate when engaging in student voice opportunities.10 An adult ally is a teacher or staff member who provides students with support and/or encouragement, answers their questions, and gives them advice. An adult may also champion students' needs with school leaders when student may not feel heard.

Foster relationships between students. Studies highlight that helping students build relationships with one another allows students to feel more confident and willing to share their experiences.11, 12 These peer-to-peer relationships provide essential supports to students engaging in student voice opportunities as they navigate new situations, overcome challenges, and work together to achieve common goals.

Offer students professional learning. Research suggests that professional learning activities enhance students' ability to participate in student voice opportunities.13 Student voice often requires students to share their voice in different situations, such as speaking to school board members and providing feedback on policies. Educators can support student participation by providing learning activities to students on topics they may not learn in school, such as conducting research and electronic communication. Feedback from students and their adult allies can help educators identify student development areas.

Resist tokenization. Researchers broadly define tokenization as a symbolic effort on the part of educators to be inclusive of student voices in decision making, but not truly including all student ideas, feelings, and thoughts in decision making.14, 15 For example, a school leader may ask students to provide feedback on a decision and then only incorporate the feedback that supports the decision the school leader wanted to make. Educators should strive to be open to all student voices even when they challenge existing decisions or views.16 When students see that their voices are being tokenized, they can become disengaged and unwilling to share their experiences in the future.

Where to Start

Incorporating student voice into decision making can start small, from classrooms, then to schools, and next across K–12 systems. Depending on your purpose and context for engaging students, there are many avenues for supporting students as they share their education experiences. Here are five potential ways to create student voice opportunities in your K–12 educational setting.
  • Feedback forms: Provide students (anonymously or identifiably) with the opportunity to share about their experiences in classrooms or schools.17 For example, place a feedback box outside the administrative office or in the cafeteria, let students know about the purpose of sharing their feedback, and create a system for responding to feedback.
  • Surveys: Construct a survey about student experiences and needs in classrooms, schools, or systems.18 Be sure to let students know about the purpose of the survey and how the results will be used. To more effectively capture student experiences, work with students to build the survey.
  • Focus groups: Ask students to share their experiences and needs in classrooms, schools, or systems in a group of eight to ten.19 Have a trusted adult facilitate the focus group, or a trained student, so that students feel more comfortable engaging in the discussion. Strive to include students in the data analysis process to ensure student feelings and opinions are accurately captured.
  • Photo voice: Provide students with a camera, pose a question about their K–12 experiences, and ask them to take a picture of somewhere in the school that summarizes their experiences or feelings.20 Using the picture as a reference point, have a discussion with students about their experiences.
  • Student voice group: Create a group within the school or K–12 system where students can discuss their experiences, organize their ideas, and provide feedback to educators on school or system decisions.21 To support students in their discussions, ask the group to work towards accomplishing a specific task that impacts the school or system.

Wrapping Up

Using effective practices to design and implement student voice opportunities can help educators better understand student experiences and enable students to actively participate in K–12 decision making. While the practices shared in this blog post can help educators and students integrate student voice into their decision-making processes, they may not support the sustainability of these opportunities over time. Join us soon for the next blog post of this series, where we'll highlight sustainability concerns and discuss ways to maintain student voice in decision making.

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Footnotes:

1 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.

2 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.

3 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.

4 Ibid.

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

6 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.

7 Murphy, J. (2017). Understanding schooling through the eyes of students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

8 Walls, J., & Holquist, S. (2019). Through Their Eyes, in Their Words: Using photo-elicitation to amplify student voice in policy and school improvement research. In K. K. Strunk, L. A. Locke (eds.), Research Methods for Social Justice and Equity in Education. Springer: Berlin, Germany.

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

11 Conner, J.O., Ebby-Rosin, R., & Brown, A.S. (2015). Introduction to Student Voice in American Education Policy. National Society for the Study of Education, 114(1), 1–18.

12 Mitra, D. L. (2008). Amplifying student voice. Educational Leadership, 66(3), 20–25.

13 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.

14 Hart, R. A. (2008). Stepping Back from ‘The Ladder’: Reflections on a Model of Participatory Work with Children. In A. Ried, B. Jensen, & V. Simovska (Eds.), Participation and learning (pp. 19-31). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

15 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.

16 Ibid.

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

18 Cammarota, J., & Romero, A. (2010). Participatory action research for high school students: Transforming policy, practice, and the personal with social justice education. Education Policy, 25(3), 488–506.

19 Ibid.

20 Walls, J., & Holquist, S. (2019). Through Their Eyes, in Their Words: Using photo-elicitation to amplify student voice in policy and school improvement research. In K. K. Strunk, L. A. Locke (eds.), Research Methods for Social Justice and Equity in Education. Springer: Berlin, Germany.

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