The Problem with Student Voice

Following a recent twitter discussion with another education user, who was adamant that pupils should have a big say in how they are taught, I have decided to explore my perception of the role student voice has to play in a school.

I am a strong believer in students learning to learn at an early stage. Pupils should understand different ways of revising and learning information, especially as the education system becomes more exam driven, however I have an issue when this crosses over to pupils telling teachers how to teach and deciding what’s best for them.

If you cast your mind back to when you were at school and ask yourself the question “how often did my teachers involve me in planning?” The chances are your response will be very little because the idea that students should be empowered in this way is a relatively new concept often driven by Ofsted’s view that pupils should be a bigger part  of their school community. There seems to have been a recent trend towards getting pupils to observe teaching, asking the ‘student council’ or ‘student body’ (or whatever name your school chooses for this group of pupils who meet and discuss school business) what they want to improve about their school, finding out from pupils how they prefer to learn and so on and so forth. For me this is a dangerous path to go down because if I cast my mind back to when I was at school I had no idea what was best for me- I was indecisive, I was inconsistent, I was emotion driven, I was a child and most importantly I had no training in education so I didn’t understand the concept of how to maximise learning.

I would compare this concept of student voice to a football manager listening to the fans or players of the club on how they wanted training and match day tactics to be set up. They are valid opinion and there is always a benefit to listening to the stakeholders in any organisation, but would Jose Mourinho adapt his masterplan to suit the desires of other. No he definitely wouldn’t! Why? Because he has coaching qualifications and experience that tell him that he knows best.

I wouldn’t go to a gym and tell the personal trainer how to train me, I would put my faith in the trained expert and listen to his guidance and advice and this should be the same in schools. Every teacher should gauge the response of their pupils in their formal or informal reflection on their lesson. We’ve all taught a lesson where the pupils have failed to engage because the methods we’ve used haven’t suited the needs of the learners and we’ve all walked away, reviewed what we did and planned to improve our practice. This is the feedback we want from pupils- the day to day informal feedback that we’ve been trained to use to inform planning in a cyclical, evaluative process.

If too much choice is given to the pupils we create an environment where pupils develop a fixed mindset about learning and believe that they can only learn in one way or that learning can only happen when the lesson is fun. Unfortunately in life they will have to adapt the way they learn to suit different contexts, whether that be university or work placed training. As a teacher I have a responsibility to ensure that my learners understand that there are different ways of learning and they need to be flexible and adapt to change.

I am not saying for a minute that student’s views about education aren’t important or that we should ignore them, but we are trained professionals with years of training and experience. As a teacher you know best, that’s what you are paid to do! Teachers need to observe learners and make decisions based on response and outcome, but it isn’t productive to solely follow the opinions of pupils who have no formal training in education and whose minds are still developing.

If you have any comments or opinions on this topic please tweet me @mikeharrowell or comment below

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8 thoughts on “The Problem with Student Voice

  1. Not sure I do agree, Mike – I wouldn’t say teachers DO always know best. We need to reflect on our practice, and evaluate in order to improve, and being receptive to pupils’ views and listening to their perspective can be an important stimulus for our reflections.

    I spend quite a bit of time these days on heads’ and senior leaders’ appraisals, and think if you want to gauge how effectively someone is leading, the most useful course is to canvass option widely among those they lead, so I talk to students, teaching and support staff, the senior team, and also groups of parents and governors. I think this gives me a good overview of their leadership skills (and I speak to enough people to be able to filter out rogue voices or those with particular axes to grind!) I do, of course, spend a lot of time talking to the head, too.

    It seems to me that if you want to assess how effectively someone is teaching, not accessing the opinions of those on the receiving end of the teaching seems to be missing a valuable opportunity to learn. In my experience students can be astute and are usually sensible – it isn’t a question of just giving them what they want. They can be remarkably perceptive.

    Teachers are specialists/trained/expert, but no one knows all the answers, and if we’re to learn and to develop, we need to be receptive and responsive to constructive criticism from others, including, I’d say, the pupils.

    • Jill, thanks for you feedback. The reason I blog is to reflect on my own practices and pedagogy and having feedback like yours enriches this process.

      I agree that pupils opinions/feedback are an important part of teachers conducting a 360 degree review of their teaching. However, I don’t believe that it should be the sole reason for a teacher adapting practice. Sometimes teachers need stay true to their beliefs (and training) on how best to deliver a topic or lesson.

      • I’d absolutely agree with you there. We do need to listen and think about what we hear, but then we have to make decisions about the way forward and we have to be true to ourselves and give due credit to our training and experience.

  2. I could not agree more Mike. I think the argument can be expanded to parents. Naturally there are exceptions but I do think teachers need to stand up for their professionalism and expertise more often. Good stuff.

  3. Maybe the challenge is that you’re assuming voice equals choice, in a rather linear/sequential fashion. Instead, you might consider that voice is apparent throughout the entirety of the students’ being, rather than just their words. When a student slouches in class, they’re expressing voice. When they’re raising their hand and appear engaged, they’re expressing their voice. Whether they show up, get in fights, turn in all their assignments, text friends during class, conform to uniforms, graffiti in bathroom stalls, or otherwise, students are expressing student voice. That’s because student voice is any expression of any learner focused on education or schools anywhere, anytime.

    I’ve heard many educators wrestle with the concept of student voice like you are here Mike. I think the reality is that you’re searching for meaning beyond the expressions of students. That’s why I developed a framework for engaging students as partners throughout the education system called Meaningful Student Involvement. It embraces student voice, but effectively repositions students as equitable partners throughout the educational system in order to infuse their voices with purpose and potential, rather than simply hearing what they have to say. You can learn more about it at http://soundout.org/frameworks.html

    I’d love to hear what you think about that.

    • (Hi Mike! I’d still like to hear your response, if you wouldn’t mind sharing it. Its important that I learn from you, too.)

      • This sounds like a more meaningful construction of how student voice should be set up.

        Since writing this blog I’ve moved schools and seen a much improved way of listening to students opinions on teaching and learning. Teachers interviews students taught by members of their department and ask questions linked to teaching and learning and how this can be improved-students ask honestly but the questions are worded to create constructive feedback. I’ve found this a really valuable tool when used with KS5 students especially as they have a better understanding of how they learn.

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