Blog originally written for the Teacher Motivation Working Group (February 2018)
In my three years of teaching in the Dominican Republic, I would begin every new term by asking my students to open up their textbooks and explore. They would flip through the pages and find images or texts that caught their curious eyes. Then I would ask them to raise their hands and share—share what sparked an interest in them, something that made them excited, shocked, or at times intimidated. I would write a list on the board of everything my students mentioned, and that list would be the curriculum content that guided my lesson planning for the new term.
Students having a say in what they learn about can have a remarkable impact on their learning experiences. An interest, or intrinsic motivation, proves to engage students and consequently improve learning outcomes. It seems commonsensical but is also supported by research. It was in 1993 that Sally Brown and Donald McIntyre, in their book Making Sense of Teaching, identified student participation and consultation as the missing link to informing quality pedagogy. Yvonna Lincoln later pointed out that one lens through which to interpret student voice is that of a social or legal perspective. Student voice is a notion of human rights; children and adolescents, regardless of age, have the right for their voices to be heard. After all, Article 12 of the 1989 Convention of the Right of the Child states, “when adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account.”
Since the turn of the century, research on student voice and participation has expanded. In 2001, the research magazine FORUM published a special issue that illustrated a variety of methods to incorporate student voice in public education in the United Kingdom. And, while most of the research continues to come from British authors such as Donald McIntyre, Jean Rudduck, Julia Flutter, Michael Fielding, and Sarah Bragg, the concept of student voice has slowly started to trickle its way into discourse in the Global South. Researchers of student voice have proven the many opportunities for students to inform and improve the quality of their education. Examples of this include studies of immigrant students in New Zealand, female students in Tanzania and student activists in Chile. And though the latter example suggests a voice that is heavy and strident, Katherine Schultz writes an excellent book, Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices, which recognizes how the voices of students can also be quiet and restrained. Voice, as a concept, transforms across cultures. In Confucian heritages of the East, for example, silence is an act of deep consideration, so students from Asian cultures tend to take time before responding and sharing their thoughts. Teachers who are courageous enough to seek the opinions and feedback of their students, therefore, must also allow for students to express themselves in alternative forms.
Arts-based methods are another alternative form of incorporating student voice. Photovoice has gained special popularity as a way in which students can portray their own personal narratives through photographs. Perzines, or “personal magazines,” allow students to combine texts and images to share their stories and feelings. These creative and personalized artifacts then serve as data from which research questions are extracted and answered. It is a form of participatory youth research. Researcher and educator, Eve Tuck, uses what she calls a problem tree for students to illustrate complex issues and the ways they manifest themselves in schools. In a Canadian secondary school, Dr. Leila Angod did similar work with her students, who later publish their work on an interactive blog and online journal, leaving their mark in the digital space forever.
While there are numerous innovative ways in which researchers are using student voice to inform and improve practice, it doesn’t always have to be so sophisticated. For me, it wasn’t until after my years of teaching in the Dominican Republic that I actually learned the concept of “student voice.” However, it never occurred to me that it should be any different; of course the learners of my classroom should decide what to learn in the little time we had together. Yes, researchers and practitioners are doing some amazingly creative activities to incorporate student voice into discourse and action, but it doesn’t take some far-fetched skill to cultivate student voice inside the classroom. Talk to your students. Ask them what they think. You may be surprised by what you learn.