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Student voice and meaningful engagement: What might this look like?

Rachel McNae's (University of Waikato) background and main area of interest is student voice, and one of the questions she asks is, what might this look like? She explores, in particular, the notion of 'student voice', what it might be, and ways young people can be engaged in discussions to influence their education, schools and learning opportunities, as well as generating information to enhance learning and teaching.

Student voice can be gathered in a number of ways, and should be, rather than a harvesting, box-ticking exercise, becomes something that informs the way we work.

Rachel speaks from personal experience about how, when growing up in Kerikeri, she set fire to the hall when she was part of Brownies. The thing she remembered most was that she was rebelling against a system where she did not fit. Her brothers were part of scouts, and they did well, because they made bridges, tied things together, and make things...rather than do macramé and sew. She also talked about the leader of the brownie group who bullied and crushed the girls in the group. At the age of 14, Rachel became a scout leader, and she felt insightful, and was using her skills.

What culture do we create as teachers? What do our students feel as far as their own identity and engagement are concerned?

“The issue of democracy. Consultation and participation in schools is now central in terms of the learning process...taking the pupil voice seriously remains a difficult area for teachers, particularly as schools continue to be judges by narrow attainment targets” (Fielding).

Rachel uses the video of “Another Brick in the Wall” to illustrate some key points in relation to student voice; for example, Roger Walters put the song together as a way of protecting himself. Every interaction with education created another brick in the wall. Her purpose of using of this, however, was to illustrate the student voices. The school, Islington Green, was approached for students to participate in the song. What happened was that 23 students were part of the choir, and their voices were dubbed over 32 times. When they created the video, those same students were not allowed to be part of the video because they didn't have acting cards, so there are students mouthing the words of the other students singing. The students did not get paid for sharing their voices, and in 1996 the copyright laws changed and the students got together to try to sue for some of the royalties. The school got given a donation and a plaque, but there is no word of the court case – the voices have been silenced.

We need to ask ourselves about the spaces that are created for students to share their voices? In terms of the acoustics of the school, whose voices get heard, and whose are silent? What shape can student voice take? Have we got this right – evolving, rethinking? How are students's voices manipulated into different forms? How 'loud' are the voices of the teachers and leaders in a school, and what are they 'drowning out'?

Part of listening to student voice is shifting from an instructional to a pedagogical focus. In part this is predicated by teaching as a profession, and is underpinned by the building of professional learning communities, is sustained by professional learning, has distributed relational leadership, with a focus on students learning, and determined by student needs.

The research suggests that student voice is under-rated and under- utilised in curriculum development, even though student have unique knowledge and perspectives that adults cannot replicate. When voices are valued student may develop a stronger sense of membership, agency, respect and self-worth, as well as developing a clearer sense of self as a learner, and realise that they can have an impact on things that matter to them in a school. Young people should be afforded these opportunities to shape their education, and when this is the case they are more likely to engage as learners – when the power has been shared.

But what is student voice? There is complexity, history, philosophy, dignity, humanity, mana, and has “aspects of participation and crossing boundaries. Involvement of learners in a meaningful conversation which then has the power to transform, by the act of learning and teaching and also the institutions in which they learn” (Fielding)

Student voice can be communicated via student councils, post box activities, brainstorms, student notices, surveys, class speeches, photographic journal, video, scrapbooks, one-to-one conversations, and guided tours. Mitra (2005) has put together a pyramid around 'being heard', and bottom of the pyramid are post/suggestion box activities, brainstorms, and student notices, rather than ways of doing things differently. So we can engage beyond surveys, so that we are helping students build their capability for learning, and this could include student focus groups, interviews, students as governors, and taking on leadership roles.

Some of the most powerful voices are the silences. Also, just because we have collected student voice does not mean that we have evidence. Students are often saying what they think a teacher wants to hear. There are also cultural barriers and protocols, as it is disrespectful to speak out. Other things to be careful about are:

  • Romanticising the notion of voice...and uncensored acceptance

  • Totalising / essentialising – 'one voice' of a collective used to reinforce status quo vs a collection of voices

  • marginalising of groups

  • tokenistic changes or responses

There needs to be a shift toward student-adult partnerships, where meaningful, powerful conversations are undertaken. When this is the case, it shifts the focus and moves to a point where we share some key understandings. Sometimes you will need to search for student voice.

Some of the examples that Rachel shares are revealing. Juliette Hayes (Geraldine High School) & Amy Clode (Grantlea Downs Primary School), undertook a project that developed creative leadership of Maori student partnerships...and the end of the project a significant number of students identified themselves as Maori. She also mentioned a student who, during the conversation, where it took sustained questioning to move past the 'I don't do anything', to then discover that the student and some mates run a charity that raises money and give it away. They turn over about $20,000 a year - but she had to really dig to find this out.

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