5 Thoughts on Maximizing Student Voice

Last night my grad school colleague and friend Brandon Wiley shared with me 17 minutes of thought-provoking lecture – from a student. I was struck by this inspiring Ted Talk from 17 year-old Nikhil Goyal. He is a current senior at Syosset High School in New York, and has chosen to make his valuable student voice heard on his own school experience. The video is embedded below.

From his student lens, he disagrees with those who say our education system is broken, but instead, Goyal believes that “the system” is doing exactly what it was designed to do many years ago. He calls for educators and policymakers to put the students’ lens at the heart of envisioning a better model for education.

His insights have me thinking about how to provide for more student input during the upcoming school year at at local level. Five thoughts come to mind to when thinking about the current state of student voice in our school, and others I’ve come to know.

  1. Do we really solicit feedback from our students? If so, in what ways have we shaped our school to respond to their needs?  If not, why not?
  2. What would make it easier for students to maximize learning their learning? What would the students tell us they really need? What would they say isn’t of much value to them?
  3. What meaningful student leadership opportunities do we provide at our school? How are those students selected and are they the same kids each year? What trends are present themselves?
  4. What data collection methods could we employ (qualitative and quantitative) to get to the root of the current state? How will be ensure students across all subgroups will be included?
  5. If we spoke with each parent at the school, what words would capture how their son or daughter describes their school experience? How has it changed or stayed the same as the child has moved through their school years? What patterns would we see?

Collecting the data on student voice will take a significant effort, but is the easy part here. What we do with that data is what will be the key in making our schools student-centered and places where kids want to get up in the morning to become inspired, learn about themselves and others, inquire , curate, produce and collaborate at school each day.

Nikhil has a book coming out in September entitled One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School. I’m excited to read it and further develop my understanding and perspective on and begin to solicit what MY students feel about OUR practices.

One of my goals in the upcoming school year is to provide for more meaningful opportunities for student voice, and allow it to become a keystone of our school’s efforts in meeting the needs of our students and families. To break the ice, I’m considering using the video above as a conversation starter for one of our first staff meetings of the school year.

In your comments below, please share any methods that have been successful at your school to encourage more student voice across all learners.


15 comments for “5 Thoughts on Maximizing Student Voice

  1. chris thinnes | @CurtisCFEE
    July 14, 2012 at 7:13 am

    Thanks, Joe, for a great reflection on the importance of authentic opportunities to invite, support, promote, and integrate the input of student voice. Thanks also for foregrounding Nikhil Goyal’s experience and accomplishments; I’m thrilled he has agreed to appear at an event of ours this fall on “Teaching and Learning at Home and at School.”

    You’ve asked so many crucial questions for reflection… To take just one — re: authentic student leadership and the process by which leaders are selected — and to share some thoughts about some of the efforts that have worked for us at Curtis School–

    1. Four years ago we (fac/staff) abdicated any steering voice in the selection of our sixth grade “executive council” that oversees the grade-level representatives in 3rd-6th. We acted on our belief that our ‘invisible hand’ as adult ‘shepherds’ invalidated the authenticity of the student community’s selections, and put our fears that the ‘elections’ would turn into ‘popularity contests.’ Instead, we facilitated conversation among the students to invite their voice re the key characteristics of leadership and representation in _their_ experience and opinion, then invited them to act on it by nominating, and then electing, those students who they felt best demonstrated the characteristics they’d just fleshed out.

    2. In the last two years, the leadership of our monthly 3rd-6th grade student assemblies has been ‘turned over’ to the students, through the executive council membership and on occasion through the student council reps at other grade levels. This is not only to see that the meetings are designed and facilitated by the students, but that the platform for the year’s work on behalf of the student body is determined by the children. This led last year to the single most exciting assembly in my professional experience: an open debate among 275 elementary school students on the relative value of the sciences and the arts in their education. This led this year to the best student assemblies on conflict resolution, resilience, and ‘bullying’ I could imagine: students created podcasts probing key questions about their behaviors with one another, assembled a panel of parents and teachers who had experience in college and/or pro athletics to respond to students’ questions about sportsmanship, and each of these assemblies was followed by younger students turning to these ‘older’ student leaders in the weeks and months that followed for private consultation and support. Wow! Much better than any ‘sage on the stage’ we might have ‘booked’ on their behalves.

    Those are just a couple of things we’ve tried, and that I and my colleagues might be most likely to recommend, on the basis of our experience. In the other areas probed by your questions, I/we are certainly eager to learn from other commenters and to benefit from their shared experience.

    Chris Thinnes | @CurtisCFEE

  2. July 14, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    I’ve found that the best way to show students you really mean it when you say you want their input is to give them control over spending some money.
    For example, if you’re going on a field trip, have the group cost out and present various options, then leave the room while they decide what to do with the field trip budget.
    For many years my department head gave my class control over her hospitality budget. It was only about $200 a year, but it allowed them to offer coffee and snacks at special occasions, small gifts for guest speakers, etc.

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