A seat at the table: student voice in action

Issue: Volume 95, Number 19

Posted: 25 October 2016
Reference #: 1H9d5C

We know that giving our students choice, challenge and control in their education helps to boost motivation and engagement. In August of this year, a special PB4L session on student voice was entirely led and facilitated by young people themselves.

The term ‘student voice’ crops up regularly in education circles, along with ‘student leadership’ and ‘student agency’.

Many educators think of this as students having their say through surveys, student councils, or feedback forms – as a way of helping students feel they have some influence over their school environment.

But research has shown that the more school leaders and teachers give their students choice, control, challenge, and opportunities for collaboration, the more their motivation and engagement is likely to increase.

In their much-referenced 2012 paper ‘Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice’, researchers Eric Toshalis and Michael Nakkula conclude: “Promoting student voice also has been linked to other important educational outcomes, including: elevated achievement in marginalized student populations; greater classroom participation; enhanced school reform efforts; better self-reflection and preparation for improvement in struggling students; and decreased behaviour problems.”

Sounds like a win-win? So why is it so hard for many educators to hand over the reins?

Diana Shepherd,the Ministry of Education’s National Practice and Implementation Manager Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) decided to take the plunge earlier this year, after seeing student leaders presenting at a regional PB4L expo. Her idea was to hold a session on student voice at the August PB4L School-wide 2016 conference in Wellington, entirely led and facilitated by students.

“I wasn’t thinking of this as a one-off, more a first step towards a longer-term strategy of how to support schools to incorporate student voice and agency into their PB4L frameworks. I wanted attendees to come away thinking about other ways they could incorporate student voice beyond the traditional survey approach. And to do this, I needed to commit to stepping back and handing over control to the students,” says Diana.

With up to 100 education professionals expected to attend the session, she knew it would be important to find student organisers who were experienced and confident in facilitating sessions with adults, and happy to mentor other students.

A colleague suggested Sticks ’n’ Stones, a student-led anti-cyberbullying group involving young people from five Central Otago secondary schools. The students had recently presented at an international conference in Dublin about the importance of student voice and leadership and were in the process of establishing and mentoring other Sticks ’n’ Stones student groups in New Zealand.

Diana met with the Sticks ’n’ Stones students to explore the idea with the working title ‘A seat at the table’.

Her brief was open, other than a limited budget and the session timeframe of 85 minutes. Project facilitator Karla Sanders and the Sticks ’n’ Stones team were enthusiastic and quickly helped create the framework for the session.

Attendees would be asked to focus on three key questions: what is student voice, what might that look like in different school settings and what happens when you take students out of a school setting and give them the tools and resources to lead?

It was agreed that video would be used to help stimulate discussion and expose attendees to a diverse range of students’ views. And to keep the conversation flowing, there would need to be no more than eight at each table with two student facilitators.

The next step was to find local, confident, articulate students to facilitate the discussions at each table. A call was put out through the Wellington PB4L network, and 20 keen volunteers from Upper Hutt and Aotea Colleges responded.

The Aotea students had just finished rewriting their school’s bullying prevention policy to be more student-centered, so were fired up to share their experiences. Upper Hutt College was also keen for their students to be involved and even offered to host the training.

A key focus of the session was to get participants thinking about the degree to which students were given a say in what happens at school.

The PB4L team suggested a useful starting point could be Toshalis and Nakkula’s Student Voice Spectrum diagram which sets out on a continuum the different levels of influence and agency which students typically have over school activities.

In the lead-up to the conference the students collaborated online via Google Docs to review the diagram, along with other youth participation measurement tools such as Harts Ladder.

In the end, the students decided to reinvent the diagram as a matrix self-review tool involving an interactive two-step exercise complete with colour-coded post-its!

A series of videos about student voice were filmed for the session featuring Sticks ’n’ Stones and Aotea students as well as young people from Masterton Intermediate, Naenae Intermediate and Flaxmere Primary schools. A wide range of examples of student leadership in action were featured – from Masterton Intermediate students’ playground design to Flaxmere students creating their own school waiata and haka based on PB4L values.

Fresh off a plane from Queenstown, the Sticks ’n’ Stones team held a training session for the other student facilitators the afternoon before the conference.

Much of the conversation focused on to how to facilitate a time-pressured workshop with educators that were used to controlling the conversation. It would be important to keep things positive while gently challenging assumptions.

“It was incredibly useful to work with the reps from Sticks ’n’ Stones and prepare for what we would face at the conference.” (Aotea College student)

The next day, straight after lunch, around 80 intrigued teachers and principals filed into the breakout rooms and took their places at the tables. The Sticks ’n’ Stones crew welcomed everyone, and introduced each of the three sections with a video conversation starter before handing over to the student facilitators for discussion.

Having a session led and facilitated entirely by students was a new experience for many of those present. The bulk of the session was spent on the interactive matrix exercise, where schools were asked to plot examples of student voice in their school on the matrix according to the level of control students had and what proportion of students were involved.

Through this process it quickly became apparent there were widely differing perceptions among the participants about what genuine student voice actually meant.

As one student put it: “There were some [teachers and principals] who immediately said, ‘Wow we don’t have any student voice, we need to change that.’ This was really exciting and encouraging to hear.

“However, there were some who just didn’t get it. They thought very traditional simple tokenistic acts were true leadership and partnership and despite the matrix being explained again and examples given they still didn’t quite click. I hope that it at least made those people start to think more about the levels of student voice in their school.”

Eighty-five minutes later, students and educators alike left the session feeling challenged and excited by the ideas generated, and thinking about opportunities to increase the level of student voice and leadership.

“Since the conference, we’ve had some great feedback about this session – most participants found it very worthwhile and we’re already planning to include a similar session again at next year’s PB4L conference,” says Diana.

Importantly, the session was also a positive experience for the students themselves. Two months on, Upper Hutt College students have been so inspired by the training, they have started their own Sticks ’n’ Stones student-led anti-bullying group.

Aotea College has been re-energised to finalise and implement their student bullying prevention policy and the student-developed matrix is being regularly used by PB4L practitioners to support schools in incorporating more student voice into their systems and practices.

Watch the videos produced for the ‘Seat at the table’ session:

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 5:10 pm, 25 October 2016

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts