From voice to dialogue | Meaningful student voice

voices shouting in a crowdToday, thanks to Te Toi Tupu, I was really lucky to hear Dr. Rachel McNae, University of Waikato, speak about how we use (and exploit?) student voice in schools.

She managed to weave in poetry with Judy Brown’s  ‘Fire’, a story about setting fire to the Brownie Guide toadstool and the ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ Pink Floyd video so she had me engaged right through!;) We also tried ways to gather voice anonymously with feedback tools e.g. PollEverywhere,  Wiffiti, ExciteM

We examined the way young people can be involved meaningfully in learning conversations rather than harvesting data.

Rachel’s opening story about setting fire to the Brownie toadstool in KeriKeri (!) highlighted the way some people rebel against a system where they don’t  fit. She asked : How often do our students today feel they fit in, or not? Think about the culture we create and how we can engage teachers to think about students’ sense of place and identity in our schools.

She posed some great questions for us to consider:

  1. In terms of the acoustics of a school, whose voices are heard and whose are silenced? Teachers often fill the space out of fear of what students might say when we talk to them. Why do we enter the space first?
  2. What shape can student voice take? Is it used to create further change and generate further agency? How can we shift from instructional to pedagogical?
  3. How can we support the creation of professional communities that are relational? Create sustainable sense of agency?

 Key points from the research

  • We don’t rate student voice highly – youth is a stigma, needing to be moulded
  • We over utilise student voice in the design of cafe menus and logos but not in curriculum development
  • When students feel their voices are valued, they develop a strong sense of membership, agency, respect, self-worth, sense of self and place as a learner – and more likely to become engaged as a result
  • They have unique perspectives which should be integrated into the learning
  • We often use brainstorms etc at the start but students prefer one to one conversation so that their voices are heard. Check out Mitra’s pyramid for student voice re ways to build student relationships.

An ethic of care

When we talk to students…

  • Be aware of power imbalance between teachers and students. Offer choice to share voices in ways that suit their culture and preferences.
  • Students are aware if their voices won’t make a difference – how will it be used as evidence for change? How much are we using it to reinforce trends, compliance, and productivity?
  • To do student voice using different structure takes time and care to bring about change, and to challenge existing discourses and structures.

Questions for reflection

  • Reflect on own practice.
  • How do we engage students and teachers in learning conversations, about learning?
  • What opportunities can we create and share?
  • To what extent do we create space for students to take the reins to move from gathering evidence to changing pedagogical practices? > ako, progressive autonomy, accountability to students, acknowledge diversity of voice, from voice to dialogue.

Useful resources

  • ‘Why won’t they listen to us?’ – Grover > makes the point that collecting student voice in traditionally authoritarian schools remain supremely difficult
  • Adam Fletcher > involving students meaningfully and inclusively.
  • Ladder of participation (Hart, 1992) > scaffold conversations so they become more meaningful

ladder of participation

Examples from NZ studies

[Image credits: CC Thomas Hawk]

5 thoughts on “From voice to dialogue | Meaningful student voice

  1. Karen, Thank-you for sharing this information. Student voice is a powerful feature of learning linking directly into the concepts of self, peer and teacher assessment, discovery and construction.

    It may run in complete contrast to the classroom our government would like us to (belong to) exist in? Yet sometimes it is a matter of conforming particularly in these dangerous times of school closures, charter schools, and teacher unemployment.

    When we take a direct interest in student thinking, students are empowered as they learn to take risks. If the culture of the classroom is supportive – constructive and collaborative ideas will flow on and value is added. Students will also learn to accept criticism not only from teachers, also from their fellow students. This in turn builds the resilience and responsibility required to lead a full and happy life.

    Featured in a true inquiry based classroom there will be time to present, to critique, and to hear each other’s voices.

    The Ladder of Participation (Hart, 1992) is a worthy tool for reflection. It could make a useful contribution to curriculum planning at a syndicate/staff level prior to the delivery of a unit to ensure opportunities for student voice are present.

    I agree with the myriad of tech tools available there are many ways to record learning progressions that may aid teachers as they try to beat the time constraints of the school day. Moodle seems to work well at secondary level and I predict this will become an even greater feature as BYOD gets into full swing. As a former online student technology adds that portability and freedom to learn. It also frees educators and gives them time to comment reflectively.

    Another point of reflection here, keeping the balance between student voice and student rule seem important. Can student voice become too influential within the classroom to the detriment of other learners? Do you have any thoughts on this matter?


  2. Thanks for your comment, Fleurp. You make many points with which I concur and which echo the focus of the keynote 🙂 Your final point had be pondering. At what point can ‘student voice’ be detrimental? I wonder what’s in our minds when we think of ‘student voice’? My view is that, in the keynote, this was very much characterised by meaningful discussion with students, dialogue and exchange. How might that have a negative impact on others? I think it is crucial to understand that not every student wants to have a dialogue on everything, nor will they always want to express their ideas in the same way – so how do we design opportunities so all voices are heard in the way they would like to be heard? Enjoying the discussion, btw:)


Thank you for your comment. Much appreciated:-)

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