Beyond Inclusion: Student Voice in Schools

Too often, when we talk about learning, we neglect to include students in the conversation. Learning by Design is a call to reimagine the way schools facilitate learning in a culture characterized by open knowledge systems, inclusive educational communities, and rapid social change. In February, 2019, The International School of Brussels will host this innovative conversation for the second time. Launching the event with students recently, my colleagues posed a provocative question. “When people host conferences on the future of education, who usually doesn’t get a place in that conversation?” Without hesitation, students know the answer to this question.

Driving home from school that same week I heard the great Italian football coach, Arrigo Sacchi, referenced on the radio: “Without risks, you remain in the past, whereas innovation makes you change every year.” I surprised myself with an audible sigh. I had just left an event in which I had been presented with some perspectives on teens and their digital habits that didn’t sit well with me. Was there a student in the room to express the positives they find in their digital world, a voice to challenge the stat that made a connection between playing violent video games and sexual aggression? Not one. (This despite the publication of a recent meta analysis that showed the relationship between violent-video-game-playing and aggressive behavior is almost non-existent.) And there was no learner present to hear the predictable warnings of app use leading to “gyration”; not one representative voice of a generation to shudder at the archaic language of depravity associated with Elvis Presley six decades ago. Until we invite students to share their perspectives we will remain in the past.

We do this in schools. We talk about students and describe their habits, challenges and opportunities without giving them a say in the conversation. Do we want to truly provide contexts in which students can empower themselves, or do we merely presume to bestow our empowerment upon them? Who decides? Is there ever a student in the room? As Ewan McIntosh recently remarked: “If we don’t ask students the questions, the adults will make up the answers.” There is often not much creativity involved when the adults do create the answers. Zachary Karabell reminds us that as a result of the advent of the printing press in the 15th century there was a widely-held view that “rigor and knowledge would vanish once manuscripts no longer needed to be copied manually.” That mindset still lingers and one doesn’t have to go too far to find staunch advocates of “doing it the old-fashioned way.”

Not only do we exclude learners from these conversations, we make assumptions about the world they live in and how they learn based on our own innate fears or misconceptions. When we sense the need for change, it’s ironic how we handle this recognition and defend the system. As Gleason observes: “It’s ironic that when students exhibit signs of difficulty in school—when they’re showing signs of stress, anxiety, or depression; when they’re struggling with organizational and planning abilities and with a variety of other “executive functions;” or even if they’re displaying symptoms of either learning or attentional disorders, we expect them to change. Rarely, if ever, do we expect schools to change.”

As we endeavor to reimagine schools we must involve students in the conversation and give them a meaningful voice in shaping the reimagined context. If we invite them to the conversation, we must impress upon them that this invitation is real, that we want them to be there, and that we will honour their contribution. In so doing, we must be respectful of the world in which they live. As Zoe Elder has pointed out, “The digital world is characterised by flux. It is dynamic in its ability to rapidly construct new knowledge in a collaborative, open and creative way. This is just what our classrooms need to be like.” We need to acknowledge that the skills and dispositions modern learners need are “not distinctively ‘digital’, rather their importance has become greater as a result of the incredible growth of the digital world.” Learners need to make sense of this world and create their own meaning within it as creators, discerning critics, not just consumers. The digital world is about so much more than the technology: we need storytellers and creative thinkers, poets, artists, critical thinkers and social innovators now more than ever.

Are our schools really places that encourage risk-taking or are they places that strangle innovation at birth for fear of unsettling the system? Are we providing opportunities for learning that look like that described by Elder? “More than an insatiable thirst for knowledge-consumption, the effective learner has a desire to construct new knowledge. And then share this knowledge with the wider world. They have the necessary insight to see and then create connections between pre-existing knowledge in apparently unrelated spheres and from it make something new…. Effective learners are creators and consumers in this sophisticated world. And so are effective educators.” We are in this together.

Are we listening to students, and giving them an honest, representative place in the conversation, or are we just talking about them in the next room? Are we learners ourselves? “When people host conferences on the future of education, who usually doesn’t get a place in that conversation?”  We may never manage to truly stand in their shoes, but perhaps it is time to ensure we provide them with an equal footing when we are discussing their futures.

Elder, Zoe. Full On Learning: Involve Me and I’ll Understand. Crown House, 2012.
Gleason, David L. At What Cost?: Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools. Developmental Empathy LLC, 2017.
Karabell, Zachary. “Demonized Smartphones Are Just Our Latest Technological Scapegoat.” Wired. January 23, 2018.
Prescott, Anna T., Sargent, James D., and Hull, Jay G..Metaanalysis of the relationship between violent video game play and physical aggression over time. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.) October 2, 2018.

Image Credit: Stand in their shoes by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND