Getting Schools Closer to Malala

Yesterday, Malala Yousafzai spoke at the United Nations, detailing her experience and passion for education. As I watched and listened, I couldn’t help but wonder about this gulf that exists. Somewhere between North America, where so many students absolutely rue school, and Afghanistan where Malala is from, there is a gap of understanding, opportunity, trust, and engagement in learning. 
This young woman was willing to die in order to attend school; so many American and Canadian students are ready to simply slump their way out of school in order to never go back again. What is causing this gulf?
In my years working throughout the education system and in community-based learning environments, I’ve seen the gulf a lot. In the States, it’s often reflected of socio-economic class, where middle- and upper-class put a relatively high value on schooling, while lower- and working-class students devalue it. I’ve also seen it exist in learning environments that are have huge ability gaps between teachers, where some really, really engage with students, while others could give a rat’s patooty about the students in their classrooms.
I believe the gulf is about student voice.
The Power of Student Voice
When adults learn to value the expressions every learner shares about education, students will value schools more. That’s different from student leadership activities, which aren’t synonymous with student voice. That’s different from student engagement measurement tools, which almost have nothing to do with student voice.

Instead, it’s about student voice activities that balance different students’ voices. Those don’t necessarily have to be along the lines of race, socio-economic status, or similar lines either: balancing student voice can mean achieving and non-achieving students; dropouts and graduates; non-college bound and college bound; etc. This avoids the pedestaling effects of so many student voice activities.

In New York, I taught the schools concerned with democracy in education that the places they could most affect democracy were:

  • How their buildings framed student voice,
  • The ways educators frame it and,
  • Students’ understandings of student voice for themselves

Ultimately though, the only avenue towards engaging student voice in democracy isn’t through student voice at all. As a simply expression, student voice can never be democracy. Only through intentional engagement in a larger concept can student voice affect democracy, and that’s why I developed the frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement. True engagement throughout the educational system is required for student voice to not be just another program in schools, and for students to experience democracy in education.

The North American Problem

The problem with schools in the United States and Canada, where I’ve done the vast majority of my work, is that they aren’t for students themselves – they’re for adults. They generally believe that students have the right to their opinions, and adults within the education system have a responsibility to engage those opinions. However, they don’t believe students have a right to share opinions adults don’t agree with. That isn’t democracy. This makes obvious the reality that adults generally don’t think all the way through what they’re doing with students. For lack of exposure, background research, or training, in their well-meaningness many adults actually do more harm to students through student voice activities than help them.

Malala’s schooling experience isn’t exclusively for students, either. They’re for her families, her community, her culture, and her nation too. Also, Malala understands that. North American students generally don’t, and haven’t for a very long time. In a society that values consumption over education, we don’t see the relevance of learning beyond its earning potential. If we come from cultures within our society that don’t value consumption or are seen as “failed consumers”, schools become worthless.

Student voice can be embraced within education systems towards the goal of building democracy, but not as democracy itself. As I frequently advocate for, it can be infused in educational leadership, integrated in classroom teaching and management, and acknowledged for its role in school culture. However, the simple act of student voice should never be confused for the complexity of democracy.

This particular problem allows adults to draw a lot of conclusions. Adults decide students are incapable of contributing meaningfully (e.g. how we want them to) towards school improvement. 

Instead, let’s think like Malala and actively engage diverse student voice. By doing this, adults in schools can demonstrate that diversity in every activity can stop the belief that one student or group of students can or should represent all students. That’s closer to democracy, and closer to Malala.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker and writer who researches, writes and shares about youth, education, and history. Learn more about me at

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