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What Is Student Voice?

Student voice is being treated as the hottest new commodity in many schools today. Its been going on for a while though. Unfortunately, a lot of people still misunderstand the depth, breadth, and potential of the concept.

Why I Write This

Almost 20 years ago, I began studying student voice when I was the first-ever student engagement specialist at Washington State’s education agency. Since then, I’ve supported more than 500 K-12 schools across the U.S., Canada, the UK, Brazil, and Australia through SoundOut.org.

I’ve also written The Guide to Student Voice and Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook, as well as a curriculum to teach students about student voice.

I’m grateful to have had many opportunities to reflect with thousands of students and educators about student voice, and I want to share some of what I’ve learned here. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section, too!

What It Isn’t, What It Is

Before we can understand what student voice is, let’s acknowledge what it is not.

  • Student voice is not a program, strategy, or activity in a school.
  • Student voice is not the same as student leadership or student engagement.
  • Student voice is not an instructional approach or technique.
  • Student voice is not a treat for well-behaving or high performing students.
  • Student voice is not the be all end all. Its not a silver bullet or panacea.

Before continuing though, let me share my definition of student voice:

Student voice is any expression of any student anywhere at any time for any purpose as it relates to learning, schools, and/or education.

I want to share a few assumptions about student voice before I continue.

  • Student voice is largely ignored, misinterpreted, and denied in the vast majority of schools today.
  • Students do not need permission to express student voice.
  • When they do try listening to it, most programs, activities, and educators get student voice wrong.

That said, given that student voice is any expression of any student, we should acknowledge that student voice is already shared in countless ways throughout school everyday. Because they all are expressions related to schools, student voice includes the clothes students wear, the questions they answer correctly, the texts they send, their interactions in class and outside of class, their behavior, and their general attitudes are all forms of student voice.

Student voice can also include students putting on ties and presenting to school boards; Student Tech Leaders assisting teachers in facilitating an online workshop for parents about an app; and students collecting signatures on a petition.

The possibilities are endless!

The Differences

There are many differences between what most people think student voice is, and what it actually is.

I believe the important part to understand is that it should not be on the shoulders of students to share student voice with educators. Instead, we should learn to listen to what’s already being said right now. If you’re looking for a simple way to begin listening to student voice, watch some videos made by students about schools. Read student writing about the quality of education. Watch your students interact in online learning. Simply listen and don’t react — just listen.

When you’ve done that, it is nearly instantaneously time to do more. That’s when its time to consider Meaningful Student Involvement, student engagement, nontraditional student leadership, and other approaches to empowering students throughout the education system.

Until you’ve learned what student voice is though, and until you’ve authentically listened to students, don’t even try to move forward.

Our students deserve better. Are you ready to listen to them?

Help Is Available!

Are you ready to learn more about student voice? Through our 20-year-old SoundOut program, YES provides educators and others professional development, training, technical assistance and more focused on student voice.

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Adam F.C. Fletcher is available to consult, speak, and write.