Beware Stagnant Student Voice

Over the last decade, I’ve seen a lot of student voice programs come and go. There have been special grants and interesting projects, meaningful attempts and passionate movements. All the while, student voice has grown in stature on the education reform radar while remaining on the back burner of the national conversation.

After researching and writing about Meaningful Student Involvement in the early 2000s, I went about conducting a series of projects across Washington, New York, Colorado, and in Florida. More than 10,000 students and adults in 100 K-12 schools have participated in SoundOut activities. I rested on those laurels for a while, believing that I was influencing change from the stories and outcomes I heard in many places. 

This month I’ve been scanning the research databases again. Looking across the field, I’m witnessing a compelling picture of emergence: The student voice movement is growing. More than ever, new programs, organizations, and campaigns are emerging designed to engage students in schools in creative, empowering ways. People are using language around student voice, student engagement, student leadership, Meaningful Student Involvement, and student empowerment. It is exciting to see. 
However, in my scan I’m also seeing a kind of stagnation set in as more people dabble and drive into this work. It’s happening as more folks settle on common definitions, “best practices”, and frequently-implemented approaches to engaging student voice. My research on Meaningful Student Involvement actually revealed this back in 2003, and I tried to call it out. I warned that practitioners were, in their well-meaning but poorly informed practices, positioning students as tokens in school improvement efforts. The frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement that I wrote were designed to challenge simplistic, convenient student voice activities by calling educators and students to a higher bar.

The activities get too comfortable, the reports look too familiar, and the participants act too similarly. The danger in stagnate student voice is that it becomes predictable and easy for adults. When this stagnation happens, it’s neither authentic student voice or effective student engagement. This is true because of the nature of young people in our society: They constantly change. Because of the varying dynamics of their realities, schools must always change, too. That requires deliberately engaging students as active, dynamic partners throughout their educations, which shows the necessity of Meaningful Student Involvement.

Today, I want to re-assert the bar offered through my research. However, this time instead of telling, telling, telling folks how to do it, I’m going to show through action. Stay tuned, and we’ll all go higher together.

Stop the stagnation! 

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

2 thoughts on “Beware Stagnant Student Voice

  1. This is great as an introduction. I do think you can provide an useful prospective that many of us don’t have.

    I do caution that since many of us don’t have this historical overview that some of the critiques of the movement go over heads and some see them as attacks instead hopes for sustainability or renewal.

    I love the call to show more than tell. Looking forward to that.

    David Loitz
    Seed Steward of Imagining Learning (www.imagininglearning.us)

    1. Hey David, thanks for replying! It’s great to hear your thoughts, and I appreciate that you took a moment to share some of your insight with me about communicating this.

      Over the years and with the people whom I’ve done this work, I’ve always sought to be a teacher first. I believe that educating about voice and engagement has to be done with deliberation, and for a long time I sought to critically engage people in dynamic, justice-oriented learning about student voice. I have written curricula, training programs, and provided a ton of free materials smathered across the internet for free in order to share what I’ve learned from my research and practice.

      A few years ago I turned a corner and decided that I would relinquish the cheerleading to new voices emerging that want to promote student voice. Rather than that, I stepped towards the roots that I’m steeped in, which is critical pedagogy. I believe that taking a perspective towards student voice that is rooted in social justice is vital to the growth of the movement.

      In the series of posts I’ve done recently focused on critical perspectives of student voice, I have attempted to make the writing as ascertainable for a broad audience as possible. However, there are times when I must problematize a situation before or even without proposing solutions.

      The work you’re seeding with IL is important for shepparding the field into it’s next phase, and I honor that.

      My writing and critical practice right now is focused on expanding the base from which visions grow. Thank you for your insight on how to do that more effectively. I hope to continue learning through what IL, and other organizations doing important work today, are doing.

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