What Is Student Voice?

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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.

Going to Pittsburg

Adam Fletcher speaking to a group of youth in 2014.
Adam Fletcher speaking to a group of youth in 2014.

I’m going to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania next month! The Allegheny County United Way is bringing me in to speak at their bi-annual afterschool gathering, the APOST Conference. I will be on the scene throughout the day, presenting a keynote and a workshop for participants, as well as providing consulting throughout the day.


Presented in the first part of the APOST Conference, I will do a keynote called Engage ALL Youth, Everywhere, ALL the Time! In my description I wrote, “For a long time, the most engaged youth seemed predictable: They were successful, they were connected, and they made adults happy. Today, the picture is a lot different.” 

I will focus audience members on the ways youth engagement is expanding, and how important it is to recognize where youth are engaged right now. Using stories, humor, and examples from my 20 plus years experience and research, I plan to engage the audience themselves, will helping them learn practical, meaningful, and powerful ways to engage all youth, everywhere, all the time!

This is Adam Fletcher speaking in 2014.
Adam Fletcher speaking at a conference in Bellevue, Washington, in 2014.

In the second part of the APOST Conference, I’m presenting a workshop called 5 Steps to Youth Engagement. Writing about it, I said, “Evaluators say it is a science and seasoned youth workers say it is an art. No matter which perspective you have, everyone admits it is a little of both.” I will use this workshop to look at some the key questions in youth engagement: What is youth engagement, What gets youth engaged, and What gets organizations real outcomes?

In 5 Steps to Youth Engagement, my workshop participants will explore some of the gray areas of youth engagement, like how to engage youth without spending money, the difference between youth participation and youth engagement, and how to engage someone repeatedly without burn out. We will also address how to stop youth disengagement, how to understand the rules of youth engagement, and how to engage adults in engaging young people. Participants will leave with practical action they can use right away.
Learn more about the APOST Conference and join me this year by visiting the APOST Conference website today!

Praising Student Voice

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There should never, ever be a grade, score, or test for student voice.

Reading over a recent report, the researchers suggested a measurement for student voice that accounted for participation and engagement, as well as depth and awareness. I was appalled, if only because of the asinine assumption that there is any student ever who hasn’t shared their voice about schools. That is simply not true.

ANY and EVERY expression of a student about school, learning, or education is student voice. That includes:

  • Students who speak up in class and verbally express their responses to teachers’ questions. They are no more valid than students who never speak up. They are different, but they’re not better than other students at sharing student voice.
  • Students who get into fights, pass notes, or text answers to tests under their desks. They are no less valid than students who wear suits and ties to share grandiose visions for education reform with adults. They are different, but they’re not worse at sharing student voice.

The reason for both of these is that both of them are examples of student voice. So are emails sent anonymously to schools, student government, research conducted, gossip, art murals, students presenting at school board meetings, graffiti on lockers, student leadership programs, student/teacher designed curriculum, students skipping class, and any other expression of students focused on schools, learning, or education.

The Problem with Praise

Adults tend to fetishize students who answer the right questions in the right ways at the right times. We put them on pedestals, place them in positions of authority over other students, and subject them to the utmost pressure to stay on the “right track” in adult-pleasing ways.

The problem with praising student voice is that it reinforces for students that there is a right way and a wrong way for students to express themselves about schools. There isn’t. Instead, there are alternative ways, each of which has a consequence. Currently, we don’t act that way because of adults’ fetishizing “good” student voice.

We do this for familiarity and consistency, because developmentally in the minds and hearts of adults, we yearn for consistency. Unfortunately, this goes against the grain of young peoples’ development, because, while they yearn for the acceptance of adults, they are seeking freedom and independence more.

Alternatives to Praising Student Voice

There is a different way.

The best position for student voice is to be unfettered and actively engaged throughout the school environment. This means that students should have a voice in how curriculum is developed; where schools are built; how teachers are evaluated; where education is evolving towards; when classes happen; why education is relevant; when they graduate; why teachers fail; where they learn most effectively; and so forth. There are so many places on the highest level of education.

However, there are more opportunities, chances for every student voice to be actively engaged throughout their days in school and throughout their lives outside of school, too. Students can share their experiences and ideas throughout classroom curriculum as a matter of good teaching practice, and student voice can be infused throughout classroom management activities, processes, and outcomes too. Building leaders can create particular opportunities for students to teach teachers about technology and culture in ways that position student voice as especially vital for teachers. Teacher coaches can help teachers understand the frameworks for meaningful student involvement that I’ve developed, and parents can engage their children in critical conversations about learning, teaching, and leading education, as well as voting and politics. Youth leaders can teach students about the importance of learning while learning from students themselves, while politicians can actually engage young people about education.

The opportunities for student voice are limitless because student voice itself is limitless. Are we ready to stop praising student voice, and to start engaging student voice in genuine and authentic ways instead?