A student voice is a powerful tool
Schools should improve standards by having pupils rate their lessons and research how to make them better, according to a leading educational thinker.
Robert Fisher, who advises schools and education authorities and recently retired from Brunel University, believes giving pupils more say at school is crucial to helping them navigate the information overload, commercialisation and "soundbite culture" of the 21st century.
He says a stronger student voice will make pupils more motivated and show them that school is relevant to their lives. "That capacity for speaking and sharing, articulating and using judgment to make choices", or "student voice and choice", had to be encouraged and was a "powerful way into personalised learning".
In schools where the student voice is most encouraged, Professor Fisher expected to see pupil researchers investigating issues such as what makes a good lesson. Pupils would be involved in discussing school policy and practice, and evaluating lessons to help improve teaching and learning. They might also have a say in staff appointments.
Professor Fisher does not advocate student voice as a way of handing pupils power for day-to-day running of a school; it is a "means of involving pupils in the school community and processes of teaching and learning".
He said that modern culture presented many difficulties to young people: mental and emotional problems, the sheer volume of information, commercialisation, junk food, and the presentation of stories in soundbites. Education had to make a clean break from outdated teaching if young people were to make sense of the messages the world bombarded them with. "If they copy off the board, they will just repeat what others say," he added.
Professor Fisher warned against underestimating pupils' abilities. He had never encountered a child between the age of five and 18 who had not been able to list criteria for a good lesson and then assess a lesson against those criteria.
He had seen the benefits of a student-voice project in which pupils were asked what helped them learn and what stopped them learning. This led staff to recognise that learning support assistants could be used in a more "student-centred" way and that increasing technical support could improve use of ICT. Assessment for learning had given pupils more confidence to speak up when they did not understand a lesson.
While pupil councils were common and many schools had trained peer mentors and counsellors, Professor Fisher made it clear that student voice was most advanced where a school's entire "culture and ethos have been adapted to nurture and support the development and expansion of student-voice activities".
Professor Fisher spoke at Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, a Tapestry Partnership conference on personalised learning in Glasgow last week. It was the second in a series of five events on putting A Curriculum for Excellence into practice. Future events at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall will cover interdisciplinary learning, assessing real achievement, and opportunities for personal achievement.