Another view - 'Learner voice' leaves little room for lessons or lecturer to be heard

12th February 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

"Learner voice" is another of those annoying pieces of jargon that we have to learn to live with. Why it is so objectionable I'm not sure. Perhaps because, like "every student matters", it's a sham, dressed up to be something new when it's just a smug restatement of the bleedin' obvious.

Of course students should have a "voice". Of course we should listen to what they have to say. But let's not pretend this was an idea first dreamt up 18 months ago by one of the myriad quangos that FE is so overburdened with. Any teacher worth his or her salt will have been practising it in one way or another throughout their career.

Now the concept has been institutionalised in colleges, and students have their opinions routinely solicited on a whole range of issues. But is it enough? It seems that those on the receiving end don't think so.

A recent report for the CfBT Education Trust and the Campaign for Learning shows that many students think they are still not being given any real power. They suspect tokenism. They can influence the peripherals - like car parking and canteen menus - but not issues affecting their lives such as syllabus content and teaching methods.

At first glance, their concerns seem fair enough. If we really mean it - if students (sorry, learners) really are to have a "voice" - then why not let them sink their teeth into the meat of the sandwich rather than just nibbling at the bread? It's when you start on the practicalities, however, that the difficulties arise.

These days, I don't teach much literature any more. But for many years - to continue the culinary metaphor - it was the bread and butter of my timetable. Good democrat that I was, I wanted the class to have a say in what we read.

The problem was that if you ask a class of 20 what they would like to study, you are likely to get 20 suggestions. OK, so be practical: give them choices, initiate a discussion, then vote. Sounds good, doesn't it? But what if the most influential voice in the class is also the brightest? She wants the "difficult" text that runs to 1,000 pages. And by the end of the discussion she has convinced the others that they want it too. Democrat you may be, but you know that a third of them won't be able to read it, and another third won't want to once they have got through the first 10 pages.

If that sounds like teacher knows best, perhaps that's because sometimes he or she does. Many students, possibly most, won't go for anything that's outside their experience unless strongly persuaded of its merits. They'll go for the safe choice, for what they know - so that rather than being introduced to new books and writers, they will end up studying authors they would read anyway.

In many of my A-level literature classes, I had high numbers of young women of Afro-Caribbean origin. They would press me to include Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Instead, I chose to put works by an earlier generation of black American writers - such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin - on their syllabus. Dictatorial perhaps, but I saw my job as extending their range and introducing new works beyond their comfort zones.

Another problem with student voice is that teachers are having less and less say when it comes to deciding what they teach. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Access to Higher Education courses that I am now involved with.

In the past, teachers of Access were issued with guidelines, then wrote the units they subsequently taught. Today all that has been swept away. Now their "voice" has been reduced to a squeak. Off-the-shelf units are the order of the day, and their only effective choice is that of "take it or leave it".

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