Exploitation of ‘student voice’ can be damaging

13th April 2018 at 00:00
Many colleges are misunderstanding what it means to give students a say in their learning. At worst, it is outright manipulation, says Christina Donovan

It is easy to assume that student voice is all about praise and competition if you have an education system that bases its existence on exactly those things.

If you are one of those teachers who feels rubbish because you didn’t receive the “best teacher” postcard (or whichever tokenistic “student voice” initiative your institution favours) on the one day that students can have their say, then maybe, for a moment, think of the poorest-performing students in your class. How do they feel, every day?

We put students in competition with each other all the time and think nothing of it. It can be of no surprise, then, that students should assume punishment and praise to be the only valuable methods of feedback. For student voice to function in the way that it should, both teachers and students should be moved away from their understanding of student-voice-as-reality-TV-show-judge, and instead towards notions of democracy, cooperation and citizenship.

Done well, student voice can be transformative and developmental on both sides; together, staff and students can defeat the hydra that exerts undue authority over staff and induces fear in the hearts of teachers. Here’s how:

1. It is not about competition

Nor is it about eliciting “derogatory” views. It really isn’t.

The powerful “hydra” mentioned above represents the misappropriation of student voice; it is the manipulation and straightforward abuse of power by those who really have it (and let’s face it, we all know that’s not the students). It is absolutely true that exploitation of student voice can be damaging to relationships at all levels of the institution.

Student voice isn’t about the targeting of individuals, and if that is how it feels in your place of work, then you need to be looking elsewhere for someone to blame. It is, at best, a misunderstanding of student voice and, at worst, manipulation.

2. See learning through your students’ eyes

The concept of “edutainment” assumes that children and young people are not interested in their own learning and development. Student voice isn’t just about building self-esteem, improving welfare and enrichment (although it is also all of those things), it is an opportunity for the student to be valued as a partner in their own learning.

Alternative schools have long recognised the powerful role that choice and agency can play in personal growth, as well as in strengthening the student-teacher relationship. We should trust students to be able to tell us what does or does not help them to learn.

3. Student feedback doesn’t have to be loaded

Learning is neither “good” nor “bad”. A lesson can be developmental, challenging, inspiring, thought-provoking and inclusive. It can also be the opposite. But a teacher can always find ways of improving the lesson – and student feedback doesn’t have to get personal.

Of course, it never feels nice to receive negative feedback on a lesson, but if a teacher is not willing to improve, how can they expect their students to?

Student feedback can provide valuable insights into how teaching, learning and assessment can be adapted to ensure all students are reaching their potential. Provided with appropriate training, students may be able to offer teachers with feedback on their lesson that is more valuable than that of any Ofsted inspector.

4. It’s not about ticking boxes

Surveys, staff awards, student representation on panels and student councils are well and good, but if implemented cynically, they won’t make any difference to the student experience. Meaningful student voice is achieved through the careful planning and evaluation of teaching and learning. If you’re getting feedback that is unhelpful, you’re not asking the right questions. Careful and considered activities can elicit the information you need to improve student learning and wellbeing.

5. Encourage agency over passivity

If you elicit student voice in an authentic way, if you listen to your students with care and compassion, and you act to create change, you are showing them what democratic engagement looks like (or at least what it should look like). Meaningful change is created through dialogue and negotiation. It’s not about giving students what they want – it’s about modelling the kind of citizenship we want to see in wider society.

Effective and authentic student voice isn’t about which teacher is the most popular. It is about agency and democratic participation. And it is about creating citizens that value their learning – and are valued by those who are there to deliver it.

Christina Donovan is a Learner Voice Practitioner and graduate teaching assistant at the Department of Children, Education and Communities at Edge Hill University


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