ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

FAIL: Why Student Voice Isn't Enough

Post submitted by guest blogger Adam Fletcher, student voice expert and author of Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement. Follow Fletcher on Twitter.

Student voice is not enough. Adults working to stop bullying in schools have learned that it is important to engage students as self-advocates and peer teachers, behavior monitors, and student-body cheerleaders. As schools become more savvy, more students who bully are being effectively taught to challenge bullying themselves, working with their peers to create safe and supportive learning environments.

However, after more than 15 years of national interest in bullying, many schools are still struggling to effectively address the problem. In the past two weeks I have blogged here about bullying as a form of student voice and the role of student/adult partnerships in challenging student voice. But student voice is not enough.

Most people, young and old, value action. From our hunter/gatherer roots to present, there is often nothing more important to us than getting things done. Somewhere along the way, though, society decided that the loudest or most eloquent person in the group should be given a place to talk separate from everyone else. From Socrates to Abraham Lincoln, we have created pedestals and mantles on which we place these individuals, and we call that place "leadership." Many schools perpetuate that idea.

The challenge with many schools' conceptions of student voice is that it is automatically associated with this traditional student leadership model. Young leaders are nurtured to become adult leaders, and in many ways we carry forward the notion that student voice is only for certain students. Occasionally, well-meaning educators will try to engage nontraditional student leaders in traditional student leadership activities. When those experiences do not work out, educators feel justified shrugging their shoulders and simply give up on nontraditional student leaders.

However, this very reality, coupled with our hunter/gatherer roots, shows us exactly why student voice is not enough: Nontraditional student leaders are taught to sit passively and wait for their turn to speak up. Instead, they take action, whether it works for adults or not.

Effective bullying prevention and intervention requires direct action. It is important that everyone working to stop bullying sees student voice as a piece of that action but not the whole pie. My experience working with schools across the country and research on student voice has shown me that there is a five-part process for meaningfully involving all partners. Following is an explanation of how my cycle of engagement can be used to address bullying:

Part 1: Listen to partners. Teachers, families, counselors, and other adults have a direct stake in the health and well-being of students in schools. However, the most important partner is often the least connected: connecting students as partners and hearing their voices, at par with other partners, is essential. Adults must hear students' experiences with bullying; their ideas about resolving bullying; their wisdom about creating safe and supportive schools; and their beliefs about learning, teaching, and leadership in general. They are essential to effectively engaging not only students, but also all other partners. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that educators must learn to "speak by listening;" bullying opens the door for adults to demonstrate to students that they are our priorities.

Part 2: Validate perspectives. The historical structures of schools require people in positions of authority to give permission to students, parents, and others who wish to help stop bullying. This does not always mean saying "yes;" instead, it is important to sometimes say "no" or "maybe," and always to ask more questions. Inquiry is acknowledgment, and it builds relationships and allows teachers, principals, and others to connect with partners across the board.

Part 3: Authorize change. Sometimes the straightest path to creating change is the one that looks wiggly. To authorize is to give people permission to tell their own stories, and partners want that permission. They need the education and the positions that will allow them to effectively challenge bullying.

Part 4: Take action. Not only students require action. With demanding modern schedules, families and community members want to hear more than just words—they want to do something. However, one of the points of this cycle is that action does not happen in a vacuum; instead, it has to have context. The other parts of this cycle provide that framing.

Part 5: Reflect on learning. Reflection allows all partners to look back on what they have done, make meaning from it, and apply what they have learned to the next rotation of the cycle. An easy framework for reflection is

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what: What happened?
  • So what was the point of that?
  • Now what do we do with what we have learned?

Keep in mind that these different parts are a cycle though, so as they come around to completion, we use our reflections on learning to re-inform the process of listening to partners.

Bullying requires more than student voice: it needs action. The cycle of engagement is one tool in the SoundOut Student Voice Toolkit that can engage educators, students, and others as partners in stopping bullying.

Are you ready for something more? What might be possible if you use the cycle of engagement to move your school's anti-bullying efforts forward?

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