Student Voice and Resilience in Learning
Post written by Kristine Fox, Megan Bedford, and Brian Connelly
Although research has a lot to say about how to foster academic resilience, encouraging student voice—which an abundance of research shows to have a positive effect on school success—has been largely overlooked (Mager & Nowak, 2012; McNulty & Quaglia, 2007; Mitra, 2004). Student voice and academic success are inextricably linked—even among students from challenged backgrounds.
What Is Student Voice?
In its simplest form, voice is characterized by the ability to speak one's opinions and ideas. However, simple should not be mistaken for trivial. In fact, the act of empowering a young person to express her opinions and ideas is powerful. When students are consistently encouraged to ask questions, wonder aloud, and offer opinions, they develop an ability to see the world as endlessly full of options and a place where they can confidently approach problems and seek out solutions. In this way, practicing student voice gives students important tools for developing resilient responses in demanding situations.
At a more complex level, speaking out enables students to take charge of their destinies, change their environments, and make a difference in the world. A student, for example, who is invited to share in the decision-making process at a community or school meeting learns firsthand the power of his voice to pursue changes to improve his life and the community. Unfortunately, most young adults have little to no experience using their voices in complex ways, so they don't understand that voice is a means toward empowerment and self-fulfillment, and, ultimately, a resource for resiliency.
How Schools Can Invite Student Voice
Students' academic investment and resilience increase dramatically when they are invited to participate in the important decisions that take place within their schools. Decisions to which students are usually relegated—such as those made by student council and other leadership groups—are not typically important and meaningful. Although these traditional groups are important to the fabric of a school community, they rarely represent all students, nor do they tend to address the higher-level decisions that affect students daily (such as school environment, scheduling, discipline, grading policies). By involving students in meaningful decision making, schools not only give students opportunities to learn and grow, but also gain invaluable insight and understanding about complex school-related issues. Problem solving, communication, and self-belief all result from student participation and work to support resiliency.
Toward this end, we have found that educators can effectively encourage student voice; leadership; participation; and, ultimately, resilience, in academics and school, in these ways:
- Conduct student focus groups. Randomly chosen student focus groups provide students with a chance to be heard and for the adults in the building to learn from them. Recently, at a struggling inner-city high school where just 39 percent of students reported feeling like valued members of their school community, we heard from one young man in a focus group that "This is like the only reward for being a good kid, getting to talk to you all." Indeed, we learned many important, insightful things from the young people, who were eager to share their opinions about problems at the school and hopeful for a chance to participate in solving them.
- Involve students in buildingwide committees. When administrators consider schoolwide changes, such as a new report cards or new curriculum, enlist a few student representatives to weigh in on the decision and implementation. Ensure that your representatives are varied enough to truly match your school's diversity, and create opportunities for them to interact with the rest of the school so that all students feel represented and included.
- Use school and classroom surveys. Schoolwide surveys can give you the big picture of what your students think about school, and classroom surveys allow teachers to conduct more refined, formative assessments and make real-time changes as needed. When students see that their input is taken seriously and informing changes, they are more likely to commit their efforts.
- Invite students to join staff meetings. Bringing students to your regular staff meetings not only provides them with an opportunity to voice thoughtful perspectives that could help teachers but also helps students develop an important understanding of the work and commitment that the adults in your building engage in.
- Give students choice in assignments. The simple act of allowing students to choose the direction of their projects imbues greater autonomy, investment, and commitment. Students are also more likely to care about and be creative with their work.
According to the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations' My Voice National Student Report 2012, less than half of the students surveyed (in grades 6–12) believe that they have a voice in decision making at their schools. Our work, in schools across the United States, has shown that student voice is an important and often overlooked contributor to resilience. As educators, consider how you involve students in classroom and schoolwide decisions and how inviting student voice supports your vision for successful, resilient students.
Mager, U., & Nowak, P. (2012). Effects of student participation in decision making at school: A systematic review and synthesis of empirical research. Educational Research Review, 7(1), 38–61.
McNulty, R., & Quaglia, R. (2007). Rigor, relevance and relationships. The School Administrator, 8(64), 18–24.
Mitra, D. L. (2004). The significance of students: Can increasing "student voice" in schools lead to gains in youth development? Teachers College Record, 106(4), 651–688.
Kristine Fox is senior field specialist and research associate at the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA) in Portland, Maine. She is a former teacher and administrator who currently provides staff development for schools regarding student voice and aspirations. Megan Bedford is director of student services and innovative projects at QISA. She has extensive experience working with underprivileged youth to develop their confidence and leadership skills. Brian Connelly is senior field specialist at QISA. He is a former teacher who currently provides staff development for schools regarding student voice and aspirations. This article originally appeared in ASCD Express.