Three Strategies for Encouraging and Developing Student Voice
Even though student-centered learning is the foundation of student voice, the complexity and demands of teaching often make focusing on student voice yet another "add-on" for educators. However, as Toshalis and Nakkula (2012) assert, "student voice is the antithesis of depersonalized, standardized, and homogenized educational experiences because it begins and ends with the thoughts, feelings, visions, and actions of the students themselves" (p. 23).
Based on my experience as both a teacher and administrator, I suggest three action steps that educators can take to further incorporate student voice into their classrooms and schools.
1. Start by assessing the culture of your classroom or school.
Student voice is dependent on an environment that values the sharing of various perspectives. It starts by being ready to talk with and listen to students.
Look into what kinds of opportunities students currently have to use their voice. Toshalis and Nakkula's spectrum of student voice (see figure 3 on page 24 of their paper, "Motivation, Engagement, and Student Voice" [PDF]) may be a helpful tool to this process. Brainstorm how you can shift current practices to further include various student voices.
The most successful assessment process involves students. Our teachers collected feedback through conversations and interactions with students and brought that feedback to colleagues for further discussion. I would periodically visit each grade and engage in conversations designed to assess how we were carrying out our school mission. It was also important that students saw that their feedback made a difference through our follow-up actions.
In this process, we received a lot of feedback on our strengths. We also worked on areas identified as needing improvement, such as curriculum, school awards, and building changes, to make it a more student-friendly space.
2. Practice the "soft skills" that students need so that they may develop the confidence to use their voice.
Developing voice must be present in all aspects of the class or school—from curriculum to activities to events. Curriculum and classroom pedagogy should give students opportunities to ask critical questions such as, "Who does this knowledge affect?," "How does it affect stakeholders and the greater society?," and "Whose voices are being heard and whose are not?" Through these types of questions, students are asked to challenge what they learn.
Encountering this across subject areas encourages students to naturally engage in regular questioning. Over time, it also allows them to articulate their own educated perspectives, while accepting and acknowledging those of others.
In school activities or events, students can be the morning announcers and serve as the designated hosts or tour guides for special guests. We encouraged students to start and run their own cocurricular clubs, fundraisers, or social awareness campaigns. These informal opportunities to encourage student voice also became learning opportunities to refine skills such as public speaking, teamwork, and advocacy.
By providing students with regular opportunities to practice these skills in smaller settings, it gives them the confidence to use these skills as leaders within the larger school community.
3. Create opportunities for student involvement in all aspects of the school.
A robust cocurricular program with special consideration for how to make these activities accessible to all students is essential. Schools with a no-tryout policy for sports have been successful in building confidence and voice in students while still winning championships.
We opted to not have a student government, because this tends to privilege the same students with the leadership opportunity. If you currently have a student council, consider ways you can train or involve other students as school leaders.
Students took on the role of experts when we asked them to teach a skill or topic about which they were knowledgeable. We also asked them to be part of conversations about school policies on dress code, social media use, and assessment practices.
Encouraging and developing student voice is an investment to achieve our shared goal of developing each and every student in our classrooms. It builds confidence and interpersonal and intrapersonal skills that will continue to shape students' adult lives.
Toshalis, E., & Nakkula, M. J. (2012, December). Motivation, engagement, student voice. Paper presented by Rep. Students at the Center. Retrieved from http://www.studentsatthecenter.org/papers/motivation-engagement-and-student-voice
Dawn Imada Chan is a freelance education consultant from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and a 2012 ASCD Emerging Leader. She has taught in both the public and independent school systems in the United States and Canada. She was also a principal of a nonprofit, social justice-based school in Canada and will be returning to a school leadership role in the public system in the fall. Connect with Chan on Twitter @dawnchan.