Skip to content

Viewpoints: October 2022

Each month, we connect with change-makers, thought leaders, practitioners, and artists to get their takes on key questions in education. We’re excited to connect with: Kari Nelsestuen, Genavieve Koenigshofer, and Dana Mitra.

Viewpoints: October 2022
What are we missing when we ignore student voices in the design of teaching and learning and all things school?

I will defer to a student, Mia, who spoke to a group of educators about this: “So many times, we feel disregarded as students, but I’m the one who sits in the classroom all the time. I see firsthand the policies you are implementing. I see where it works for me as a student and where it doesn’t. So if you forget that big piece of the conversation … you are always going to go wrong.”

The question is: what are all the adults in the system missing?

Take, for example, improving attendance. From an adult’s perspective, you often start with what feels easier for adults, like fixing transportation. But when you bring students into that conversation, you start at a very different place because you hear what the root causes are from their perspectives – the ones adults probably missed or did not prioritize. Yes, transportation may need some attention, but it’s not the root cause that students with experiences with chronic absenteeism identify. I go back to what Mia said…”You’re going to go wrong.”

Our organization often facilitates a collaborative activity with adults and youth to identify all the things in schools that adults control. The activity reveals that adults basically control everything. Then youth share stories about what that feels like and what could be different. In order to reimagine power and privilege for “student-powered improvement,” what is foundational is recognizing how adultism – the biased belief that adults are better than young people and entitled to act without their permission – runs rampant in schools. Most adults don’t even realize the assumptions and biases they have about young people.

What are some examples of, or resources for, engaging students in reimagining education design?

Many people start with empathy interviews to seek out student stories, usually stories from those students most marginalized by the system. Story-based questions like, “Tell me about a day you wanted to come to school. Tell me about a day that you didn’t” reveal so many unacknowledged needs. There are a lot of ahas for adults.

Then let’s say some adults come up with a few solutions they’re going to try. They can use liberatory design principles (see NTC’s Viewpoints with liberatory design co-founder, Susie Wise) to share, not sell, the ideas with students and have feedback protocols like, “Tell me why this would never work. Tell me why your friend would think this is a bad idea.” With student feedback, it becomes a better idea … and hopefully, the next time adults are designing solutions, they bring students to the table to design from the very beginning.

For example, at one school, students wanted to impact mental health, which was such a huge issue with so many things out of their control. As students started talking about their experiences in the school itself, they realized that adults used a lot deficit-based language. So, their first change idea was to change the school’s morning announcements. The idea was to flip from deficit-based language — “this many people are not meeting the state test requirements, this many are absent” — to asset-based language — “this many kids have passed … this many students are at school today.” They went to the administration. Who’s going to say no to that? They were able to collect data about the effectiveness of the change and share it with school leadership. While it was a small change, it helped start some momentum.

Students weren’t just there in the beginning of the process; they were partners the entire time.

What are some cautions when engaging students and efforts to elevate student voice/experience?

The number one threat is tokenism which happens when when adults use students to validate adult views or ideas. For example, when adults select just one student for the committee, or choose two black and brown youth to talk to about this thing. And then we’re going to explain away what the students said because we know better. You also have ensure that adults can’t resort to excuse making or ignoring students’ real experiences — “Well, they told that story because they’re mad about being suspended.” You need to make sure adults are not minimizing and blaming. If we’re doing a root cause analysis, the question is how is it the system’s fault, not the student or their family.

Another caution is when you’re not transparent with students, or yourselves, about the type of involvement you’re looking for. You say you’re going to share decision-making, but you really only want their input, which might be valuable but do not pretend it’s shared decision-making because that is going to do harm, destroy trust. Another caution is not circling back to students. If you go out and talk to students but then they never hear anything back, why would they feel valued? We all want to know what happens when we share our stories. It’s about being valued.

To make change, we have to center students who have historically been excluded, ignored, or marginalized by our schools. We have to commit to developing relationships and creating spaces where students can be authentic partners. We have to address our adultism and be willing to be vulnerable. This takes time, collaboration, and empathy. There is learning and unlearning to do.

Community Design Partners launched to provide the greater community with an extensive library of case study examples from the field, a free assessment about student involvement in schools, self-guided courses for those who want to partner with students, and more.

Viewpoints: October 2022
What are we missing when we ignore student voices in the design of teaching and learning and all things school?

Ironically, when it comes to serving students, it’s student voices that get overlooked. But if you’re not reaching out to students, you’re not going to the source. With the pandemic, students my age and younger have had a school experience unlike any other. Despite well-intentioned efforts to get student feedback, people went into panic mode, holed up, and tried to come up with solutions [by themselves], leaving out the most important voices. When you leave out those voices, you lose the opportunity to learn from the lived experiences of a brand new generation of students.

At Generation Up, we get students in the room. People will say, “We’ve done surveys,” or “We asked this group and that group,” but, in the end, students being in the room when decisions are made and being able to provide feedback in the moment is really critical.

I think people are scared to put power in the hands of people they feel are not fully informed. There’s this perspective that students can’t see the full picture. But students are much more knowledgeable than people think. If you’re not viewing the people you represent as capable, if you’re not willing to make that leap, that’s going to limit your ability to represent them. It’s so easy for a school board member, despite best intentions, to make decisions on behalf of students they view as this abstract concept of 3000 young people. When you go to events, reach out to students, get their feedback, you start to see them as people. You realize “This is something that they’ve seen that I haven’t.” When you get to know people personally, you build respect, and after respect comes trust.

What are some examples of, or resources for, engaging students in reimagining education design?

At GENup, we connect with government leaders willing to put in the time to listen to what we have to say, sit down with us. We bring them bill proposals, and partner with them the entire way through the process of getting them passed, whether they’re eventually signed by the governor or not. We partnered with [a legislator’s] office on the Ethnic Studies curriculum, and student voice was a huge part of that mobilization process. We’ve introduced several bills, mental health days and excused absences for civic engagement, the list goes on.

For the legislators, we have a large student base and if they just create the connection, they will have [access to] student voice. The easier we make it for them, the more likely they are to reach out. What that looks like for us is maintaining a large presence and making sure that we are respected in this space. It means that we show up for public comment virtually and in person. It’s about building connections and credibility.

What are some cautions when engaging students and efforts to elevate student voice/experience?

The most important thing is to be authentic. We see people looking for credibility, so they’ll try to get student feedback, “All right, student input, check.” That’s not what we want to see.

We want to see strategies to create safe environments where students can speak up … separate student advisory boards, or two or more student representatives on committees. When you’re the only student in the room, it’s much harder to share your thoughts. You feel like, “If I say something, they’re probably not going to listen to me.” To make sure student voices are actually heard, expand it beyond one voice because obviously no one student can represent everybody. There’s strength in numbers and especially in the power dynamic of the education system. That kind of community building is huge for student representation.

For students who are marginalized, who have been consistently mistreated, it’s about intentionally creating avenues for them to speak up. That helps build trust. But then if you continue to do the same things … [when] you reach out again, you’ve broken the trust. To build trust, you actually need to change things.

By the time you get into high school or college, you’re already used to a system where you feel like you’re not being heard. I’ve heard people say “students have a limited perspective.” Instead, the strategy should be to acknowledge the things [students] see that you don’t, and elevate that.

It goes back to trust. We see disingenuous efforts where you allow students to speak but then discredit something [because] you don’t like [what you heard]. Treat the students in the room as partners, not somebody underneath you. That means encouraging them to speak, looking into what they say, fighting back and pushing back when people try to discredit them. You need to be an advocate.

Viewpoints: October 2022
What are we missing when we ignore student voices in the design of teaching and learning and all things school?

We’re working on a model of what classroom-level student voice can look like, trying to see whether certain practices amplify to other practices and particularly at the level of [student] choice versus voice. Plenty of research shows if a student [has decision-making power around] coursework, they’re more engaged. At the voice level, it’s an opportunity for teachers to get feedback and understand what exactly is working and not working, and why…. At a school level, in professional development sessions to redesign standards and curricula, having students right there at the table shortcuts the process of trying to figure out if something’s going to work.

As schools and districts become more data driven, it’s really important to have students help interpret that data so it] isn’t interpreted incorrectly … truancy, absenteeism.… Students can explain what’s going on so solutions are designed to actually help as opposed to framing the problem incorrectly and designing solutions that are not effective.

We have great examples of civic work and participatory action research where young people choose topics and design processes. That really connects with the bigger skills we’re trying to teach, asking great questions, understanding how their world connects to the world beyond. Three of the most important processes young people need to learn in adolescence are agency — that they can make a difference, can impact their own and others’ lives — belonging [through] developing meaningful relationships with teachers and peers, and then a series of [what are typically seen as classroom] competencies…. All have been shown to be amplified when students are co-authors in the process.

What are some examples of, or resources for, engaging students in reimagining education design?

Washoe, Nevada, has really strong district-wide student voice practices. One of the solutions they’re working on is social-emotional learning advisories at the school level. They’re finding … if you want students to actually talk about how they’re doing, there has to be a baseline of trust. So, how do you create safety in a school? How do you build trust in an advisory in a way that the work is authentic? [And then], if you do ask them, you have a responsibility to respond [in ways that are not harmful to the student].

A longstanding example of student power at the state level is the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence in Kentucky, which was created in the 80s during the whole school reform movement. There’s a student-driven arm of the committee [now called The Kentucky Student Voice Team] that took on a life of its own…. They have an enormous track record of influencing legislation at the state level, partnering with legislators … and they have graduated incredible [student] leaders.

[Whether it’s] curriculum or activism, sustaining student work over time [often] requires a partnership outside of the school, with nonprofits, because students often have stronger trust with community leaders or in neighborhood spaces, and they do a better job knowing how to build that trust. If we are going to really engage in ideas of power and equity, we’ve got to go beyond school to be able to do that well because eventually the school, or some structure within the hierarchy of the school, district, state, is going to shut that down, or try to.

What are some cautions when engaging students and efforts to elevate student voice/experience?

Tokenism… If you tell students they’re going to be heard, if you give them hope, teach them that they can matter, and then cut them off at the knees, that’s almost more damaging developmentally.

There are long-standing problems to be solved in education related to money, equity, and measurement. But there has to be shorter term projects because students [aren’t there] for more than a few years.… There’s this balance of needing what we call “visible victories” to celebrate and recognize progress along the way in larger campaigns so that disillusionment doesn’t occur, intentional celebration to keep morale going. This is more important for youth … this is connected to their agency, and belonging, and competencies. They need to know what they’re doing has an impact, which can be very hard in political work because it’s such a long game. You need powerful adults to [elevate] the value in that work, to show it matters, … so there isn’t increased helplessness or despair.

Also, it’s important for a teacher-focused audience to understand that in the student voice [field], we feel strongly there is no student voice without teacher voice…. It’s extremely hard for teachers to empower students when they don’t feel empowered themselves.

Sign up to receive the International Journal of Student Voice and consider submitting content as a practitioner
and student.