Anna’s Note: When Jean asked me to write a post about my recent experiences as the principal researcher on the Student Voice case study, I was both honored and nervous. As you may already know Jean has been championing the student voice initiative from the very beginning, whereas I (as you will now find out) had just joined the movement in April of 2014, and by many accounts the milk has yet to dry on my lip. But in a true millennial-generation spirit I took on the challenge and decided to share my experiences and opinions.
Through a collaborative effort between the Ontario Principals’ Council (OPC), Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario (CPCO), and Association des directions et directions adjointes des écoles franco-ontariennes (ADFO), I was asked to join the Student Voice Modules Project team in order to develop training modules for school leaders to highlight effective student-teacher collaborative practices. My role was to conduct a study that explores and documents the experiences of participants in the Student Voice Initiative in order to demonstrate effective ways for principals and teachers to access the voice of all students, and meaningfully involve all students in decisions that impact them directly. Before I proceed to discuss the study, I’d like to answer a question you may or may not be posing, but one that I think is important to consider.
What makes the Student Voice Initiative (SVI) unique from other student voice projects?
As one principal puts it, “every principal and teacher believes that student voice is important, and many schools are already including students’ voices in decisions that matter most to their education. What sets the Student Voice Initiative apart from other student initiated projects is that it explicitly articulates the importance of intentionally seeking out student voice, intentionally providing opportunities to move from listening to hearing, and articulating the importance of us [principals and teachers] working with our students on issues that matter most to them.” (Meliksetyan, 2015, p.4).
With that said, what exactly is student voice?
The term student voice is often used as a metaphor for student engagement and participation in activities that range from sports clubs to personal expression in classroom assignments. Recently there has been growing attention in education reform literature on the benefits of using students’ voices as a tool for actively engaging students’ in the decision-making processes that effect their educational experiences. Scholars such as Adam Fletcher and Michael Fielding have even documented some empirical evidence from individual classrooms across the United States, Chile and the United Kingdom, where students and teachers work in partnership to improve their learning experiences.
Locally, the province of Ontario has been championing student voice since 2008. The Ontario Ministry of Education (“the Ministry”) launched the Student Voice initiative aiming to strengthen student engagement in their learning. The Ministry developed tools and resources for teachers and students, to promote student-led opportunities and enable student-teacher collaborative efforts. This unique initiative, now in it’s 8th year, draws thousands of students across Ontario every single year, offering them various tools and resources to express their opinions, to engage in collaborative projects and to tackle social issues in their local and global community. So if there are examples, both at the classroom and system level, across the Americas and Europe, why hasn’t the student voice initiative received the legitimacy it deserves?
Scholar Michael Fielding answers this question best.
“For many […] student voice, is at best, something a small number of students, often not like other students, do with a small number of teachers, often not like other teachers, to no good effect.” (2001, p.105). In other words, in order for Student Voice to live up to it’s true potential as an education reform movement, there needs to be a broader buy-in that goes beyond the student and classroom level; school leaders and administrators need to get on board and support these initiatives. In fact, according to the Student Achievement Division at the Ministry, “in order for student voice to become an inherent process in the school system, principals (must) play a key role in honouring student voice and developing a school culture that promotes it.” (Student Achievement, September 2013, p.3).
This brings us back around to the study we had conducted last April of 2014. In order to document a systemic example of this unique and innovate educational strategy known as the Student Voice Initiative, we took on a descriptive approach to demonstrating ways to access the voices of all students and meaningfully involve all students in decisions that impact them directly. Rather than quantifying the number of projects that have taken place over the past years and representing diverse experiences in charts, we focused on qualitative and contextual elements of each school’s, classroom’s, teacher’s and board’s experiences. The uniqueness of SVI is truly in the nuance of each project and experience.
We sought input from teachers, students, principals and vice-principals in seven Ontario school boards through focus groups and interviews between September and October 2014. A total of 49 students, seven principals and 13 teachers from 11 different schools participated in the study. Participants were asked to reflect on their individual experiences, as well as on the entire process of participation, from project ideation to implementation. The messages were loud and clear: Student Voice also accesses the voices of the average student. It allows students to explore their heritage and understand their surrounding communities, and teaches them 21st century skills like research and analysis. It provides the tools necessary for girls to study STEM subjects outside of the classroom and for students with learning disabilities to practice self-advocacy by sharing their experiences with others.
You can read the full study on the Engaging Student Voices website, or get the shorter version originally published in the February 2016 Issues of Ontario Principals’ Council journal, the Register.
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Fielding, M. (2001). Beyond the Rhetoic of Student Voice: New Departures or New Constraints in the Transformation of 21st Century Schooling? FORUM 43(2), 100- 109. Retrieved from http://www.soundout.org/articles/beyong_the_rhetoric_of_student_voice.pdf
Meliksetyan, A. (2015). Engaging Student Voices: A Case Study on Effective Ways to Access Students’ Voices Through the Student Voices Initiative, 1-28. Retrieved from http://www.engagingstudentvoices.ca/wp_opc-en/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Final-Research-Report_Student-Voice-Modules_Aug2015-FINAL_V2.pdf