Student Input into Education

9 Sep

I sat down this morning to write something for The Globe and Mail’s School Council and when I finished I realized I’d written a blog post, so I decided to post it here.

The idea that student input and control of education is limited, is somewhat misleading. Students have the ultimate level of control and input when it comes to education. Each day they decide whether to attend or not. Students enter classrooms of their own free will (no one is shackled to their desks) and decide this is how they will spend their day. They control their learning. There are students who refuse to attend school, demand a change or attend but go through the motions without engaging. That’s the ultimate level of control and the only one that really matters.

In terms of involving students in the decision making processes of public education, I don’t agree that this is universally good. I’m sure there are useful and active student trustees, but I haven’t seen them. From my admittedly limited exposure, student trustees seem to be along for the ride and are rarely given a meaningful voice in critical decisions. It seems like a nice resume padder for some students and PR exercise for the school board.

I’d much rather see student input be given the same weight and value of any other partner in the education system. Teachers and parents have channels they can use to express their opinions. They communicate with trustees, write to the media, etc. It’s patronizing to say that students need special treatment.

Through technology, passionate and intelligent students have a much louder voice than ever. A student who has something to say about an issue in education can send out e-mails, blog, posts videos to YouTube and so on.

One of the best examples of this is the story of Martha Payne’s dinner blog. The 9 year old student in Scotland thought the school cafeteria food sucked, so she started a blog and posted pictures. She was right, other’s agreed and her blog has changed things.

Not every person wants or needs a say in education decisions and students are no different. Let’s empower students to raise their voices and let the good ones rise to the top. It’s much better than creating some token positions where students get to sit at the ‘big table’ so long as they remember their place.

8 Responses to “Student Input into Education”

  1. John T. Spencer September 9, 2012 at 9:12 am #

    I’m often struck by the extreme language people use when describing student voice. They act as though students have no will, no voice, no ability to self-direct. Other times, they act as though every student will say something smart and profound and amazing. For me, the results have been mixed. Self-direction, student agency – these things happen in a relationship of trust. Give kids more choices. Structure assignments more loosely. Let students help form the procedures. Ultimately, those things are far more empowering than much of what goes on in the name of student voice.

    Yes, student trustees can be great. True, getting student input on school and district matters would be helpful. However, too often people simply don’t get the complexity, immaturity, or wisdom of the youth.

    • ballacheybears September 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

      Agreed John. It’s always a warning sign for me when people start treating students in ways they wouldn’t treat adults. People making decisions about education should be well informed and thoughtful and some students are and some students aren’t. I think it should be determined on merit.

  2. jimpedrech September 9, 2012 at 9:18 am #

    I share your concerns about the role student representatives play at the board level. In fairness to both parties, the situation itself makes real contributions difficult. On one hand, the student is a young voice in a room full of adult decision makers, and may not even be aware of the issues students face at a particular school; on the other, board meetings are already jam-packed with budget concerns and other board-wide issues. Like you, I doubt these positions have much impact.

    It seems to me that the best results come when students are motivated to participate. This motivation can come from interest, relevance, and/or outrage; our goal, I think, is to help students channel their motivation and learn from the experience.

    • ballacheybears September 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

      I agree Jim. Let’s have student input on the issues that students care and are passionate about. That’s useful and relevant. Having student trustees with no real power only devalues student voice.

  3. Royan Lee September 9, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

    I absolutely concur that we have been doing this ‘student voice’ thing by replicating existing power structures rather than supplanting them. I guess it now makes me wonder to what extent teachers and other staff are similarly existing under this same hegemony of ‘voice’.

    • ballacheybears September 9, 2012 at 7:43 pm #

      So true Royan. I’ve “participated” in committees for various things (improvement plans, staffing committees, PD funds) that “required” staff input, but there was no real commitment to listening to staff. There was no collaboration or effort to develop a shared vision. Instead the expectation was to agree with what senior administrators wanted. That kind of stuff is insulting. I’m quite comfortable with admin. taking responsibility and telling me what to do, but don’t try and sugar-coat and say it was developed in consultation with staff. I suspect that people at the board level may say the same thing about the Ministry.

  4. Jennifer C September 9, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

    I truly don’t get when anyone wants to put anyone into a box based on how they actually want you to behave rather than how you actually do. It is so frustrating to hear things like “well, you have to tell them what to think” or “they don’t really know what is best for them” from the people making decisions about kids futures. I am not saying we need to give over free reign to how the world works, but there has got to be a way for input to be received in a respectful manner. I know that I don’t like hearing that I only know so much because I haven’t done this or that, but what I do have is my own experience and therefore that is valid and lived. As a designer, I can’t imagine only getting information to fit into the boxes you want checked off, that is certainly how you end up with useless products and services.

  5. SStewart September 9, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    I appreciate that you started this conversation, Andrew. It can be a touchy one at times. You and others here have made some relevant points.

    Just like parent and staff input, the empowerment and value of student voice may depend on each district’s culture. The way those voices are accessed (or not) can also be similar.

    It would be interesting to know more about how students are encouraged to have input and how (through student trustees and on student councils?). Do they actively seek other student voices? Do they know they can? How are students selected for focus groups and advisory panels, etc.?

    At the high school level, a student rep is mandatory on the school council. I wonder if they know they have a vote at that table. How much do they participate in the “advisory” capacity on a school council…as a representative of students? Again, may be depend on the culture.

    My thoughts for now… thanks!

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