One criteria by which schools are presently judged is “student voice”. It’s a problematic term, one of these abstract generalisations which imply virtue but are too often devoid of concrete meaning.
The phrase may be facile: the issues are real.
Recent discussions with senior students from several Scottish secondaries revealed major unhappiness about what is seen as an authoritarian ban on mobile phones in schools.
While some schools have made major strides in using mobiles as learning tools, many local authorities maintain blanket bans and many teachers (never without their own mobile) see them as a major challenge to authority and discipline. There is one issue on which we might listen to the student voice and seek some sensible agreements with better learning as the intended outcome.
Too often “listening to the student voice” is little more than discussion on toilet decoration and cleanliness or dining hall menus, but exciting work has been done by Falkirk Council’s Education Services in developing council core education policy by engaging directly with learners at all levels.
One section of the policy, on teachers’ responsibilities, initially drafted by teachers and senior professionals, was then shared with student councils across the authority.
The questions posed to the pupils were: “What are your responsibilities in the learning process? What do you need to do to make sure you get the most from your education?”
Not only did the students make several key suggestions, now incorporated into policy, but they are preparing a presentation on the policy which will be broadcast to all schools in the area. They will sell it far more effectively to their peers than any teacher could.
Such an approach at least gives serious purpose to discussions at student councils. The problem is that it engages with the articulate and the committed, to those accurately described by one Falkirk Council official as the “delightful young people who inhabit student councils”.
If schools are to relate more meaningfully to the mass of learners then they must hear voices way beyond that small, self-selecting “delightful” stratum.
There are two specific areas where schools can improve their acts.
The first is to listen to what learners have to say about learning. Working in a community high schools for many years, I was well used to the concept of regular checks, formal and informal, with adult learners on what they valued, what they wanted improved and what they wanted jettisoned from adult classes.
Every teacher who taught adult classes found this both useful and perfectly acceptable. Interestingly, for a considerable number, the same approach was not applied to classes of school students.
There was often a nervousness, a fear that students would use an opportunity for feedback to criticise their teacher’s skills, attributes or personality. Experience suggests the opposite: school students are remarkably generous in evaluating their learning and teaching experiences.
The other area in which all schools can improve, some more than others, is in listening to our learners more intensely but more informally. School managers with an open door and a record of listening will have the critical issues brought to them.
Teachers with their ears to the ground do not require student councils or questionnaires or learner focus groups. These can be useful but their purpose should be to validate the understanding which comes from warm relationships and meaningful conversations.
For my own part, the best source of powerful intelligence from our learners was the chat in the lunch-hall queue. At least in that “forum” I could hear the voices of the disengaged, the least articulate and the rebels, as well those of the more “delightful” cohort.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is currently an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.