Thursday, December 17, 2015

Student Voice: Following Up Dr. Q's Webinar

Last week we had a wonderful webinar led by Dr. Quaglia who was broadcasting from Dubai!  Time (and a technology glitch) did not allow for him to address questions that were being asked in the stream, so after some discussion with him I thought we would address them here. Dr. Q will be doing these webinars monthly; check www.qisa.org for specific dates.

What does voice actually entail?

On page xiv of Student Voice: the Instrument of Change (Corwin 2014), we define student voice “as occurring when students are meaningfully engaged in decision making and improvement-related processes in their schools.” These “processes” range from the classroom right up through school-wide decisions and even into district level concerns. Student voice for us is ensuring that students have a seat at the table where meaningful decisions are made. This goes beyond merely listening to students through surveys and focus groups (though those are necessary starting points). Student voice involves students in decision-making. Examples range from providing student with choices of what to study in the classroom and inviting students to teach to having students on teacher and administrator hiring teams. What we seek through student voice is a realization of the idea that students are not a school’s clients or customers, but rather their partners.

What are the merits of student voice?

There are many merits of student voice, but let’s start with the fact that students who report having a voice in school are 7x more likely to also report being academically motivated. Simply providing students with agency and a measure of control over their experiences in school has this dramatic seven-fold effect. If you know something else that has as great or better effect, do that instead! Regularly when we talk to students in focus groups having a say in what happens to them—either by getting to select books, helping make the latest dress code decision, being part of peer mediation or peer tutoring—is highly motivating to them.

At the classroom level it seems true enough that you can’t teach someone if you don’t know them. The entire trend toward personalized education requires student voice. Until students share with us their hopes and dreams, their background knowledge, a sense of their own learning capacities, it is difficult to teach in anything other than a one-size-fits-all, teach-to-the-middle approach. Competency Based Education (CBE) also requires Student Voice. A full spectrum picture of competency includes not only test performance, but also strategies like individual task demonstration along the way and portfolios as summative evaluation of accumulated learning. Both of these can be considered forms of student voice.

At the school level, students’ unique perspective on school policies, norms, customs, and practices enable an adult-student partnership to solve problems and devise new solutions far more readily than an adults-only approach. Examples of this range from suspension policies that make little sense to students and actually promote greater ISS over time to concerns about student tardiness to zero tolerance homework policies that simply punish rather than teach.

What does student voice look like in practice?

What does a genuine partnership look like? If our experience is any indication, it does not mean one partner always gets their way. In a partnership, there is a genuine dialogue, a give and take that frequently results in “a third way”—a new idea that neither partner imagined before the dialogue. A kind of win-win.  Questions and challenges are seen as respectful rather than a defiance of adult authority or problem with student opinion.

Concretely, a classroom enlivened by student voice is abuzz with activity. Students are teaching. Students are electing to be at this or that station. Students are in small groups discussing. Students are working on projects. They are self assessing. They are peer assessing. Teachers are facilitating, not simply delivering instruction. And above all teachers are learning.

At the school level, students are part of Building Leadership Teams, Teacher Based Teams, Department Meetings, and “Staff” Meetings (renamed Learning Community Meetings). There are Parent-Teacher-Student meetings. Report cards, primarily narrative and performance-based, include Student Voice and student self-assessment.

For all levels of putting student voice into practice, available technologies are used as amplifiers. Teachers, Administrators, and even central office leaders access student voice regularly through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media resources.

How can a teacher get started with adding student voice in a lesson, unit, etc.?

First steps include starting class with questions (what do you know about this already?), choice within curriculum (should we do this set of exercises or these others?), greater collaboration within lessons (using a variety of organizing strategies), and exit slips (what did you think of today’s learning activity?). To really go for student voice administer iKnowMyClass!

Are there criteria used to help increase the amount of student voice in a classroom or building? 

A short, not-exhaustive checklist of criteria would include:

  •   A regular habit of student surveys that were meaningfully used and followed up with action steps
  •   A habit of student focus groups
  •   Regular student choice within the curriculum
  •   Student self assessment
  •   Student feedback and input into learning environment and experiences
  •   Students interests drive learning
  •   Student help develop classroom and school rules
  •   Students on staff hiring committees
  •   Students on administrator hiring committees
  •   Students participating in staff meetings
  •   Students participating in department meetings
  •   Students participating on building leadership teams

How can we get teachers to differentiate between student voice and just giving students' choice?

Student choice is one of many ways of doing student voice. The latter is a much broader category and is as much a way of being as it is about technique.  As with many of the practices suggested above, student choice has a role to play, but is by no the only option. One way to help teachers see the difference is to point out this distinction and provide other suggestions, besides “choices”, to fill out the picture.  Would you want your significant other or partner only to give you choices? Or would you rather that your partnership was one of mutual voice?

How can we change staff attitudes towards aspirations?

We have talked to literally hundreds of educators in the course of our work. When we ask questions about core values or professional missions or why people became educators, nearly everyone says the same thing. Their answers are always about supporting students’ aspirations and frequently echo the 8 Conditions and the 3 Guiding Principles. No teacher we have ever talked to said they became an educator to help a school make AYP every year. Nor has anyone said their mission as an educator was to raise standardized test scores as high as possible.

The fact of the matter is we need to return our school staff to the attitudes that brought them and keep in the profession in the first place. When we set students’ aspirations as the primary goal of our efforts as a school—and not mere academic outcomes, they will rejoice! By supporting student aspirations, we are supporting staff aspirations as well.

What are some best practices for cultivating and honoring teacher voice?

A great first step is to have meaningful staff meetings. When a principal chooses to memo the memo-able to free up time for her staff to have genuine conversations about their concerns as professional educators working in a particular school, staff begin to thrive in a much more collegial environment. Administrators also need to end the practice of asking their staff for input to a decision that has already been made so that they can check the box “Asked staff.” This practice rarely fools anyone and is experienced by teachers as an affront. Having said that, the opportunity to provide meaningful input to decisions that all staff recognize are the principal’s to make (they don’t want your job) in a culture of transparency (here is why I made a different decision) is always welcome.

Professional Development could also benefit from a major overhaul starting with asking teachers about their learning needs and then working to meet those needs. We need to stop the pro-forma expectation that a professional educators must do X hours of PD regardless of their content area or expertise. We have heard far too often about ELA teachers sitting in on Math PD so that they could “get their hours.”

Finally, take the notion of teacher leadership seriously. Teachers are professionals. They are experts. Administrators do not need to know everything. Enlist teachers in their areas of expertise. One effective way to do this is to create mentoring programs as well as relying on internal experts for professional development. Best practices also include using surveys and focus groups.

To diminish the fear of going down this road, the administration must develop trust. This can only be done over time and by action—words count for a lot less. Punitive practices (e.g., reassignments within a building or to other buildings, or handing out the short straw when it comes to classroom assignments, etc.) must be abolished. Even the perception that this is happening (if it is not in fact happening) must be addressed head on with transparency and clear explanation.

In the positive column, have lunch with teachers and guide professional conversations.  Do not settle for an “Open Door Policy” as your strategy for listening to your staff. If no one walks through the door (or only the squeaky wheel does) there is not much to listen to. Rather seek out teacher input as a regular habit. Create a pattern of teacher voice and design systems (if they do not already exist) such as the type of staff meeting referenced above.

How to make the 8 conditions grounded and applicable to the classroom/instruction?

Not to do a commercial but this is what Student Voice: the Instrument of Change is all about! Short of reading the book there are lots of ideas at www.qisa.org. Check out the archives of our Aspirations in Action newsletter.


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