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Too many schools ignore the real ed experts: Students

There’s no shortage of education experts out there: technology experts, policy experts, teaching experts… the list is endless.

But when we move to innovate in schools, we often overlook the smartest people in the room: students.

Think about it. Who knows more about today’s classrooms? Who to better gauge the effectiveness of education technology? Who to better assess teaching styles and effectiveness better than those actually being taught?

More educators are starting to realize the folly of their omission, which is why so many schools are suddenly talking about “student voice” as if it’s some long-buried treasure.

The “student voice and choice” approach asks students to contribute to district decision-making and empowers them to take control of their own learning. You can learn more about student voice and choice by checking out Edutopia’s 5-minute film festival on the topic. Some of those videos are featured in the analysis that follows.

Necessity of the student voice
So why is student voice so important?

High school sophomore Catherine Zhang sums it up about as well as anyone. In a TEDxPlano talk on the necessity of the student voice (which you can watch here), Zhang says, “Students are this untapped resource. We’re the only ones at the receiving end of education. So trying to ask these educational experts how to appeal to kids and to appeal to students, without asking students themselves, is like asking your 92-year old grandmother how to use Instagram when you have a teenager in the house.”

That’s profound. But there’s a problem, she says. Most students don’t feel like they have a voice—not when it comes to schools.

Zhang cites a study from the non-profit Student Voice, which states that just 44 percent of American students feel they have a legitimate voice in decision-making.

Student Voice contends that an engaged student body is often the difference between high academic performance, for instance, and a high drop-out rate.

What student voice looks like
But what does an engaged student body actually look like?

International education consultants Imagine Education identify four key steps to amplify student voice in schools: inform, consult, involve, and empower. Check out this video for more on that process:

Of these steps, empowerment is critical. But, there’s no tried-and-true formula for empowering students. Each district has to decide the best way to give its students a voice. One idea: start with a student engagement survey. You can bet your students have opinions about your schools and how they want you to communicate with them. There’s only one way to know what those opinions are—and it’s obvious: ask.

You might also think about democratizing some of your more collaborative classroom lessons. At the James H. Bean school in Maine, students choose what lessons they want to work on. They’re also given flexible schedules tailored to their learning needs. Learn more about Bean in this video:

Empowerment can also mean giving students a louder voice in district decision-making. Zhang suggests student advisory boards, where students have the opportunity to give feedback to district, local, or state officials on the issues and challenges they often face in the classroom or in school.

Says Zhang: “Whether we graduate, what courses we take, how far we go on in life—it doesn’t make sense that the millions of us are being left out of the conversation we need to be involved in the most.”

Student Voice has attempted to take those conversations to another level altogether by introducing a Student Bill of Rights. Operating under the basic premise that students should have voting power over the issues that affect their schools, the organization provides best practices for engaging school officials on school and community issues, including personal learning, due process, civic participation, safety and wellbeing, and more.

No matter your approach, giving students a louder voice in their education is a novel idea. But it won’t happen overnight.

Not every school or district has the flexibility to rearrange schedules or accommodate nontraditional learning styles or to create new board or government positions for students.

Fortunately, you don’t have to start there. The best student voice campaigns begin up front—with a skill every teacher and educators already has—and that’s the ability to listen. Whether through surveys, one-on-one meetings, or quick chats in the hallways, you can start listening to students today. Remember: They’re the real experts.

What steps do you take to include student voices in your decision-making? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for practical ideas to start an informal conversation with your students? Here’s a few solutions worth considering right now.