The classroom dynamic is changing. Gone are the days of the teacher standing up the front delivering a lesson to a class of students sitting still. Today you will regularly find interactive classrooms that are a vibrant place of learning and exploration. Within these classrooms there is also now an expectation for students to develop soft skills such as problem solving, decision making and communication.
So how do we as educators continue to promote engagement while preparing our students for the world beyond the classroom? Using student voice is an excellent opportunity to empower students and to help develop these necessary skills required all throughout life.
Why encourage student voice?
Ultimately, students become more engaged in their school learning experience. It allows all students to be heard - not just the loudest, most opinionated or most engaged. This creates an environment where students are active participants within the classroom and that each and every one of them are vital and valued members of the class. No longer can students hide behind the voices of others and disengage, there is an expectation that everyone will participate to improve their learning.
When all students are provided the opportunity to voice their beliefs, students are supported to take responsibility towards their learning experience. Through promoting ongoing discussions between the student and the teacher, a valued partnership is created. This is beneficial for the students as they learn the importance of responsibility, trusting relationships and teamwork. Furthermore, teachers become more aware of the impact of classroom activities and teaching initiatives. Insight is gained on student interests, strengths and needs so that the curriculum can be better tailored to improve learning within the classroom. When students opinions and beliefs are heard, the entire school community gets a perspective on how to improve programs and curriculum that have a direct positive impact on student wellbeing and learning outcomes.
Student voice became a personal focus a few years ago when I had the opportunity to use an online tool allowing all students to provide feedback on a series of classes, where both qualitative data (via a series of questions) and qualitative data (free written expression) was collected. It became evident that although students found the classes enjoyable and engaging, students felt that they needed greater opportunity to ask questions and to revise past content. Identifying this trend was vital to the success of the classroom as it allowed students to understand the concepts at a deeper level and to make links across ideas to further their understanding. As teachers, we can sometimes feel a pressure to rush through content in order to fulfill curriculum demands. The students reminded me that the purpose of the classroom is for them to learn and that they need the opportunities to explore the new ideas presented. I now make it a point to regularly collect data from all of my students to critically examine whether I am providing them the means to further their education.
How can we encourage student voice?
Students need to feel that they are valued, they will only share their honest thoughts and ideas in a safe classroom environment. This comes when teachers create a culture of respect and purpose that allows all ideas to be heard and considered.
In order for student voice to be valued, it is imperative that students see their actions put in place once an idea has been shared. However, if a teacher acted upon every idea, it would be a most chaotic classroom environment! As educators, we must be aware when change can be a beneficial tool to improve student learning. To aid students, the teacher needs to help encourage realistic suggestions for improvement and for them to consider the overall impact it will have for everyone in the classroom. This is vital to enhance decision making skills, building positive working relationships with others and understanding that leading is not necessarily getting what you want but what is best for the entire group.
Providing opportunities for students to have a voice
Historically, the main opportunity for students to be heard were through formal opportunities such as appointed leadership roles. Nowadays, student voice can also be gained through whole class discussions or one-on-one conversations with students where these techniques gain valuable insight with how students are engaging with their learning. One drawback however is the time consuming nature of this process and may not allow for all students to be involved in the decision making process.
Collecting student feedback through quick, easy online tools is incredibly useful to ensure that all students have an opportunity to voice their opinions. This quick and easy method provides real time feedback for both teachers and students in order to immediately influence their learning environment.
The quantitative data gained readily provides a data set for teachers to determine classroom trends to immediately focus on in order to make quick changes.
In turn, the qualitative data provides valuable insight into how the students are feeling about their learning environment and a deeper understanding of why they feel that way.
Results can then be discussed with students to determine the next course of action moving forward, giving students ownership of the changes put in place. Individual student needs can also be identified, resulting in meaningful conversations on how the student and teacher can work together to improve their learning experience. Through providing an opportunity for student voice and acting upon it quickly, students are more likely to feel empowered, valued and engaged with their learning.
When we prioritise student voice and make it part of our classroom culture, an atmosphere of trust and respect is created. Through empowering students by allowing them to be heard, as individuals they will aspire to continue making positive differences in the world beyond the classroom.
Kellie Felmingham is a secondary school teacher who has 14 years experience in education. She currently works at one of the leading secondary schools in the state where she has held numerous leadership positions in both curriculum and student management. As an educator, Kellie is very passionate about student engagement and learning.