Why We Need to Cross the Frontier of Student Voice

Written by Dr. Omar Hakim

Most educators agree that our students are the heart of our profession. We work tirelessly to support students and encourage them to learn, grow, and participate in an evolving and complex democratic society. To reach that end, I believe that schools should be learning spaces where students can take active roles in shaping their learning experiences. Student Voice, a burgeoning topic in educational research, has always resonated with me and served as the focus of my dissertation work at Michigan State University. And today, it’s inspiring a new direction for school improvement work here at Seaholm High School.

As we seek to improve practices in our schools to better meet the needs of our students, we must engage students in systems-level school improvement work. When considering Student Voice initiatives in schools, it is important to consider how educational researchers define Student Voice and its role in establishing a culture that includes students as real partners in their education. Student Voice initiatives in educational research gained momentum in the 1990s when “a number of educators and social critics noted the exclusion of student voices from conversations about learning, teaching and schooling” (Cook-Sather, 2006, p. 362). This included a wide variety of global educational researchers, primarily outside the United States, in Australia, Canada, and England (Cook-Sather, 2006). At its core, Student Voice is about respecting that “the student is at the center of what we do, not the regulations, not the standards, not the academic disciplines. These are all necessary to what we do, but they are not our priority. Our students are. The students are the subjects we teach to and learn from. Everything else—curriculum, assessments, budgets, buildings—are the objects we use to accomplish that calling” (Quaglia & Corso, 2014, p. 372). It is the fierce commitment to the student that drives Student Voice.

Student Voice is not just about eliciting student opinions; rather, it is about active student engagement for school improvement. Student Voice efforts encourage reflection, discussion, dialogue, and action (Fielding, 2004). It is not ranting, complaining, or making unsubstantiated claims. Rather, it involves reflecting, collaborating, and building a system for thoughtful, data-driven action. It involves authentic engagement and responding to complex realities so that schools can be relevant spaces for all learners. It is in this spirit that we established the Student Voice Advisory Board at Seaholm High School this school year. The Student Voice Advisory Board, featuring 10 students from each grade (9-12) of diverse backgrounds, partners with staff to address our three school improvement goals: one on building school-wide relationships, another on improving literacy, and a third on civil discourse. The purpose is to have students and staff collaborate in a manner tied to our improvement goals, providing students hands-on opportunities to problem-solve to address our school goals and simultaneously reflect on school culture and individual learning. Students on the Advisory Board work to include the voices of other students by collaborating in focus groups based on each School Improvement Goal. In these groups, students have met with administrative teams to review research on Student Voice, learn about the history and purpose of each School Improvement Goal, and most recently, collaborate with teachers during our half-day professional development meeting on December 6, 2019. At the meeting, students and staff participated in structured fishbowl discussions using student-generated survey questions and responses. Each group dialogued and brainstormed ideas for action, and we are working to compile the results

Our Student Voice efforts at Seaholm are a work-in-progress. And, if done well, will always be. We will continue to engage this meaningful, albeit tough, work. We understand it will require patience, ongoing revision, and recognition of both our successes and failures. Maple Nation, we ask for your partnership. It is only through this partnership that we can lean into our school’s untapped potential. I hope you’ll join us.

Cook-Sather, Alison. “Sound, Presence, and Power: ‘Student Voice’ in Educational Research and Reform.” Curriculum Inquiry 36 (2006): 359-390.
Corso, M. and Quaglia, R. (2014) Student Voice: The Instrument of Change. Thousand Oaks, CA:
Corwin Publishing.
Fielding, M. 2004. “Transformative Approaches to Student Voice: Theoretical Underpinnings, Recalcitrant Realities.” British Educational Research Journal. Vol. 30, No. 2.

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