Student Voice, Agency and Participation
In my first year of teaching, I was faced with a topic in senior Maths that I’d not met at University. Fortunately, there were two students in the class who were repeating the subject. Together we worked out how to learn this. In retrospect, the experience taught me profound (if unrecognised at the time) lessons about trusting and working collaboratively with my students.
Jump forward a decade: while teaching in Brunswick, I coordinated a cross-age tutoring program in which the school paid students to tutor others. Tutors had skills in their first and home languages that were recognised to maintain the learning of more recently arrived students. I was fascinated to see the impact of this, both on the learning of tutors and tutees and on their engagement, as we provided ‘real roles of value’ as part of their curriculum. I also particularly noted the positive outcomes for more marginalised students when we trusted them to tutor in precisely those areas in which they (and others) saw themselves as failures.
At the same time, we were also publishing Ascolta, a five-language community newspaper, written, edited and laid-out by primary and secondary students in the area. This brought together students, parents and teachers to learn together and portray a vision of their Brunswick. We (teachers – sometimes the ‘outsiders’ in the area) learnt from students and their families.
Initially we talked about these approaches in classrooms and across schools as ‘youth participation in education’; the shortened term ‘student participation’ further emerged in work of the Participation and Equity Program (PEP) in the 1980s. There we drew a distinction between limited meanings of ‘participation in schooling’ (ie ‘turning up’, as in ‘participation rates’ or ‘bums on seats’), ‘participation at school’ (ie taking part in activities that others prescribed), and the ‘deeper’ meaning of ‘participation through school’ (ie making decisions about education and life, within schools and the wider society) (Holdsworth, 1985). While the first two meanings were necessary, they were much more limited than the forms of ‘student participation’ already extant in classroom projects, student organisations and so on.
Ideas about ‘participation’ have a strong conceptual history in areas of development, youth affairs, health and education. In the broader youth sector, Roger Hart’s ‘ladder of youth participation’ (Hart, 1992) encapsulated a continuum of processes from ‘manipulation’ and ‘tokenism’, through ‘informing’ and ‘consulting’, to ‘sharing responsibility’ for decisions and action. Reddy and Ratna (2002) pointed out that young people are participating all the time, and that forms of ladders and other typologies are, in fact, descriptions of adult perceptions, even containment, of that participation. Harry Shier (2001) explicitly then addressed ideas about organisational support for young people’s participation.
Late in the 1990s, the term ‘student voice’ started to emerge. Reflecting Hart’s continuum, possible levels of our recognition of ‘student voice’ were identified:
- speaking out;
- being heard;
- being listened to;
- being listened to seriously and with respect;
- incorporating student views into action taken by others; and
- sharing in decision-making, implementing action; reflecting on action. (Holdsworth, 2000)
There is currently much more formal attention to these approaches than there has been over the last half century at least. The Victorian Department of Education places ideas about student voice and agency as central to learning outcomes within policy and practice documents. A Research Report in 2007 (Manefield et al, 2007) set the scene, and the more recent Amplify toolkit ( https://fuse.education.vic.gov.au/pages/amplify ) provides a wealth of useful resources and case studies. The development and growth of the Victorian Student Representative Council (the VicSRC) (http://www.vicsrc.org.au/) as the peak body for school-aged students in Victoria, has provided students with a voice at a systems level, alongside teachers, principals and parents. The VicSRC’s Teach the Teacher program (http://www.teachtheteacher.org.au/) is recognised internationally as a significant innovation in creating a space in schools for students to lead collaborative conversations with teachers about important issues they wish to highlight.
But ideas and terms still blur together. Terms and concepts such as ‘student voice’, ‘student agency’, ‘student participation’ and ‘partnerships’ are stretched or used interchangeably in ways that sometimes confuse people. There is value in being more precise about how we use them.
Why is this important? Our practice is shaped by our understanding of the terms we use. If there are conflicting ideas and intentions behind these terms, we may ignore possibilities and challenges, or adopt practices with which we are not happy, and which conflict with other value positions we hold. Many of these terms and ideas have substantial histories as well as current debates; these reflect broader ideas about the purpose of education and of schools. We should understand the contexts of this work, because these also shape what we do.
I’ve recently been interested to unpack ideas about this work and tease out implications of their application at classroom, whole school and system levels. I started by thinking about why we were interested in these approaches: what are our intentions?
We asked students and teachers at various training days to say, in a few words, why ‘student voice’ (which seemed to be the most used term) was important. (This wasn’t a research project; it was a part of warm-up activities.) When we collected and looked at the responses, an interesting pattern emerged.
Overwhelmingly, teachers said: “Because it improves students’ engagement … motivation … commitment … learning …” And the students said: “Because it improves the school …” That difference in emphasis continued in many further conversations in which we reflected on this question with students and teachers.
We weren’t the first to ask this. British academic and writer Michael Fielding asks:
“What is all this activity for? Whose interests does it serve? Is student voice a neutral technology or an inevitable expression of a set of values and assumptions, not just about teaching and learning, but about the kind of society we wish to live in?” (Fielding, 2012)
Fielding developed a typology (Fielding, 2012) to indicate a range of meanings: from ‘students as data sources’, used by teachers to improve their practices; through students’ action about learning; to joint adult and student ‘intergenerational initiatives around a shared democracy’ ie shared responsibility for the common good.
That led us to identify three broad intentions of this work:
- to increase the effectiveness of teaching practices through the provision of information, feedback and advice from students to teachers and other adults. This can be referred to as ‘student voice’;
- to increase students’ learning and wellbeing outcomes, through enabling students to have greater control of their learning, and hence their engagement and motivation. This can be referred to as ‘student agency’.
- to increase educational outcomes for all participants (students, teachers, schools etc) through partnerships between and shared decision-making by students, teachers and others. This can be referred to as ‘student participation’.
Within each of these intentions there can be a continuum of practices: eg from ‘minimalist’ to ‘maximalist’, from passive to active, from teacher-led to student-led. The terms are also not sharply separated, but the intentions build on each other in a ‘nested’ way.
Let’s tease these out a little more.
The idea of student voice – of students ‘having a say’ ie expressing views, providing information, advice or feedback – underlies all of these concepts. It intends to change and improve teachers’ professional practice. This can include a range of examples from simply regarding ‘students as data sources’, through various forms of student feedback to teachers, to student-led advocacy. It recognises that students have important and unique knowledge that can improve what adults do.
The concept of ‘voice’ has also been recognised as going far beyond verbal expression. For example, current important work within specialist school settings has challenged us to think about what ‘student voice’ means for non-verbal students. There was initial work on various forms of artistic expression as voice, and more recently attention to ‘body language’ and behaviour as ‘voice’.
Important issues have emerged about ‘who is listened to’, and ‘who is silenced’. Adam Fletcher also writes about ‘convenient’ and ‘inconvenient’ student voice (Fletcher, 2013), and asks why we listen to the former, but not the latter. If we just listen to the students with whom we already agree or who do not challenge us, we learn nothing new.
This refocuses our attention away from enabling student voice (which is actually there all the time – as all teachers know), to how adults and systems hear, listen to and respond to ‘voice’. If ‘voice’ intends to improve practices, it must be listened to and responded to seriously, inclusively and respectfully.
Building on basic ideas about student voice, students are encouraged to be actively engaged in making decisions about their learning. This has come to be called student agency. It intends to change and improve students’ roles, ownership and engagement and hence improve student outcomes. It focuses on the actions that students take, rather than simply on their expression of views.
Agency has been defined as:
“The capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative—the opposite of helplessness. Young people with high levels of agency do not respond passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others’ lives.” (Vander Ark, 2015)
Again, student agency exists across a range of possibilities, from student choice between alternatives provided to them, through having their feedback included, to various forms of co-design of learning (goals, content, methods, assessment etc). These ideas take us beyond a literal meaning of ‘voice’ (in which students cede power to others) to emphasise the action that students themselves take, either individually or collectively.
Similar dilemmas exist here: about whether agency is individual or collective; about its tension with curriculum prescription; about its inclusivity.
Building on the ideas of ‘voice’ and ‘agency’, students work with others (teachers, principals, parents etc) to improve the ways in which schools and education happens: how schools operate, how we work with each other, and how we learn together (purposes, goals, content, methods, assessment, evaluation). This intends to change and improve outcomes for all: students and teachers. This is called student participation or, increasingly, partnerships in learning. Students, either directly or through representatives, share decision-making and implementation in collaboration with others. This occurs at classroom and whole school levels and, to some extent, within systems.
Definitions of participation include both the process of taking part in decision-making, and also the end of achieving change: “Participation is a process where someone influences decisions about their lives and this leads to change.” (Tresider, 1997) Again we need to ask: ‘which students?’ and ‘decisions about what?’
In practice, elements of these intentions usually co-exist and complement each other. For example, the expression of student voices can influence teacher practices, but also builds the competence and efficacy of the students themselves (if their voices are listened to), as well as establishing various forms of partnerships that change the educational landscape in ways that benefit all participants. So each of the terms can be used broadly and interchangeably, as well as narrowly and specifically.
The core ideas about student voice, agency and participation have implications for what students, teachers and others do and how they behave.
- providers of information, views, advice and feedback;
- collectors, collators and contributors of other student voices;
- active participants in curriculum and learning approaches that they initiate;
- active participants and collaborators in decision-making alongside adults;
- active listeners, collectors and contributors of student views and voices in decision-making forums.
Teachers and adults are:
- listeners who hear, consider, adapt and respond to students' voices;
- advisers, proposers and intellectual leaders of active learning curriculum approaches in which they are primarily process focused;
- active participants and collaborators in decision-making alongside students;
- co-leaders, focused both on content and process;
- respectful challengers of students, particularly around mutuality, relationships and inclusion.
One highly important issue is the capacity and willingness of all – teachers and students – to hear, listen to and respond to students’ voices. To assist in this within classrooms and across schools, a Listening Tool has been developed and is intended to assist individual (and group) reflection by teachers and representative students about their awareness and understanding of listening.
We can map our understanding of these intentions into practices at various levels (individual classrooms, whole schools and systems):
In our classrooms, listening to student voices means that student results, behaviours, views, and ideas explicitly influence teacher practice including lesson planning. This includes at least recognising students as data sources about their understanding, but extends easily to enabling more formal feedback to teachers, either initiated and carried out by the teacher or initiated and carried out by students.
Increasing student agency means that all students make decisions (alongside teachers and other students) about their own learning. This includes at least choosing between topics, but easily extends to deciding on content or approaches, and deciding how to reflect on and assess their own learning. They also learn in engaging and practical ways that provide valuable and useful things for them to do as part of their learning.
Student participation means that students and teachers together address issues such as class rules, relationships and structures, and make decisions on these. This also includes shared decision-making about learning, where students and teachers negotiate and co-construct learning approaches, and work together to investigate classroom issues.
At a whole school level, student results, attitude surveys and similar information is shared across the school and considered seriously. Student views (through surveys, formal student presentations, focus groups and other means) inform whole school discussions and practices. Student groups and teams (eg Students as Researchers, Student Action Teams) are involved in active learning approaches across the school and investigate and act on whole school issues. A student representative organisation exists, is inclusive and effective in leading such action on behalf of students. Students lead whole school discussions around matters of learning and teaching, relationships etc (eg through Teach the Teacher). Students are represented on school decision-making bodies (and other committees) and in staff selection and appointment panels and processes.
At a system level, student information and views are conveyed to and heard at system level (by Department, Minister etc). Students advocate directly around issues of concern, and these student concerns and views inform and help shape system policy and practices. Representative students are members of investigative and action initiatives across schools (eg within clusters, local networks, and at state level). They take part in system-level investigations with adults about important education issues. They attend state-level workshops and conferences for discussions, debate and decision-making – as well as skill development. Students have a representative organisation at a system level, and through this, are represented in system-level forums and on decision-making bodies.
To assist in thinking about the implications for classrooms and schools, an Audit of School Practices has been developed. This is based on the understanding of intentions outlined here, and helps recognise and celebrate practices that are already happening, but also see what further development and priorities are needed and is intended for use as part of teacher professional development.
The relationship between these ideas can be portrayed in a diagram:
This area continues to pose many exciting challenges for our work with students, teachers, schools and systems. These include:
- How can we build the understanding of all parties about student voice, agency and participation? That might mean workshops for students to build communication and teamwork skills and confidence, professional development for teachers to build listening skills, opportunities for all to discuss and explore these ideas and their implications for practices, and the development of resources – including case studies - to illustrate possibilities.
- For students: how can we increase or amplify all students’ capacity to express and present views and ideas, to take action around their learning and to share in decision-making in classrooms, schools and systems? How can we build the inclusivity of voices that are heard and listened to – including diversity in representation?
- For teachers, schools and systems: how can we increase the capacity of teachers and others to listen and respond to students? How can we integrate such approaches within externally determined curriculum?
- In particular, there is a continuing need for practical examples of various ‘students as partners’ approaches eg co-planning of curriculum, students and school governance, student-staff research teams, joint reflection on and investigation of student attitude surveys. We need to be developing and disseminating guidelines for good practice in shared classroom and school governance.
The practice journal Connect has been published bi-monthly since late 1979. It documents and shares practical examples from classrooms and schools, mainly in Australia (but some international). It is now freely available on-line at: https://research.acer.edu.au/connect/ Contact me directly ([email protected]) to be added to the free mailing list.
The on-line Student Voice Research and Practice facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/studentvoicepage) links over 1,000 people internationally. Other international resources include the International Journal of Student Voice.
To concentrate on just one meaning of these terms can lead to misunderstanding and restriction of what we do. To have limited ideas about ‘student voice’ risks simply encouraging some students to speak as informants or advisers – or of ignoring students’ concerns when they are raised; to have limited ideas about ‘student agency’ risks trivialising student initiatives to SRC fundraising or social events, or students simply acting at adult direction; to have limited ideas about ‘student participation’ risks misinterpreting this as only attendance or involvement in adult-directed activities. We must always be alert to these restrictions - and willing to challenge them, asserting the importance and breadth of all students’ voice, agency and participation in decision-making.
Fielding, M. (2012) ‘Student voice: patterns of partnership and demands of deep democracy’. Connect 197: October: 10-15
Fletcher, A. (2013) ‘Convenient Student Voice or Inconvenient Student Voice?’ Available at: https://adamfletcher.net/convenient-student-voice-or-inconvenient-student-voice/
Hart, R. (1992) Children’s Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship. Innocenti Essay No 4. UNICEF International Child Development Centre: Florence, Italy
Holdsworth, R. (ed) (1985) Student Participation and the Participation and Equity Program. PEP Discussion Paper No 2: Commonwealth Schools Commission: Canberra
Holdsworth, R. (2000) ‘Schools that create real roles of value for young people’. Prospects 30, 3: 349-362
Manefield, J., Collins, R. & Moore, J. with Mahar, S. & Warne, C. (2007) Student Voice: A historical perspective and new directions. Paper #10: Research and Innovation Division, Office of Learning and Teaching, Victorian Department of Education: Melbourne. At: www.eduweb.vic.gov.au/edulibrary/public/publ/research/publ/student_voice_report.pdf
Reddy, N. & Ratna, K. (2002) Journey in Children’s Participation. The Concerned for Working Children: Bangalore, India.
Shier, H. (2001) ‘Pathways to participation: openings, opportunities and obligations’. Children & Society 15, 2: 107–117
Tresider, P. (1997) Empowering Children and Young People. Children’s Rights Office/Save the Children.
Vander Ark, Tom. (2015) ‘10 Tips for Developing Student Agency.’ Getting Smart. Available on-line at: https://www.gettingsmart.com/2015/12/201512tips-for-developing-student-agency/
Roger Holdsworth is a failed retiree. He continues to have an active commitment to education; he was an innovative secondary school teacher, curriculum consultant, youth sector policy worker, and university researcher and writer (Youth Research Centre, The University of Melbourne, where he is still an Honorary Associate). He has edited and published Connect - an on-line practice journal supporting student participation - since 1979. He is also a critical friend and advisor to the VicSRC, the peak body of school-aged students in Victoria. In another life, Roger presents the Global Village program on PBS 106.7 FM in Melbourne, every Sunday 5-7pm.
This article appears in Professional Voice 13.2 Learning in the shadow of the pandemic.