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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Including Student Voice

Bill Palmer

Science teacher and curriculum coach in Bellevue, WA
Teachers brought in outside clients to request and evaluate student aquaponics designs, which sent a message that student thinking and creativity were valued by the extended school community.

In last week's post, my colleague Adrienne Curtis Dickinson introduced seven key elements of problem-based learning at Sammamish High School. These key elements guide both the professional learning experiences for Sammamish staff and the ongoing PBL curriculum design. This week is our chance to share the variety of ways that the key element of student voice has been incorporated into teaching and learning.

What is Student Voice?

The term "Student Voice" describes how students give their input to what happens within the school and classroom. Our desire is for students to know that their expertise, opinions and ideas are valued in all aspects of school life. Student Voice permeates all levels of our work together, from students participating in small group classroom conversations to students partnering in curriculum design or establishing school norms and policy.

Why is Student Voice Important?

One of the principles guiding the transformation work at Sammamish is that student achievement and engagement will increase when students have more ownership of their school community. The Student Voice key element reinforces that:

  1. What students have to say matters in how learning happens.
  2. Students have untapped expertise and knowledge that can bring renewed relevance and authenticity to classrooms and school reform efforts.
  3. Students benefit from opportunities to practice the problem solving, leadership and creative thinking required to participate in a decision-making school community.

What Does Student Voice Look Like?

As students traverse different courses and grade levels throughout high school, they should experience all aspects of the Student Voice implementation continuum represented in the following table. Our expectation is that teachers and students will move back and forth between the different levels of implementation according to curriculum, classroom or school community needs.

Inclusion Integration Transformation Empowerment
Teachers seek student input on course curriculum and design, and on creating classroom norms. Teachers make decisions about how or whether to implement student suggestions. Teachers offer students a variety of ways to make contributions (orally, in writing, small groups, whole class, etc.). Teachers actively draw on student leadership to advance the curricular goals of the class (including peer coaching and peer assessment). Teachers facilitate student navigation of school and community resources.
Formative assessment strategies are used during instruction to elicit feedback from students and assess student learning. Results of student surveys and focus groups are shared with students. Students co-construct course content. All students feel confident sharing their opinions in multi-generational environments. Students use their background, prior experience and knowledge to substantially affect the trajectory of their own learning within courses and the school. Students take responsibility for the learning of the community as a whole, and actively seek out opportunities to assist peers outside the classroom environment.
Students provide feedback on course curriculum and classroom norms. Students participate actively in class discussions. Students can see how their feedback changes the trajectory of the course and curriculum design process. Student prior knowledge and backgrounds are a source of expertise in matters of classroom decision-making. Students take responsibility for their own learning and, as a result, are situated as experts within the classroom in matters of curriculum design, change, implementation and assessment.

The key element of Student Voice signals important shifts in both teacher and student roles. Through creating space for students to be more active participants in the learning process, we are seeing innovative teaching practices emerge. Following are a few snapshots of what I've experienced as a teacher during the last few years of working with the student voice key element.

Student Voice in Action

Shifting to problem-based learning dramatically increases student voice in learning. During a STEM experience designing aquaponics systems (raising produce and fish together), students had opportunities to learn about typical content standards like human nutrition, cellular processes in plants, and matter and energy cycling. What differs when teaching through PBL is the amount of choice students have in how they direct and demonstrate their learning. When teachers brought in outside clients to request and evaluate student aquaponics designs, it sent a clear message that student thinking, creativity, communication and learning were valued by the extended school community.

During the last school year, one of our grant partners from the University of Washington was experimenting with student focus groups in science classes implementing PBL units. A group of 8-10 students might gather for lunch with a lot of pizza, a voice recorder, and some questions to start a conversation. What made this experience unique was our opportunity as teachers to read the anonymized transcript of the student conversation and process together the implications for teaching and learning. This year we hope to extend the process by asking and listening as students describe the changes they experience as a result of giving their input. As teachers and students become more comfortable sharing opinions and ideas, involving students in the instructional change process should become a routine part of our practice.

The Investing in Innovation (i3) grant affords teachers, administrators, and our grant partners five days during the summer to gather and learn from each other about the key elements of PBL. For many teachers, the highlight of the week involves the opportunity to hear from and learn about our students. Past graduates returned to talk about what components of their Sammamish experience have made a difference as they transition to college. Current students have shared how their family background, language or prior schooling experiences influence their experience as a Sammamish student. There is a refreshing parity created when students are treated as the experts who share valuable perspectives and ideas with a learning-focused group of teachers. One of our students put it this way:

The teachers and the administration as well as other leaders in the school always want student input to move forward in their plans. As a student, I truly appreciate that because it makes me feel welcome and part of the SHS community. It motivates me to really want to learn because I feel part of the learning environment; I don't have to try to fit in, every student just falls into place.

What Next?

The Sammamish community is continuing to learn and experiment within the key element of Student Voice. We would welcome any additional resources or reflections you might have. Please share your suggestions in the comments section below.

Editor's Note: Visit "Case Study: Reinventing a Public High School with Problem-Based Learning" to stay updated on Edutopia's coverage of Sammamish High School.

A Project-Based Case Study: Sammamish High School

Comments (5)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Stacy Watkins's picture

I love the idea of giving students a voice in their education. In fact, the more student-directed education can be, the better. But in this educational climate there is so much pressure to cover the material that teaches the standards so that students do well on their state's standardized test. In Florida, teacher pay is actually tied to how students perform on these tests. But these tests don't assess critical thinking, creativity, or collaboration. And while there is so much pressure for students to pass standards-based multiple choice tests, teachers don't have any extrinsic incentive to focus on skills that are actually valuable in the real world (such as the aforementioned critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration).

In terms of giving students a voice, most students will wish to do projects that involve these valuable real-world skills. They won't ask to take practice tests or learn test-taking strategies. They won't want to cover a subject just because it is one of their state's standards.

So how do we provide incentives for teachers to actually allow their students to have a voice in their education?

Derek Pule's picture
Derek Pule
Distance Education Specialist

There's a very strong value to a students voice because it prepares the student for whats to come in the future, a person that will need to stand up for what's right. Great article, really does break down the value of a student's voice very well.

Brian Benz's picture
Brian Benz
7 and 8 grade Social Studies Teacher

What about the test?? All this talk about creativity, student voice, blah , blah , blah. If your students score poorly on the standardized test you will be in trouble. Finding the balancing point between getting ready for the big state test and running a wonderful classroom is difficult.

Bill Palmer's picture
Bill Palmer
Science teacher and curriculum coach in Bellevue, WA
Blogger 2014

I'd like to think that preparing for standardized tests and listening to students are not mutually exclusive. Whether it's an AP exam or state end of course science test, I haven't felt like I needed to sacrifice student voice for the sake of the exam preparation. Sometimes the two have actually gone together - when teaching AP chemistry, I would have former students return to share their experience with test preparation. Past students convinced current students that one of the most valuable parts of the course was a month spent taking and correcting practice exams; this is where they were able to organize and apply all the different concepts and skills. I am also noticing that when students are given more opportunities to take and analyze their performance on high stakes tests (PSAT, SAT, PLAN, ACT), they can better use their voice to advocate for learning aligned with their college and career goals. The students offer insight into motivation and engagement, and the classroom strategies that move towards growth on these important measures.

Most teaching decisions we make involve some kind of tension (coverage vs. depth, individual vs. group, accommodations vs. modifications) that require us to constantly evaluate our practice. Part of what makes the grant work at SHS interesting is our theory of action says listening to student voice (and paying attention to the other elements of PBL) is what will make a difference in the number of students passing courses and standardized tests. We also recognize that student voice isn't enough by itself - which is why we're invested in programs like Read-180 and AVID, and why we have six other key elements of problem-based learning in addition to student voice. I hope the ongoing evaluation here supports our working assumption that engaging and involving students in their learning is a key step towards student growth. Seeing progress is the incentive four our staff . . .

Telannia Norfar's picture
Telannia Norfar
High School Math Teacher

@Bill does your school have the matrix of Inclusion, Integration, Transformation, Empowerment for all seven elements? If so, did your school make them up or did they get them from a resource?

It reminds me of the Florida and Arizona Technology Matrix. I found it very helpful in understanding the range of possibilities when it comes to integrating technology in a certain environment. I think a matrix is helpful for teachers when implementing something. It lets a teacher know the levels in which they can be implementing an element of your PBL model. Do your teachers find it helpful?

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