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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Student Voice and the Teaching of Democracy

School's out. Politics is in. Five months of presidential political combat lie ahead. So I'm psyched to revisit the challenge of effectively educating kids to be active participants in our democratic processes. I plan to post a number of columns over the next months that focus on student voice, the teaching of democracy, civic engagement and political literacy. I'm hoping some of you will join the discussion and toss in your two cents.

The prime directives, cutting across all these topics are:

  1. To effectively teach democracy, you have to model it.
  2. To teach students how to be actively engaged citizens, you have to enable them to practice active engagement.
We get the electorate and government we deserve, and our schools play a critical part in this.

The Value of Student Input

One place to begin is the way in which our secondary schools include students in both classroom and school-based decision-making processes. It continues to astonish and distress me that instructional, curricula and policy decision-making usually excludes the direct voices of students, their experiences, perceptions and preferences.

These common practices have nothing to do with students' capabilities. Doing research on classroom environments some years ago, I was surprised by how accurately upper elementary school students evaluated their teachers' strengths and limitations. Their assessments of their classroom environments were generally dead-on. I was particularly impressed with how perfectly they differentiated flexible from inflexible teachers, nailing one of the key variables that distinguishes good teachers and bad teachers.

It stands to reason that high school students are capable of doing this even more accurately. If you spend time talking with high school students about the school climate, you know how much they register even the subtlest political workings of the school administration. As just one example, interviewing students in a San Francisco Bay Area high school a few years ago I was repeatedly told about a known student drug dealer who administrators were hurriedly trying to help graduate rather than risk exposing the school to a public scandal. As one student put it, "It's the same old game. They don't want anything in the paper!"

Although using student input for teacher evaluations is a complex and potentially tricky challenge, using student input to help guide instruction and curriculum is a no-brainer. There is no excuse for failing to do this. The dual purpose is (a) helping to empower students and train them to use their voices effectively, and (b) getting the best possible feedback to make adjustments in both curriculum and instruction.

The biggest obstacles to this are: habit, the usual key culprit; the allocation of valuable time ("If I take time for this, I may not get to the Civil War by Christmas!"); ego (only masochists enjoy receiving negative feedback!); and skepticism regarding the value of student perceptions. Habit and skepticism can only be overcome by taking the risk of trying a different way. Time allotment should be easy; this doesn't take much time. And as for our delicate egos, teachers need to remember that feedback used effectively will always improve student-faculty relationships.

Engaging the Constituents

Here are some easy and quick ways to include student voices in your classroom.

1) Instruct in the Art of Giving Feedback

Provide some short instruction on the art of giving feedback at the beginning of the semester. You can make it part of preparing students to give each other feedback for project presentations. readwritethink provides one of the many useful guidelines that are available on the Web.

2) Have Students Fill-Out an Anonymous Questionnaire

Give students this short questionnaire periodically, to be filled out anonymously. There are only four items:

  • What I like most about this class
  • What I like least about this class
  • More time should be spent on . . .
  • Less time should be spent on . . .

3) Create a Student Advisory Group

Create a student advisory group in each class. Have the students elect two to three student reps who will meet with you or communicate online with you once a week to provide feedback on how things are going in the class. This makes it easy for students who might be reluctant to speak up to at least share responses with their rep.

These three small processes alone will (a) provide valuable information that can be used in the ongoing formative assessment of your instruction and curriculum, and (b) give students a sense of empowerment. (More on that in my next blog!)

Ah, but this is the easy challenge! It just means individual teachers making some easy changes. And I think the more teachers begin to do this with positive results, the more others will slowly try it. Moving to the school-wide level, the challenges are far greater. I'm talking about school-wide decision making.

Stay tuned for my blog on this subject, and meanwhile, please share your responses and suggestions in the comment area below.

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