George Lucas Educational Foundation

Empowering Student Voice Through Classroom Culture

Empowering Student Voice Through Classroom Culture

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Outline of students

Empowering student voice transforms a learner from being an observer to an initiator. We’ve all seen students who walk in the door on the first day of school with a fixed mindset.  Their previous educational experience may have led them to believe they may be great in math, but struggle in reading.  These students come to us expecting to experience the same struggles and emotions they have in past years.  Students may lack confidence, and be unwilling to take risks.  

As educators, how can we support the development of a growth mindset that will lead to empowerment of student voice?  After all, the most valuable voice in the classroom is the student's.

Ongoing Community Building to Support Growth Mindset

Educators grasp the importance of team building, but to take it further in order to shift the culture, I utilize Laurie S. Frank’s “Journey Toward the Caring and Collaborative Classroom 2nd Edition: Using Adventure to Create Community.”  The structures are designed intentionally to support the development of students into responsible risk takers within the framework of experiential learning.  Students participate in collaborative activities that work through the stages of cooperation, trust, problem solving and challenge.  The debriefing period at the end of each activity is where students make growth in their ability to process, reflect, and emote.  This is the foundation of student voice in the classroom as they progress though stages of growth.

Steps to Establishing Community

  1. Create an environment of cooperation: move toward collaboration through pushing one’s comfort zones.
  2. Establish trust: the cornerstone of all learning organizations

  3. Problem-solving: The key to learning - “flexible thinking."
Challenge: embrace and persist, opportunity for growth.

For example, in one of the problem-solving activities, students would have to toss a small ball around the circle in the shortest amount of time.  After each round, it’s critical to evaluate the team’s results and retool for improvement in the next round.  During the debriefing phase students process emotions, reflect on the experience, and then problem solve for an improved outcome.  The teacher would facilitate by asking questions such as:

  • How did you feel during the activity?
  • When a peer dropped the ball, how did that make you feel?
  • If you dropped the ball, how did you feel about it?
  • What made us go quickly? What made us go slowly?
  • How could we improve? (Problem Solving)
  • How might this activity make you more of an effective problem solver?

As you can see the steps follow David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, with the final question(s) being focused on application into real life. The debriefing process allows students to practice speaking in regard to their perspective, emotions, and work collaboratively to problem solve.  When they are successful as a team, it develops a cohesive culture where students collaboratively develop their collective aptitude (growth mindset).

Habits of Mind

Each month I focus on one trait from the Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind.  These soft skills are the skills and attitudes that support success in school, work, and life.  Students use rubrics to monitor and reflect on their growth.  Together we practice perspective taking and I structure activities that provide students with the opportunity to remain open minded.  You can select traits to focus on that best support your learning environment.

Empowering Student Voice

Strategically establishing a culture that promotes responsible risk-taking opens the gates for the empowerment of student voice.  Those who never envisioned themselves sharing perspective, advocating for a cause, or respectfully disagreeing with another’s perspective develop the ability to do so.  As educators we need to put all the structures in place to support the empowerment of student voice.  Integrating community building and the Habits of Mind promotes a growth mindset.  In my classroom, when we make mistakes we fail forward together because our classroom environment is supportive and non-threatening.

Classroom Tip

Create an anchor chart on the art of collaborative conversation.  Model it, have students practice, reflect, and integrate it as a part of daily instruction in math, ELA, STEM, and Social Studies.  Have students' peers assess each other on the Habits of Mind using a rubric.  Students can assess themselves and compare rubrics - then reflect for growth.  Personal reflection is the core of growth mindset, which in turn creates a positive culture where empowered student voices echo throughout the classroom.


This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

This is such a great post Elisabeth! I especially like the debriefing process of questions. Meta cognition is so important in allowing students to process what and how they learned, and also informs our teaching practices: Things we need to change, add, remove etc when teaching. Part of this process also reminds me of design thinking in education. There is a lot of empathy involved but at the same time it's figuring out a way to strategically solve a problem and through that build a culture of collaboration.

Elisabeth Bostwick's picture

Thank you Rusul! You're an amazing contributor and I appreciate your feedback. Students are able to develop empathy through community building. Developing empathy allows students to consider the perspective of others. When students grasp that others are empathetic they are more empowered to share their thoughts, opinions and passions. Students need to feel that their peers have empathy in order to be responsible risk takers.

Talking in Class's picture
Talking in Class
Teacher leaders focused on CPD and student-centred learning, based at an international school in the UK.

Great post, and we particularly love the classroom tip! We've definitely found that including productive conversation in as many classes as possible benefits the entire community, both academically and from a social/emotional perspective. Completely agree with you about the power of personal reflection too! Do you have any suggestions for creating your anchor chart?
-Brianna and Jake

Talking in Class's picture
Talking in Class
Teacher leaders focused on CPD and student-centred learning, based at an international school in the UK.

Fantastic! Thanks for sharing!

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