Student Voice: Bridge to Learning Executive Summary

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Student Voice:
Bridge to Learning

Executive Summary

Andrew Lewis Rogers



Gaining a deep understanding of what occurs in a school that was attempting to improve the learning opportunities and outcomes for students was a complex undertaking. This research project documented and explored in-depth one schools’ journey of improvement and their effort to engage students in a greater role in their learning. The school was attempting to use instructional approaches that involved students more directly in their learning. The school staff was also attempting to create opportunities for students to have a greater voice in the effort to improve learning in the classrooms. This research project traced the development of three strands of inquiry that the school engaged in over a three year period as a result of their involvement with the Carpe Vitam Leadership for Learning Network1. Ultimately, this inquiry led to the creation of the opportunity for students to share their perceptions of learning and teacher action around learning in this school.

The Context of the Classroom

Capturing the essence of what occurs at the classroom level in a school posed a significant challenge. The classroom is a very subjective realm and observations are subject to interpretation. Students and staff have different perceptions of the classroom experience. It was this perception of the classroom from the vantage point of the student that this study attempts to discover. Wilson and Corbett (2001) in a major study of reform in Philadelphia middle schools concluded that “for reform to be successful it has to touch students’ classroom lives noticeably—and students are in the best position to let us know that this has occurred” (2001, p.4).

Definitions of Key Concepts and Terms

In this study, the inquiry of a school is documented over time. Inquiry in this case is the dynamic process of posing questions, gathering information, taking action and reflecting on the action and outcomes in on-going cycle (Joyce & Calhoun, 1995). Inquiry in education has a long tradition in education going back to John Dewey (Dewey, 1991). Joyce and Calhoun (1995) promote schools “where faculties continuously examine and improve teaching and learning, and where students study not only what they are learning in the curricular sense, but also their own capability as learners” (Joyce & Calhoun, 1995).

A term that is central to this study and the work with the students is quality learning. Quality learning was given an operational definition for the students at the introduction of the group interviews.

Quality learning is a time when you really understand a skill, idea or concept. Think of things like learning to ride a bike, knowing your times tables, reading your first chapter book, or understanding the phases of the moon. You may learn these things at home from a parent or family member, or in school from a teacher or fellow student.

The students were redefining the concept of quality learning during the interviews and validation of the statements of finding in this study. The UNESCO Education for All Global Report Team differentiates between defining quality learning in absolute and relative terms (UNESCO, 2005). Defining quality learning in absolute terms is compared to some fixed standard that is an outcome measure (UNESCO, 2005). On the contrary is a definition that is relative which “emphasize that the perceptions, experiences and needs of those involved in the learning experience mainly determine its quality”(UNESCO, 2005, p. ii).The conception of quality learning generated by the students is a relative definition of quality learning.

Student Voice is the final term that I wish to define at the outset of this study. Student voice was also given an operational definition at the outset of this study.

Student voice is the active opportunity for students to express their opinions and make decisions regarding the planning, implementation, and evaluation of their learning experiences.

The literature on student voice shows several dimensions to the term. It certainly reflects the idea that students have something to say about schools (MacBeath, Myers, & Demetriou, 2001; Rudduck, Chaplain, & Wallace, 1996; Wasley, Hampel, & Clark, 1997; Wilson & Corbett, 2001); respect for the integrity of what students have to say is important (Cook-Sather, 2002; Fielding, 2001; Oldfather & West, 1999); and it can serve as a means to engage students (Baldwin, 2004; MacBeath, Demetriou, Rudduck, & Myers, 2003; Prieto, 2001).

A Problem of Practice

The school’s involvement with the Carpe Vitam Network served as a catalyst and backdrop to this research study. One of the practices promoted by the Carpe Vitam Network was involving constituents in reflecting on issues of school improvement and planning. Another line of inquiry of the Network is the concept of student voice, students having a meaningful role and involvement in the leadership and planning of a school. As the school became more involved in the network they focused on three strands of inquiry:

  • To gain an understanding of who was academically failing in the school;

  • To engage students more actively in the learning and improvement processes;


  • To discover instructional approaches that would be more effective at involving and engaging students in learning and produce better outcomes.

To that end, the focus of this study was to construct a case history of the school’s involvement in the Carpe Vitam Network over a three-year period of participation. This case history documented the school’s participation in a series of international and national conferences, their collaboration with other schools and universities in the project and the resulting actions taken in the school. This study also documents in-depth the process and result of one of the strands of inquiry, student voice. The work on student voice resulted in a series of group interviews with students where they shared their perceptions of quality learning and what teachers do to create quality learning experiences.

Early in this school’s affiliation with the Carpe Vitam network the issue of students who were not engaged in their learning and failing classes was perceived to be a critical issue. The school, through analysis of their student performance data by a committee of teachers and administrators, had identified a persistent problem of twenty to twenty-five percent of their students failing two or more core classes (Rogers, 2003). This pattern had been consistent for over five years. One of the questions that emerged from the work with the Carpe Vitam network was: “How can we engage more students in their learning, particularly those that appear to be in a pattern of failure?”

Realizing that approximately twenty-five percent of the students in the school were failing two or more core academic classes over the last five years (Rogers, 2003) provided the impetus to a deeper examination of what was happening in the school and classrooms. A deeper understanding of where this pattern of failure was leading and some of the reasons for the failure was a goal of the inquiry. One of the most defined and widely studied groups of students who are perceived as failing is dropouts. In reviewing studies and reports on dropouts, students who are in a pattern of failure in middle school, failing multiple classes for more than one term, are at high risk of dropping out (Roderick, 1993; Shannon & Bylsma, 2003). An excellent source of information about why students drop out is the students themselves. Some of the specific reasons students cited for dropping out are listed:

Table 1: National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 First Follow-up Study





School related (% of students citing reason):

Did not like school




Could not get along with teachers




Could not get along with students




Was suspended too often




Did not feel safe at school




Was expelled




Felt I didn't belong




Could not keep up with school work




Was failing school




Changed school, didn't like new one




Job related:

Couldn't work and go to school at same time




Had to get a job




Found a job



Family related

Had to support family




Wanted to have family




Was pregnant



Became parent




Got married




Had to care for family member





Wanted to travel




Friends dropped out




(NCES, 1990)

Students cited not liking school, failing school and not getting along with teachers as the three most frequently cited reasons for dropping out. These three were certainly relevant to the concerns and questions raised about student failure at the school in this study. The school’s inquiry into students who were in a pattern of failure gave insight and understanding for action to prevent student failure.

The school examined what instructional approaches might lead to increased success for all students. The development of pedagogies such as constructivism and authentic pedagogy was a central part of this school’s effort to improve the dynamic and relationship between students, teachers and content (Newmann, Wehlage, & Lamborn, 1992; Perkins, 1999; Scherer, 1999) These efforts relate to students’ attitude towards school, learning and relationship with teachers that are contributing factors to students who eventually drop out. These three factors are also centrally located in the classroom. Students spend the majority of their school day in the classroom. The interaction between students and teachers primarily occur within the context of the classroom. This study viewed what occurs in the classroom as the primary unit of analysis due to these factors.

Inquiry into Instructional Improvement

The school believed that improving learning opportunities and instructional practice was a means to different outcomes for students. The classroom was the setting for the changes necessary to improve learning outcomes. The strand of inquiry around the improvement of instructional practice was seen as a vehicle to improvement. In examining schools that were high performing Haycock and Chenoweth (2005) report that schools “choose to improve. Then they started asking questions about the whys underneath their achievement data and began making changes in policy and practice necessary to get better results” (Haycock & Chenowith, 2005). The school had chosen to engage in collective inquiry around instructional improvement as a result of learning that occurred in the initial Carpe Vitam conference (Joyce & Calhoun, 1995). The inquiry into instructional practice was not occurring in isolation. It was intertwined with the inquiry into failing students and student voice.

Research Questions

The primary research question of the study was:

  • How did students perceive quality learning and what teachers did to create it in the classroom?

There are supporting research questions that examined:

  • What led this school to consider student voice as a means to greater involvement of students in their learning and school improvement?

  • How student perceptions of voice and involvement in learning varied?

  • Was there evidence linking the efforts of the teaching staff to improve learning in the classroom that was observable to the students?

Theory of Action

Student voice in this research project was intended to serve as a medium or bridge to a changed role, relationship and outcome for students. Nieto uses the metaphor of a bridge to describe how teachers can be effective with students of diverse backgrounds (Nieto, 1999). The bridge allows students to go places in their learning that they were unable to before. Student voice can serve as a bridge to deeper learning and understanding and different outcomes for students. Figure 1 illustrates, using the bridge metaphor, student voice and the supporting structures necessary for it to create more powerful learning for students:

Figure 1: Student Voice as a Bridge to Learning
If student voice is a bridge, then what is the result of greater voice in the matters of a classroom and school? Ideally, student voice would result in greater engagement:

Although students have a lot to say about schools and learning, their perspectives frequently are not sought. Listening to students can reveal whether they perceive schools as responsive or unresponsive to them and why. Students’ views have important implications for educational reform because their insights can prove to be important for developing meaningful, liberating, and engaging educational experiences. (Nieto, 1999, p.123)

This research project is aims to cast the students in a different role than they have traditionally held in the study school. The principal and school staff was committed to finding active roles for students in the learning of the school at the classroom level. This involved determining ways to actively engage students in a new, more featured role. The Carpe Vitam Leadership for Learning Network was designed to address this dynamic and reconsidering underlying principles and beliefs that guide our actions:

Our concept of leadership is democratic rather than hierarchical. While naturally including school principals we see it as extending to teachers, students, and to others who may play a role in making their schools better places for learning. Our concept of learning is a democratic one. We see learning as shared enterprise, as crossing the boundaries of classrooms and subjects and traditional divisions between “teachers” and “learners” (MacBeath, 2002, p.1).

Recasting students’ roles and relationship to their learning and their teachers is one of the principles that emerged strongly in the study site as a result of their involvement in the Carpe Vitam Network. How much involvement and power a student has is dependent, to a large extent, on the willingness of the adults within the school to share or relinquish power and influence to students. Students can tend to be relegated to more passive roles. Enhancing, or changing entirely, students’ position of power would require changes in the roles, relationships and activities within the classroom and school.

The context for the changing of this relationship is firmly embedded in the learning community2. How a learning community functions has a tremendous influence on all participants’ learning. Greater inclusion of students as full members of the learning community has the potential to contribute to better outcomes for students. I believe that attending to the conditions and nature of students’ involvement in a learning community has important potential for creating meaningful learning.

My theory of action rests on an inclusive community working together towards a common learning-centered goal. Included in this theory of action is the idea that inclusion of students rather than exclusion or marginalization creates more powerful and equitable learning opportunities for students. The theory of action also presumes certain things about the communication pathways that need to be developed to allow for learning-focused interaction within the community.

Informing Literature

It is an adjustment for students and teachers to function in this type of learning community. How the learning community is conceived and functions express underlying values about the role of students. Another significant aspect of a powerful learning community is a focus on learning rather than a primary focus on teachers’ action. A framework that elaborates what this would look like is the learner-centered community model(McCombs & Whisler, 1997). A learner-centered community is defined in this way:

Generally this means that (1) learners are included in educational decision-making processes, whether those decisions concern what learners focus on in their learning or what rules are established for the classroom; (2) the diverse perspective of learners are encouraged and respected during the learning experiences; (3) the differences among learners’ cultures, abilities, styles, developmental stages, and needs are accounted for and respected; and (4) learners are treated as co creators in the teaching and learning process, as individuals with ideas and issues that deserve attention and consideration. (McCombs & Whisler, 1997, p.11)
This description shows several critical elements to the idea of a learning community. It identifies meaningful involvement, a focus on learning, respect for individuals and their differences, and a changed relationship between students and teachers. This ongoing learning for the staff and students is a means to a deeper understanding of the work, function, and purpose of schools. McCombs and Whisler (1997) identify many of the practices that create this type of learner focused experience:

Students are challenged, are given an explanation of what is expected, have choice and control, may work cooperatively with others, see activities as personally interesting and relevant, believe that they have the personal competence to succeed, believe that they are respected and that their opinions are valued, have individualized attention to personal learning preferences and needs, are trusted to be responsible for their own learning, and have some input into what standards and methods will be used to evaluate their learning (p.33).

Postmodern Community

Traditionally, we have defined community to be “based in commonalities – the shared values, “visions”, and purpose typically mentioned in the education literature.” (Furman, 2002, p.59) This view of community is not sufficient to the task of creating quality learning. Furman (2002) describes a different view of community that serves as a new model of what a school learning community could be:

Postmodern community is a community of difference. It is based on the ethics of acceptance of otherness with respect, justice, and appreciation, and on peaceful cooperation within difference. It is inspired by the ‘global community’ metaphor of an interconnected, interdependent web of people and cultures. It is fostered by processes that promote among its members the feelings of belonging, trust of others, and safety (p.61).
This concept of a postmodern community captures a fundamentally different purpose for the community. It accepts difference without attempting to homogenize the community. It is important to expand this definition of community to be inclusive of students as well. This type of community features inclusion and validating a student as a unique and worthy member of the community (Dei, 2003; Furman, 2002). Creation of these types of learning communities would involve students as active participants in the larger learning community.

Instructional Pedagogies that Promotes Voice and Involvement

The notion of an inclusive community can extend to the instructional pedagogy of the school as well. Pedagogies that involve students more in their learning would be reflected in communities that feature greater student voice and involvement. Both constructivism and authentic pedagogy purport to change the relationship between teachers, students, and the learning experiences in the classroom. Students need to actively engage with each other, the content, and the teacher to create and demonstrate understanding. Students and teachers are often co-learners in a constructivist or authentic classroom (Gardner, 1993; Newmann et al., 1992; Perkins, 1999).

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