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Student Voice, Democracy and 1-to-1

As anyone who's ever talked to a teen can attest, young people have strong opinions about many things, especially about school and their education. Why then is education too often something we do TO them rather than with them? Where is their "voice" in this process?

Recently I heard about a large-scale example of student voice being included in the process of determining what educational policy should be. In Ontario, Canada, every school board is required to include representatives from the local Student Senate, which is composed of student trustees from each high school in the board. The student trustees represent students and ensure that students' ideas and opinions are heard at the school board level. These student representatives have joined together to form the Student Trustee Organization which is, according to their website, "the largest student stakeholder in education and the voice for the student vision" and they act as consultants at the provincial Ministry of Education level. This is probably one of the most ambitious efforts in the world to listen to and heed "student voice" in the development of education policy, and over the years, they have impacted some major school reform efforts.

But student voice can be effective at a more local and even more individual level. A number of schools include students on various decision-making committees throughout the school. Students actively engage in designing and planning curriculum, learning spaces, and other school activities. And the learning experience isn't limited only to the classroom, but can extend to local as well as international issues. Giving students the opportunity to speak up and let their voices be heard whether in the classroom or in service projects, combined with a teacher's pedagogical guidance empowers students and helps them learn invaluable lessons about democracy and how each individual can contribute to society.

The pitfall in adding students to committees is that their participation can be mere tokenism, and their contributions don't really play any role in the final decisions. As Paulo Freire discusses, schools should practice democracy and not just teach it. I recently had the opportunity to hear Deborah Meier speak at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2009 and she echoes Freire's beliefs and sees schools as the one place where all young people can learn what democracy is through the modeling and practice of real democratic decision-making at all levels throughout the school.

What does all this have to do with 1-to-1? One-to-one increases the opportunities to hear and heed student voice. The assistance provided by students becomes almost essential as the learning environment begins to dramatically change. There is no way teachers (or anyone else, for that matter) can know everything, and, particularly when it comes to technology, our students often have more time to experiment and play with the hardware and software than we have. So their advice on how to get started with the technology and also on new ways to represent their ideas is invaluable. As you'll see in our articles below, participating on a student tech support team helps students develop skills that will help them in university and beyond. Providing these opportunities to participate in the design of their learning experiences or in supporting the technology is not only helpful to you but probably the most enduring learning experience they will have in school.

What examples do you have of "student voice" impacting change in the learning environment? What challenges have you had to face? Please share your stories with us here.
September 9th, 2009 @ 3:15PM