How to Uplift Student Voice and Build Agency
The courage to take initiative and voice our opinions is crucial for success in the world beyond schooling. Yet most K-12 students don't always get a say in how their education is delivered. When we invite students to take agency over their learning, engagement soars. And so does the speed of learning.
The pandemic impacted us all—from health concerns to abrupt shifts to remote learning—and students showed a remarkable ability to bounce back from adversity. As we move deeper into this new school year, let's help students not only bounce back but become active participants in their learning. Listening to their perspectives and amplifying student voice is one way to achieve both of these aims.
Why we need to listen more closely to our students
The Center for American Progress defines student voice as input from students on topics from curricula to school policies to school improvement. Student voice is most effective when students work in partnership with teachers and school leaders to create meaningful change in their school community and the broader education system.
Acclaimed educators Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey assert that "the amount of talk students do is correlated with their achievement." When we invite students to voice their opinions—and we take them seriously—students experience a surge in self-confidence. When students feel confident, they ask for what they need to meet learning objectives. When students feel this sense of agency, they play a more active role in their learning, paving the way for higher achievement.
When students feel confident, they ask for what they need to meet learning objectives. When students feel this sense of agency, they play a more active role in their learning, paving the way for higher achievement.
Elevating student voice also benefits the school climate, particularly due to a greater focus on equity and belonging. When school leaders invite students to voice their opinions, adult-student relationships flourish and contribute to positive school culture. Here are four strategies to incorporate more student voice, advance better student outcomes, and improve school culture.
Position students as equal partners in their learning
Getting students more involved in their learning—how it's delivered and the assessment of progress—is a powerful form of student voice. When students become more involved in their education, they assume greater control and responsibility over what they learn and how they learn it.
Personalized learning allows students to tailor aspects of their lessons to their needs and interests. It can be as simple as inviting students to select a topic that interests them for an assignment or using adaptive games and technology platforms that enable students to learn at their own pace. When teachers give students the option to explore issues they care about while also achieving learning targets, school becomes more relevant and engaging. Take a step further by implementing a school-wide policy that offers flexibility in how students demonstrate mastery or earn credit.
Schools that replace traditional parent-teacher conferences with student-led conferences signal to students that their voice matters. Student-led conferences provide opportunities for students to discuss their progress and present ideas on how to overcome any learning challenges they might face. Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. uses this model three times a year as a forum for students to share what they’re most proud of and what they find most challenging as learners.
Engage students in decision-making
Supporting students in decision-making is effective at the classroom and school level. Teachers who employ democratic classroom practices build high-trust relationships and promote inclusion by engaging students in expectation-setting, group decision-making, and sharing diverse perspectives on complex issues. This practice is most effective when democratic problem-solving processes are supported at the school level as well.
Teachers who employ democratic classroom practices build high-trust relationships and promote inclusion by engaging students in expectation-setting, group decision-making, and sharing diverse perspectives on challenging issues.
School leaders can support these efforts by engaging with their student councils which are designed to build student leadership skills. The student representatives gather and share student input and serve as liaisons between school administration and students. While many student councils are known for planning activities like spirit week, with the guidance of a faculty advisor or principal, students can learn how to weigh in on important school matters and significantly impact the school climate.
It’s important to remember that student councils typically involve a few select students. So it's vital that school leadership encourage diverse representation to increase the amount of student engagement and elevate the full range of student viewpoints.
Collect and act on student feedback
While student surveys are not new, they can be an effective tool. The degree to which student surveys produce valuable and actionable insights is determined by the goal, the survey design, and how you plan to use the results. Consider conducting a school-wide student survey to capture student opinions on topics that directly affect them like instructional quality, school climate, and perceptions of their influence on and participation in their learning. Their insights might inform the next school-wide decision you and your instructional leadership team make.
As education leaders, we know it works against us to gather feedback and not use it. Student perspectives not only need to be heard; they need to be followed up on with action.
For more qualitative information, consider a student focus group. Cambridge Public Schools used student focus groups to capture feedback about how the district interacted with families. As a result, the district changed what and how it communicates with families who are not native English speakers. Focus groups can support multiple goals, such as immediate feedback on a new school policy or program and even on how the school day is designed.
Antonio Burt, CEO, KIPP Memphis and New Leaders alum, is taking it a step further and implementing regular opportunities for students to have lunch with him as the CEO of their charter school network. “I want to hear straight from them about things we can improve upon, things we’re doing well.” It’s one more way school and district leaders can stay connected to the students they serve.
As education leaders, we know it works against us to gather feedback and not use it. Student perspectives not only need to be heard; they need to be followed up on with action. It's our responsibility to engage with students, make sure they feel listened to, and propel them towards successful learning. Providing professional development to teachers and staff ensures that their efforts not only incorporate more student voice but build a foundation of trust with students as well.
When we consider student feedback to build better learning environments, we get closer to a public education system that expands opportunities to all students and gives them the experiences they need to succeed beyond college and in the workforce.