There are many variables that contribute to a meaningful education for students and much of the direction and decision-making for schooling often comes from researchers and experts who have examined these variables. While there are many contributing factors to the learning environment such as: quality instruction and assessment, sharp focus on curricular outcomes, collaborative practice among teachers, brain research, and theories of physical and cognitive development, the voice of students needs to be an important part of this dialogue.
In a jurisdiction with seven communities, and thirteen schools stretching over a hundred km we had to determine an effective way to listen to students. Ultimately it was decided to have principals select a small number of students representing grades 7 – 12 and bring them together to a meeting. Three trustees, three school administrators and two central office administrators joined together with 24 students to ask questions, and listen to what students had to say about their learning experience. Since it was the student voice we really wanted to tap into, we deliberately reduced the number of adults in the conversation by having only one adult at each table, with a role to facilitate and encourage the students to engage in dialogue on this topic and to focus on listening, clarifying, and recording what was discussed as opposed to “instructing” the students on their experiences with teaching and learning.
What we discovered was that students have a lot to share about their experience. Using their cell phones, they were able to anonymously post their views on student issues on the big screen in the room. This lead to focused conversation about schooling and the learning environment they are part of. They were candid about the complexities of social interaction that can lead to bullying, the effective and less effective strategies that their teachers use, and solutions to some of the age-old problems in classrooms. It was refreshing to see the resilience and stamina of students who are navigating in their world with determined vision and confidence. They are fully aware of the challenges and opportunities before them. Each of the trustees in attendance indicated that it was among the most meaningful experiences a trustee can have.
These student engagement sessions now occur 3 times per year in order that the student voice can be consistently and deliberately heard as an integral piece of the total conversation around education.
This column by Ken Sommerfeldt originally ran in the Lethbridge Herald in February 2016 as part of the Eye on Education series, which features submissions from school superintendents across southern Alberta.