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Definitions of Student Voice

SoundOut defines student voice as any expression of any learner about anything, any where, anytime related to learning, schools or education.

For many years, researchers and practitioners defined student voice according to their own intentions for the activities and outcomes. It was often along the lines of student agency and purpose in education, or otherwise a movement towards action and increased abilities for learners. (Mockler & Groundwater-Smith, 2015) This chapter explores different meanings and understandings of student voice, and presents my own definition of the term.

Across the Field

Mitra wrote that student voice is, “the focus on the design, facilitation and improvement of learning.” Similarly, a high school principal in Seattle suggested, “[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.” (Rogers, 2004) One of my longtime allies, Dr. Dennis Harper of the international nonprofit organization GenYes, built a classroom program specifically designed to empower students. In a paper about the topic he wrote, “Student voice is giving students the ability to influence learning to include policies, programs, contexts and principles.” (Harper, 2000)

Researchers have taken the concept in many directions, identifying many implications, ideas and avenues for student voice. One suggested that student voice is “literal, metaphorical, and political”. (Britzman, 1992) This allows us to understand several things: What a student says counts as student voice; What a student does is student voice, and; The meanings behind what students say and do are student voice.

SoundOut’s Definition

In 2004, SoundOut began defining student voice as “the individual and collective perspective and actions of young people within the context of learning and education.” (SoundOut, 2004) After working with the schools I had, I discovered this could include, but is not limited to, active or passive participation, knowledge, voting, wisdom, activism, beliefs, service, opinions, leadership, and ideas. Student voice reflects identity, and comes from a person’s experiences, ideals, and knowledge. As my experiences working to promote student voice expanded, I found that any person who participates in a process of learning, including every single student in every classroom in any grade, has a voice that should be engaged in schools. That means that student voice is for pre-kindergarten students, elementary students, junior high and middle school students, and high school students. It can also come from students of color, low-income students, low-achieving students, high-performing students, ESL/ELL students, special needs students, and gifted students.

Continuing my examination of student voice, I found a variety of literature suggesting that student voice has locations throughout the curriculum (Grace M. , 1999), culture (Mitra, 2003), climate (Libbey, 2004; Galloway, Pope, & Osberg, 2007) the entire education community (Fielding, 2001), and when appropriately dismantling the school/community binary, throughout life in general (Alvermann & Eakle, 2007). Armed with that knowledge, my own experience showed me that since every adult working in education effectively has authority over students, every adult effectively has an ethical responsibility to listen to student voice. (Freire, 1998; Mitra, Frick, & Crawford, 2011) That includes classroom teachers, building leaders, school support staff, school board members, district and state school leaders education agency officials, education policy-makers, curriculum makers, education researchers, and politicians. (Joselowsky F. , 2007) My experience with student voice left my disenchanted though, as many adults seemed pleased to simply listen to student voice and then talk about student voice, reading reports and sitting around fishbowl-style conversations between students. They were not obligated to do anything with student voice, and as much research has shown, this is the norm in this topic. (Mockler & Groundwater-Smith, 2015)

When brought together, these understandings of student voice cast a massive net over a lot of different assumptions, presumptions and biases. The challenge of all of these different perspectives is that none of them holds all the others, and because of that, all of them exclude something else.

More Definitions

Here are some ways others have defined the term.

“[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.”

– Rogers, A. (2005). Student voice: Bridges to learning. Seattle: University of Washington.

“Student voice is giving students the ability to influence learning to include policies, programs, contexts and principles.”

– Harper, D. (2000). Students as Change Agents: The Generation Y Model. Olympia, WA: Generation Y.

“Student voice is formed of the unique perspective of the young people in our schools. It is formed in the same ways that adult voice is; that is, experience and education help students create opinions, ideas, and beliefs to which they give their voice.”

– Fletcher, A. (2004) “Broadening the bounds of involvement: Transforming schools with student voice.”

“The concept of voice spans literal, metaphorical, and political terrains: in its literal sense, voice represents the speech and perspectives of the speaker; metaphorically, voice spans inflection, tone, accent, style, and the qualities and feelings conveyed by the speaker’s words; and politically, a commitment to voice attests to the right of speaking and being represented.”

– Britzman, D. (1989). ‘Who has the floor? Curriculum teaching and the English student teacher’s struggle for voice’, in Curriculum Inquiry, 19(2), 143-162.

“Student voice refers to the values, opinions, beliefs, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds of individual students and groups of students in a school, and to instructional approaches and techniques that are based on student choices, interests, passions, and ambitions.”

The Glossary of Education Reform (2013).

I hope all these definitions of student voice help you understand the depth, breadth and potential of young people in schools. Please share other definitions — including your own — in the comments section below!

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