With more and more people increasingly jumping on the bandwagons of student voice and student engagement, it is becoming increasingly important to define, refine and understand what it is that we’re talking about. It is equally important to critically examine the assumptions informing a lot of this conversation and action, as well as the implications, impacts and processes throughout.

A lot of well-meaning people are throwing around phrases without really understanding what they are talking about. People are using student voice as a synonym for student engagement. All the while, they are discussing activities that are the exclusive domain of either concept as if they were. That’s all problematic for a few reasons.

Making Meaning

First, it is important to understand that I define student voice differently than most. After studying the concept for a state education agency and launching more than 50 projects nationwide on the topic, I have come to define student voice as any expression of any learner about anything related to education. That could mean a student speaking at a school board meeting, co-writing a curriculum with a teacher, or leading a community-wide forum on schools. But it can also mean students texting the answers to quizzes to each other during class; fighting in the hallways; or smoking behind the school building. All of these are expressions of learners relating to education. This puts bullying in the same league as student government; research in cahoots with graffiting; and dropping out in league with graduating. Each is an expression of student voice. Student voice doesn’t need adults to agree with it, incite it, define it, or appreciate it; it simply is what it is.

The second thing to understand is that after a decade of examining student engagement and examining it in-depth, I came to define it as any sustained connection a learner experiences in the course of education. With that definition, we can understand how student engagement happens through healthy student/adult relationships, as well as through a positive school climate and meaningful coursework. We can also see how particular subjects, methods, attitudes and cultures can foster student engagement. This definition does not reject negative student engagement either, as students can be sustainably connected to stealing, drugs and alcohol, sex, skipping school, or other activities that are not socially acceptable that can occur within a school environment.

By these definitions, it is important to understand that neither student voice or student engagement are inherently positive or negative. Neither is exclusive to activities adults approve of, needs particular platforms in order to exist, or is the exclusive domain of one type of student or another.

However, looking across popularly shared activities, you might think otherwise. Many student voice programs appear homogenized and sanitized as the students who they put forward say things to adults just the ways adults want to hear them, when they want to hear them, and from students they want to listen to. Similarly, many activities designed to foster student engagement are simply those that net adults the results they want to see from students. The education media is regularly promoting classroom-based approaches that get students to do the things adults want them to with the results adults want to see. While this is one form of student engagement, it is not the only one.

The Challenge

The challenge with all this is that it diminishes, negates, and actually serves to silence and stifle authentic student voice. If students are constantly sharing their voices, why aren’t adults simply listening to what they are already saying? Is it that we actually do not want to hear what they are saying right now? It is as if we want to squeeze their genuine concerns into convenient, bite-sized and acceptable blurbs that fit within our agendas. If students are engaged in many things throughout the schooling experience, why aren’t we examining those things for the attributes of learning, teaching and leadership we hope to foster throughout schools? There is so much we can learn from students right now that we are simply ignoring because student voice and student engagement does not currently meet our expectations.

We can do better than this.

I began promoting Meaningful Student Involvement in earnest in 2003. Since then, I have partnered with students and educators around the country to implement this unified theory of student voice across the US and Canada. We’ve developed projects, promoted concepts, built agendas, and implemented policies. That leads me to propose that Meaningful Student Involvement is what so many students and adults are looking for. They want more than tokenized student voice and simplistic student engagement. They want deeper than superficial and more powerful than puff.

I hope you’ll learn more about Meaningful Student Involvement, and I hope this post helped you understand why I say that student voice ≠ student engagement.


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Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook by Adam Fletcher
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Published by Adam F. C. Fletcher

Adam is the founding director of SoundOut. An author, speaker and consultant, he has worked with K-12 schools, districts, nonprofits and others for more than 15 years. Learn more about him at http://soundout.org/Adam

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