Four years ago, while a senior in high school, Zak Malamed noticed that the education community had one of the most active conversations on Twitter. Since students were not allowed to use social media while at school, he decided to engage in the conversation on his own time. Malamed tweeted a thought about school equity and awoke the next morning to find former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, debating his tweet.
At least they were listening.
Turns out, there were lots of adults listening. As students from around the world participated in the #StuVoice Twitter chats, politicians, education corporations, reporters, teachers and parents all joined the conversation. From a hashtag, a new nonprofit organization called Student Voice (stuvoice.org) emerged, the main purpose of which is to integrate student voices into the conversation about education.
Other organizations, education leaders and individuals – both students and adults – have joined Student Voice in its efforts, and the result has been an outright social movement. Last March, Student Voice held the first-ever national conversation about student rights in Austin, Texas. In November, the White House held a summit on Next Generation High Schools and asked Student Voice’s National Field Director Andrew Brennen, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; and Dawnya Johnson, a freshman at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, to speak.
The nation seems ready to listen.
A novel idea?
Giving students a voice in their education seems like a no-brainer. After all, who spends more time in school than students?
Of course, there are some traditional places where students are given representation, such as student councils. And some school boards include a student representative. But most of the time, these opportunities are symbolic and while a student may be at the table, they are rarely given a vote.
The founder of another student-created organization, TakingITGlobal, Michael Furdyk, says the problem is partly cultural. As a society, we believe that adolescents need structure and instruction. We are accustomed to seeing the teacher as the holder of knowledge.
Furdyk, an iste member who created TakingITGlobal in 1999 when he was a senior in high school, turned that idea on its head. He found himself concerned about many of the world’s problems at a time when technology was just entering the classroom and decided to use that technology to create a student-led global response to these problems.
“It struck me when you connect people together, they feel like they’re part of something much bigger,” says Furdyk. Through connecting students online who are passionate about a particular problem, TakingITGlobal empowers students to understand and act on the issues.
Furdyk says that thanks to the internet, knowledge has been decentralized. Now, a resourceful student can gather just as much as the teacher. Fifteen years ago it was more difficult for a student to become an authority on a subject. This makes for a relatively recent cultural shift.
In this new age, it’s important to remember the potential young people have always had to create change. Some of our biggest inventions have come from youth (including television, which was invented by a 14-year-old, and the grain reaper, invented by 15-year-old), yet the traditional educational system still places caps on students by limiting their power over their own education.
“How are we going to create the next Google, YouTube or other economic engine,” he says. “Not from structure, but from creativity. Give students the opportunity to dream and explore and create the next big ideas.”
Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, is one example of a student who was a powerful agent of change, says Student Voice’s Malamed. “We don’t expect enough of our young people,” he says. “Even though there’s evidence across the world and the course of history that students have a great ability to impact global issues.”
Why student voices matter
There’s a reason, continues Malamed, that so many education policies don’t work. “We’re not engaging a major stakeholder,” he says. “If students know what’s working and what’s not working before anyone else, why aren’t we at the table?”
Angela Maiers has spent her career listening to students. She started out as a kindergarten teacher and says 5-year-olds taught her a lot about the human need to be heard. “We are born to make an impact,” she says, “to be a 5 year old who says, ‘Hi, I’m Jack and I’m a dinosaur expert.’”
She is the author of a Ted Talk, “You Matter,” and the founder of Choose2Matter, a group that promotes the idea that when people believe they are counted on, their actions and consequently, their lives, change. Choose2Matter has developed a curriculum that helps schools instill a culture of mattering and presents live events in school districts all over the country. Maier’s free ebook, Liberating Genius in the Classroom, is a toolkit for teachers who want to empower students.
“The greatest gap in American education,” says Maiers. “is the underestimation of student genius and their capacity to contribute. We don’t see students as agents of impact.”
When Maiers works with students, she asks them to remember what it was that made them run to school when they were younger. “They don’t say, ‘I would run to school if they had iPads.’ They say, ‘I used to run to school because someone noticed me, said my name, challenged me.’ This is not about self-esteem. This is about a deep human need to be recognized.”
Tamir Harper, a sophomore at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia (led by founding principal and longtime iste member Chris Lehmann), agrees. “Whenever lawmakers are discussing education, they should have a seat at the table for the youth,” says Tamir. “The decisions don’t affect the lawmakers, they affect the students in the classroom.
Tamir and his fellow SLA classmate, senior Stephanie Dyson, attended the Lead & Transform Town Hall, a leadership forum at ISTE 2015. When another debater fell ill, Stephanie was pulled in to represent the student viewpoint in a debate about including computer science in schools. She says the room was “ginormous” and at first she was, “Mic’d up and freaked out!” But she rose to the challenge and left feeling that she had been part of an important event.
“It was monumental that [ISTE] included students in a discussion about students,” she says. “We are told and asked to do so many things. Expectations are created for us, but we don’t get to weigh in.”
Stephanie points out that students have firsthand knowledge about what they need in school. Data can tell you some things, she says, “but when you hear a personal voice about how students feel about their own curriculum, teachers and adults get a very different picture.”
TakingITGlobal’s Furdyk says his own research has shown that if students feel shared ownership over learning, they are more likely to pursue it vigorously. “When we see education systems fail, it’s where that system hasn’t been developed in consultation with people,” he says. “The best systems foster a sense of purpose and ownership.”
Promoting student voice
Maiers reminds us that listening to students doesn’t have to be a big deal. In fact, it’s better if it’s just standard operating procedure in big ways and small ways. For instance, give students a say in how the classroom desks are arranged or truly listen and respond to student feedback. “It doesn’t have to be some big White House-level thing,” she says. “The possibility for revolution already exists in our classroom.”
For schools who want to actively promote their commitment to student voice, Furdyk and TakingITGlobal have created a certification program called Future Friendly Schools. The program, which offers e-coursesfor educators, asks schools to demonstrate their commitment to global citizenship, environmental stewardship and student voice. The student voice portion requires demonstration in five areas:
Learning Environment. Do students have a voice in shaping and designing the environment they learn in? School Culture. How do students evolve the school’s culture? School Policy. Are students at the table and allowed a vote on policy? Student Leadership. Are students given leadership opportunities? Student-Directed Learning. How does the average educator in the school allow the student to shape what they’re learning?
Furdyk is working with almost 20 schools all over the world, including in Canada, Uzbekistan and Mexico, and hopes to grow to more than 100 schools this year. In the u.s., Student Voice has launched a tour to coincide with the presidential election. Representatives are visiting schools across the country to promote a Student Bill of Rights
Sla’s Tamir Harper was part of the Philadelphia event in February. Students are asked to vote online for their top three choices out of eight rights, including free expression, right to technology, right to safety and well-being, due process and more. Schools will certify the results of their students’ votes and will set goals based on those results. In cooperation with Student Voice, the administrators, teachers and students will work together to implement the goals. Student Voice is currently looking for schools to visit and engage during the tour.
“The power of this project,” says Malamed, “is that we’re building the student voice narrative while also helping schools figure out how they can involve students. Ideally, this platform won’t be needed in 10 years because students will be a part of every single committee that makes decisions regarding schools and learning environment.”
Standards refresh recognizesstudent voice
Student voice is also impacting the refresh of the iste Standards for Students. For the first time, students were asked to provide input as part of the public comment period that ended March 31. The refreshed student standards, which will be unveiled during iste 2016 in Denver, will reflect student viewpoints.
“What’s emerging in the new standards is an empowered learner,” notes Carolyn Sykora, senior director, iste Standards. “For a very long time, knowledge was filtered through teachers and textbooks. Now students have access to experts, data, others who share their passions and ways to engage. Learning and opportunity are at their fingertips. The refreshed standards give students the skills to take advantage of these opportunities.”
Students need the skills, knowledge and dispositions to enable them to process and properly capitalize on the vast amount of information they have access to, Sykora adds. “With great opportunity comes a need for skills and the responsibility to take advantage of it.”
Leaders of today
Activism and social justice have always inspired students to take on leadership roles. Furdyk sees this every day through TakingITGlobal.
Likewise, SLA’s Stephanie Dyson has been using her voice for change since she was a freshman in high school. She and other students at SLA got together to protest budget cuts in their district. During a school day, they walked to the district to strike in support of their teachers. The district listened and a budget was approved.
Stephanie’s experience at the iste conference reinforced her belief that students deserve to be heard. “While our voice is often dampened, it’s important we continue to speak up,” she says. “iste has people from ... all over the world who want the same goal, a better future for people my age. iste builds a pathway for that kind of change to happen.”
Through Choose2Matter, Maiers sees students take up the call to leadership with great success. The organization offers opportunities for students to participate in community board meetings so constituencies can see old problems with new eyes. Recently, students participated in a hospital board meeting and listened to some of the issues doctors and nurses were struggling with. The students came up with four pages of insights and ideas in an hour, whereas the board had been asking these questions for years. Students are not just leaders in waiting, she says. They are ready to lead.
“The underlying success of student voice is that it changes the way people think about students,” she says. “So many people, including teachers, think students are future problem-solvers. This diminishes their full capacity to contribute today. Kids know the difference when they’re being treated as token voices. I see them as leaders, innovators, makers of impact. ‘You are a genius and the world needs your contribution.’ When that is an actionable statement, not an inspirational statement, it is profound what students are able to accomplish.”
Jennifer Snelling is a freelance writer living in Eugene, Oregon.