Students’ voices, democratic schooling and inclusion

Hugh Busherpost by HUGH BUSHER
School of Education, Leicester University

Engaging with students’ voices by listening to the multiplicity of their views on learning and teaching helps teachers to construct learning communities and to tune teaching and learning activities to the social and cognitive needs of students. In giving students some ownership of the educational processes by engaging in dialogues about the limits of choice in constructing teaching and learning to achieve curriculum objectives, in particular socio-economic and policy contexts, teachers encourage students to develop positive and pro-active identities as learners. These discourses demonstrate teachers’ respect for students and help students understand educational decision-making processes, as well as allowing them the opportunity to raise critical questions about those processes, developing and enhancing their skills as citizens and preparing them for adult life. Drawing on the critical educational perspectives of Foucault, Spivak, Freire and Ball and those of Wenger and Holliday, and on three studies of student voices conducted by the author with colleagues between 2006 and 2011 in Primary and Secondary schools in England and Lebanon, the following perspectives emerge:

First, listening to the multiplicity of student voices will help schools to improve their practice if only to meet the performative demands made of them. Capturing the multiplicity of student voice, by School Council, Year group council, or in each classroom may be difficult, as the teachers in the Lebanese study testified . Doing so, however, results in enthusiastic and engaged students who enjoy learning. This, itself, makes easier classroom and school management and helps students and schools, even in economically and socially disadvantaged areas, to gain a wide range of achievements.

Second, student perspectives on schooling help teachers to reflect on their own practices and can help senior and middle level leaders identify programmes of professional development that will help staff and students to work together more collaboratively and successfully.

Third, student voices raise challenging questions about appropriate cultures for schools, but seem to indicate particular cultures that closely resemble those associated with improving schools. This culture is founded on values of mutual respect and collaboration between teachers and students, of the sort found in Rights Respecting Schools, and is central to students’ successful learning and the development of their understandings of citizenship for a democratic society.

Fourth, recognition that students have a legitimate voice demands that students are respected as people, not merely as units of output by which to measure school performance. As participating members of a school community and the various learning communities in it, as well as of different social communities outside school, students have part-ownership of a school and a respected and acknowledged part to play in negotiating its culture and practices along with the teachers, support staff and other stakeholders in it, such as parents. This implies that staff have to work with students as fellow members of these learning communities in schools and classrooms despite the asymmetrical power relationships between them. It leads to a positive view of democratic schooling focused on leadership, trust and respect, serving purposeful collaborative communities whose members pursue the construction of learning together.

A version of this discussion was first presented at ‘First International Conference on Reimagining Schooling’ The University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki, Greece, 28th – 29th June 2013.