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Eight Signs of Student Voice

Edushift is about helping our educational systems become learning systems by moving to a personalized service structure for students. To help understand what this could involve, an Edushift Poll that concluded in November 2018 asked participants to reply to the following statement: “In shifting to personalized service for students, our educational systems need……”


It was found that the responses received could be collapsed into three general themes as follows:

Note how each theme interconnects with the others. That is, resource allocation and structural changes are necessary to address the primary concept behind personalization; namely, addressing the needs and interests of students. Indeed, as articulated by Katharine Prince, that’s what personalized education systems should do - ensure that every child has access to what they want and need at any time.


So, is there a common thread that binds the three themes together? Yes, there is. It may seem obvious, but structural and resource allocation strategies that address the needs and interests of students need to be driven by the information and perspectives of students. Our traditional, industrial era educational systems tend to refer to the information and perspectives of students as “student voice”. But this broadly used term is disconnected from a meaningful and practical application in support of personalized service structures.


What student voice should do is assist the systematic structures that promote reciprocal relationships between students and school staff. These relationships are strengthened when adults are able to listen, respect and respond to what students say and do. In Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton Christensen reminds us that there “are two core jobs that most students try to do every day. They want to feel successful and make progress, and they want to have fun with friends.“ Furthermore, if “you don’t understand what the customer is trying to accomplish, you don’t know what experiences in purchase and use you need to provide.”


In moving forward, it is therefore necessary to re-calibrate how we seek to understand and apply student voice in a meaningful way that will promote the growth of personalized service structures. In short, the systematic processes used to understand and respond to what a student wants and needs should work harmoniously with the systematic processes used to understand and respond to what students, as a collective group, want and need. This begins, as outlined in previous Edushift posts, by understanding that education as a service structure is comprised of three interconnected systems; the classroom, the school and the district level.

Of the three, it is the classroom system that best represents the reciprocal relationships that happen between a student and teachers/support staff to promote engaged learning - founded upon the needs and interests of that student. The classroom system, reliant as it is upon strong student to teacher/support staff relationships, is increasingly using student voice to make a deeper connection through assessment practices. Student voice in this context is manifested through pedagogical documentation, which has a useful meaning to educators and is being transferred to the teaching practice of many classrooms. The growth that is happening in this application of student voice is exciting and inspirational. But we can move faster and deeper by understanding that this specific component of student voice differs from other elements of the personalization process.


Education is more than the purely academic. It is an opportunity for students to engage with other students, build social skills and connect their learning with a larger personal and professional vision. It is therefore critical for learning systems to also respond to student voice that represents groups of students under different and evolving conditions. It is the school system that best represents the reciprocal relationships that happen between students as a collective group and staff. This application of student voice has also seen growth through improvement planning efforts that seek to account for student perspectives through a variety of means including surveys and focus groups.


While the growth that is happening in many classroom and school systems is encouraging, industrial-era education is not designed to easily address student voice from a personalized perspective. The hierarchical structures associated with age-based grade groupings, start and end bell times, course content silos etc., exist in juxtaposition of efforts to build healthy and effective reciprocal relationships. This challenge will increase with the demand and expectation for personalized educational services. As such, it is the district level that has a vital role to play in the use of student voice to support classroom and school systems.


The district level of industrial-era education uses student voice to enhance a status quo interpretation of education service delivery. In contrast, the systematic move to personlized service delivery uses student voice in a deliberate and purposeful way to guide and support the personalized service of classrooms and schools. An increased role of the district level in the application of student voice is founded upon a variety of operational realities as follows:

  • Student information management systems are generally maintained at the district level - this is where access to systematically accurate and timely information occurs,

  • Operational efficiencies can be achieved through a commitment at the district level to support classrooms and schools with student voice data management. As such, classroom and school staffing and resources can remain committed to building and maintaining reciprocal relationships,

  • The district level provides an overreaching view that can support differentiated professional development and resource allocation strategies to ensure the consistent growth of personalized service,

  • A district level understanding of student voice can connect students and staff, virtually and otherwise, from any geographical location based upon commonality of needs and interests. Information from a district level perspective can also help to connect students and staff with external partners,

  • Through an inquiry approach, the district level involvement with student voice can help teaching and support staff to take greater ownership of their own professional growth, and

  • District level perspectives can use student voice to understand what works for individual students and groups of students under specific conditions. This information can then be used to assist similar situations.

The increasingly personalized world we live in is founded upon a systematic structure that manages and responds to client information. While interactions can happen physically, virtually, locally or otherwise, information is managed and applied at a larger district level to assist these potential interactions. Our educational systems have the capacity to make this operational shift. The challenges relate to longstanding traditions about the role of student voice in the development of reciprocal relationships and responsibilities associated with the classroom, school and district level.

Student voice is an opportunity we can choose to accept with intentional purpose. This is less about looking for answers than it is about using feedback to ask questions to maintain a continual cycle of professional growth. It is always remarkable to see the impact that student voice can have when it is transferred in a meaningful way into classroom practice and school action. Reciprocal relationships, founded upon trust, autonomy and mutual respect, build momentum that feeds upon itself. With this in mind, change leaders may wish to reflect upon the following guiding points as they relate to student voice as a driver for the shift to personalized service structures:

  1. Student voice in my district is used from two dimensions; the individual student and students as a collective body.

  2. Professional development in my district is differentiated to account for student voice.

  3. Student voice in my district is received and used to assist the real time needs and interests of students.

  4. Student voice in my district is used to differentiate classroom and school resource allocation strategies.

  5. Collaboration across my school district is assisted by student informed curricular connections.

  6. Students and staff across my district see evidence of stronger reciprocal relationships due to student voice.

  7. The district level of my school district plays an active role in the management and application of student voice.

  8. Students across my district know and appreciate that their needs and interests are being heard.

Our students want to become active participants in educational systems that use their perspectives in meaningful ways. The benchmark for this operational challenge is the personalized service that is rapidly developing in other public and private services. In the longstanding history of education, this interpretation of student voice is a new but necessary reality. We can choose, through deliberate system thinking, to take advantage of this opportunity.


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