The student perspective on matters of education
Student responses to what goes on in classrooms can provide valuable insight and demonstrate the obvious, that having been ‘schooled’ since 4/ 5 years old students actually have a lot of experience in terms of what makes for a good learning experience. A student perspective can enlighten, animate and inject a different dynamism of energy. The vitality of young interested minds: if you show interest you get interest back. Magic formula.
Student Voice; Student Action Research
What make students underachieve, give up, fail to try? As Equality & Diversity Coordinator , I set up discussions around these questions with the student E&D group. Their immediate responses included things like: Why would you try if you felt alienated, or if teachers felt ‘unreachable’ to you and/or if teachers didn’t know who you were , didn’t even remember your name? Why would you ever approach a teacher if you were struggling in their subject or wanted to get some clarity about a particular bit of the lesson that you couldn’t follow if the teacher was unapproachable ? There are teachers who are more interested in their subject than their students. Where are the places and spaces for connecting to teachers and each other as students outside of classrooms? What about putting more thought into when and where tutorials happen ? Is a science lab a good space for student / teacher ‘pastoral’ interaction- with benches and Bunsen burners ..? Time- tabling of tutorials – first thing in the morning? Joke! 16 /17 year olds recently ‘released ‘ from school will duck and dive – tutorial seen as an easy miss…because…Find better ways of communicating was one of the loudest messages.
Creating a culture of dialogic pedagogy
We started a culture of dialogic pedagogy ( http://dialogicpedagogy.com/what-is-dialogic-pedagogy/ ) in the college. This became the focus of our Student Action Research Project. I heard about the Student Voice work at Sussex University, under Michael Fielding (click here to find out more http://oro.open.ac.uk/10365/). I got in touch with him and his team. The work I was doing as Equality & Diversity Coordinator included a core of students as part of the ‘steering group’. They became the ‘Student Voice’ group in the college. Michael Fielding/Sussex University provided the training on research methods. The Principal showed an active interest, he came along to Student Voice meetings reasonably regularly and talked to students about their research. It was crucial we had his support. We went to training sessions at the university. It was fantastic to take students to an HE environment. Our students eventually decided to focus their research on ‘ what makes a good teacher?‘ To elicit student responses they used a variety of research methods including : formal survey questionnaires; interviews; focus groups of random samples of students and 1-1 ‘conversations’ in the canteen following the same lines of inquiry and using visual images (photos they had taken around college in carefully selected contexts) to elicit further responses; invitation to graffiti in response to ideas on posters put on toilet doors . Students were also trained to observe lessons (controversial) and became ‘dual’ observers alongside teachers. All of this offered differently illuminating insight.
Student consultation became ‘the energising norm’
Student research findings were written up in an Annual Student Voice Report. I continued ‘coordinating’ this work (as ‘Student Voice Coordinator‘) over a 3 year period. Each end of year findings were disseminated by the student researchers through presentations given to whole staff, to governors and on occasions they were invited to wider ‘Student/Pupil Voice’ conferences to share their work. Each report was concluded by recommendations for change based on the findings. These were then addressed by Senior Managers, Governors, the Principal. Changes did start to happen. For example, time-tabling was changed to ensure tutorials were sandwiched between curriculum subjects. College culture shifted, students had a ‘slot’ in our staff meetings, students became involved in designing the subject content of the tutorial programme and the student induction process – their insight proved invaluable. The student common room was designed differently and when new buildings were in process students were consulted re the designs. Conversations happened more as a matter of course between students and teachers about the experience in the classroom. The importance of this was made explicit by the research process. There is no holy grail that teachers can hold close and that can serve to make them aloof from students. Teachers have important professional expertise and knowledge, yes. But there is a central understanding in all of this. All of us in education keep on learning. That’s the trick and where success lies. The worst teachers (and students) are those who are fixed in their thinking and their practice.
Student-led CPD- one of the best days of my teaching-life!
By way of an INSET – students led a ‘professional development ‘ day. It was one of the most brilliant experiences of my teaching life. Some teachers did not delight in the role reversal and were uncomfortable with it, some were totally hostile to the entire idea. The majority were good with it and by the end many responded positively expressing how this had been the best CPD training they had ever attended, it had made them rethink their teaching role and countenance possible changes they could bring about to help improve things. The ‘engineering ‘ of the day was very much guided by the expertise of the Sussex University Student Voice team and was planned over weeks, after much discussion and training. No mean feat for students to ‘lead’ teachers. The training day consisted of:
- Teachers were organised into groups and participated in student- directed activities re: what can we as teachers learn from students; what do students bring to the teaching and learning process; what do staff bring to the teaching and learning process.
- Students presented their research findings in role play scenarios they constructed as well as delivered presentations explaining their project work and intentions
- Teachers were again organised into groups and directed by student researchers ( in every group) to respond to areas of concern as identified in their research process: the tutorial system/process – effectiveness of ‘dialogue’ and sense of ‘group identity’; the teaching and learning process (methods that work, peer lesson observation, cross-college peer lesson observation); college structure (opportunities for student involvement , spaces for student/staff dialogue). Groups were then asked to rank areas of concern in terms of priority, this was put on flip chart paper and pinned up around the room, followed by a lively plenary discussion.
This day showed us that you should never underestimate the capacity of young people to go beyond expectations, deliver and impress.
Lighting the flame – for more on Michael Fielding’s work click here : https://www.uel.ac.uk/wwwmedia/microsites/riste/Guest-Author.pdf; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/250151326_EDITORIAL_Putting_Hands_Around_the_Flame_reclaiming_the_radical_tradition_in_state_education?_sg=1m5qvrwfpBpWveWUvP5ACai4fO0K4HzJVjK3nSp50DYq10WRsc9fwQRmB6_PjEokVIzhe9CPMmd-4Wo )
This blog refers to when I was working in a Sixth Form College in Sussex (Haywards Heath Sixth Form College as was ).