Incorporating Student Voice into Teaching Practice. ERIC
By John Kordalewski. Originally published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education*
In much of the current discourse on school improvement, great
importance is attached to standards set for schools and statewide testing to
measure how those standards are being met. In this context, ideas about
classroom activity often center around prescribed student performance objectives
that are to be reached (Payzant, 1999). A divergent strain of thinking, however,
persists among many educators, who emphasize the role of student voice in the
teaching and learning process.
In some classrooms, student voices are barely heard; the teacher
monopolizes classroom talk, and knowledge is treated as residing entirely with
the teacher. This is what Paulo Freire (1970) terms "banking" education
(teachers "deposit" knowledge into students' heads) and describes as the
antithesis of teacher-student dialogue. A range of approaches to teaching
highlight the importance of dialogue. Some of these approaches focus on
classroom processes, while others are especially concerned with how students'
cultural identities help to constitute their voices. This digest explores
different ways in which student voices can be heard in a classroom.
NEGOTIATING THE CURRICULUM
Giving students a voice entails more than asking them for periodic comments or
feedback during a lecture (Onore, 1992) - although those measures can break up
teacher monologue and enhance communication. When students have a voice in
classroom processes, they share in decision-making and the construction of
knowledge. The teacher, consequently, becomes a co-learner and facilitator as
well as a source of knowledge.
"Negotiating curriculum" is a means through which students share
authority in the classroom. This can be a structured procedure. Boomer (1992),
for instance, outlines a method in which at the beginning of each unit, teachers
and students ascertain what students already know about the topic, what they
want to find out, how they will find it out, and how they will assess their
accomplishments. Shor (1996), similarly, begins a course by devising the
syllabus in collaboration with the students, and invites student critique of
course activities and content as the semester proceeds. Curriculum can also be
negotiated when students have input as to how they will proceed in particular
activities. This may entail their choosing topics, sources, and media for
individual and group projects (Davenport et al., 1995; Mercado, 1993; Walsh,
1991). It may entail teachers' allowing class discussions to follow emergent
student questions (Dilg, 1999; Levin, 1998) and/or planning future activities
that address those questions.
Such practices are extolled both for their modeling of democracy
and for their value in helping students learn course content and skills. Onore
(1992) points out that the negotiation process promotes student engagement,
exploration, and reflection, all of which are key ingredients to the
maximization of learning. Shor (1996) writes of students coming to occupy the
"enabling center of their educations, not the disabling margins" (p. 200).
Negotiation also helps teachers meet students where students are and thereby
foster learning that builds from students' existing knowledge and ideas.
STUDENT VOICE IN SPECIFIC DISCIPLINES
Specific pedagogies acknowledging the importance of student voice have
developed within particular disciplines. One of the most well-known is the
"writing process" approach to teaching writing (Atwell, 1987; Calkins, 1986).
This approach, as framed by many of its exponents, encourages the emergence of
a written form of student voice: student writers' expression of ideas that
matter to them, and their use of language and style that convey their
engagement. Writing process classrooms are likely to feature a degree of
decentralized control, as student writers make a range of "ownership
decisions" (Rosaen, 1993) - choosing topics, purpose, forms, audience, and
time frames for completion - and provide input to one another.
Gabella (1994) discusses the importance of student voice in
history classrooms. She notes that experienced historians see knowledge as
residing in "the ongoing conversation among a community of inquirers," rather
than in a textbook or teacher (p. 351). For students to learn history according
to this principle, they need classrooms where they have "ample opportunity to
practice the roles of learner and inquirer, the namer of significance, rather
than only receiver of knowledge" (p. 352). Certain kinds of activities -
dramatic reenactments, projects, group work, examination of primary source
documents and works of art - provide such opportunities. When students exercise
their voices in such contexts, they practice and develop a range of advanced
The above discussion suggests ways of deepening students' involvement in the
learning process and furthering their development as writers, historians, and
students in general. It does so without reference to students' cultural
identities. Some observers, however, point to those identities as crucial
dimensions of students' voices. To these observers, voice is not a phenomenon
located entirely within the individual. Rather, an individual's voice reflects
and interacts with community voices. It also reflects one's
socially-constituted life experiences. Walsh (1991) defines "voice" as "words,
narratives, discourses, and stances that help express the dynamics of social
experience and help shape and position the subjective understanding of this
experience within consciousness" (p. viii).
For students who belong to subordinated groups, the honoring of
voice in this sense assumes special significance. When students' community
voices are under represented or devalued in the curriculum, students may feel
silenced in classroom activities. By contrast, a curriculum that presents
students' cultures in a positive light invites students' participation (Sheets,
1995; Ladson-Billings, 1994). Similarly, lessons in which students' everyday
experiences are recognized as sources of knowledge promote the exercise of
student voices - and the academic learning that can result from active
In classrooms that honor student voices in such ways, languages
other than Standard English appear as a resource for learning. Walsh (1991) and
Sheets (1995) describe instances in which Spanish-speaking students' use of
their native language enabled them to perform advanced academic tasks and assume
"expert" roles in classroom interactions. Lee (1991) and Murrell (1993) describe
how linguistic practices common among speakers of Black English Vernacular can
function as scaffolds for children learning to read. Delpit (1998) and Walsh
(1991) discuss how teachers can better assist student learning when they
understand their students' uses of culture-specific modes of expression and
meanings of words. This holds true when facility with Standard English is the
goal of instruction.
Building on what students know, a principle that characterizes
the approaches to curriculum negotiation and dialogic teaching discussed
earlier, is also described by Ladson-Billings (1994) as a key component of
"culturally relevant teaching." In a multicultural context, incorporating
students' knowledge is likely to entail addressing certain relationships within
and outside the classroom. It may mean, for the teacher, transcending one's own
ignorance and biases about forms of knowledge that are not accorded high status
in the dominant culture. It may mean dealing openly with student questions about
race and other topics, about which some teachers are uncomfortable talking
(Jervis, 1996; Dilg, 1999). Furthermore, it may mean providing space for
students' critique of oppressive and discriminatory realities that they perceive
and face (Hamovitch, 1996; Levin, 1998; Walsh, 1991), and assisting students'
development of that critique.
Ultimately, the question for teachers is not simply how to
incorporate student voices into classroom activities, but how to assist in the
growth of those voices. This can entail, along with the kinds of teaching
approaches discussed thus far, creating situations in which students express
their voices beyond the classroom (Mercado, 1993; Torres-Guzman, 1992). Such
situations can include projects in which students take social action around
issues that concern them.
Acknowledging the importance of student voice in the classroom means
acknowledging students' active role in the learning process. Teaching
practices that engage student voices can enhance learning. In the current
public education environment, they may have the added benefit of better
equipping students to meet the standards that have been established by state
test makers and others. They also may provide a source of challenge to the
legitimacy of those standards.
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