How the Student Voice Can Make Education Better

Young Couple Sitting with a Pile of BooksHow can school be better?  Student answers: “More practical courses (like consumer math, finances, life skills)“, “Internships and real-world experiences“, “Students grouped not by age, but ability and interest“, “High expectations but more freedom” and “Meaningful work [with a] purpose; no more busy work; students need to be able to make connections (esp[ecially] to real-world)”. Student responses in class, IB Theory of Knowledge, as recorded in a teacher’s blog post, FutureSchool: A Teen’s Perspective.

I wrote in my last post about a vision for the future of education—Sal Khan’s vision of a One World Schoolhouse. It seems the education community didn’t take him seriously, reviews were mixed on his idea for reforming K-12 and higher education. Khan proposes K-12 classrooms not be formed on ages or grades, but a mix of students working collaboratively, with opportunities for hands-on [practical] learning. Khan’s view includes setting the bar high for all students, and giving college students real world experience through meaningful internships. Which is why when I read the student comments in the blog post mentioned above, I was intrigued—what students want in education was almost identical to Khan’s vision for education. This got me thinking about the voice of students. Students are perceptive and intelligent. Yet in discussions about education reform, students are often overlooked, not included, or at least not integrated in the process. Their voices are muffled, perhaps even moderated. Furthermore, students rarely have the opportunity to identify factors contributing to real-world problems, to explore and analyze solutions.

Value of the Student Voice
The student voice as mentioned, is garbled at best, which is [unfortunately] a sign of an institution-focused education system. Which brings me to the purpose of this post, to highlight the value of the ‘student voice’ and provide suggestions on how to include students in the reform process. I’ll also share recent sound bites of student voices from recent events in higher education venues.

Stakeholders in Education
Students have a significant stake in the education system, in terms of their time, energy, intellectual development and money. They are primary stakeholders, where stakeholders are defined as individuals or entities who stand to gain or lose from the success or failure of a system or an organization. Other primary stakeholders include faculty, administrators, and government bodies, depending upon the type of institution. There is an outer circle of stakeholders in higher education that includes its surrounding community, businesses, and the vendors and suppliers of products and services that support the institution. K-12 institutions have another unique set of primary and secondary stakeholders that differs from higher education, though the student is still central.

Group of teenage students enjoying outside.The Problem Solving Process
As stakeholders, students have the potential to be a valuable resource in all phases of the reform process. The process, ideally should include not just solutions but steps to address the problem in its entirety:

1) identifying the purpose of  education in the 21st Century.
2) determining the current problem(s) and barriers to achieving the identified purpose.
3) developing alternatives and finding solutions.

Who better than students to describe the school experience, identify what doesn’t work and why, describe what they need to learn and aren’t, explore options for a revised experience, and evaluate alternatives.  I’m speaking here of high school and young adult college students. It is these stakeholders who are experiencing first hand the education provided, and are the ones that are failing, frustrated, dropping out of college and high school, are not prepared for college, are bored, and/or can’t find a job. However, even successful students are perceptive enough to identify with the challenges many of their peers are facing.

The Student Voice in Higher Ed
Granted, some organizations do try to include students in the reform process. Just last month for instance, the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, whose mission is to ‘grow access and success by eliminating unnecessary hurdles to affordability in higher education‘, hosted a day long event with key players [terminology from their website] in California’s higher education system. The event, Re:boot California Higher Education purpose was to bring together a group of stakeholders [policymakers, faculty, politicians, students and representatives from Coursera and Udacity] and discuss key issues regarding the potential for online education and lower the costs for higher education.

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Image from Twenty Million Minds website featuring the Key Players at the event

However, student contribution was minimal. The agenda devoted fifteen minutes to three students speaking of their school experience. The fifteen minutes represented 5% of time allocated to discussion on these issues. Hillary Hill one of the three, spoke as the voice of thousands of students in the California public higher ed system. Hill spoke of the online course she took from a local community college, which apparently was the only way she could get the prerequisite needed to transfer into her major (Selingo, 2013). Hill shed light on the fact that classes are over-crowded, which is delaying time to graduation. I’m not sure this was the most effective use of students time or talent, to state the obvious. Alas, this symposium, like many similar events, featured much discussion, and no action (Watters, 2013).

Another significant event, which occurred recently, the meeting to create a Learner Bill of Rights for Learning in a Digital Age, was most irksome in that it included not one student, but a group of twelve: educators, technologists and journalists including Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity and instigator of the event. The goal of the meeting was quite noble “to inspire an open, learner-centered dialogue around the rights, responsibilities, and possibilities for education in the globally connected world of the present and beyond” (Lederman, 2013.)  It was a significant omission [bordering on arrogance] not to include any students in the discussion, which negates the value of this document altogether.

Suggestions for Integrating Students in Problem Solving
I don’t have the answers for transforming education, though I see the potential that lies in student voices that is going unheeded for the most part. This post is meant to encourage readers to consider how students might be part of the bigger picture of education transformation, and problem solving in general. Perhaps strategic analysis and planning skill development needs to be integrated into the curriculum that will teach students to be effective problem solvers. Students would benefit from learning how to identify and analyze  problems and the effects. Perhaps even engage students in real world problems, create teams that work with businesses or organizations where students work together to develop and implement viable solutions. An example of a real-world, hands-on team approach was in the course Designing a New Learning Environment. Though team participants represented a spectrum of ages and professions, college-age students were among the many who contributed.

Students can be part of the solution to transform education, they can identify and analyze problems, provide alternatives and explore solutions. All too often the voice of the student goes unheeded. My hope is that students don’t give up on higher education institutions, will contribute to finding a way to keep education relevant and meaningful for the 21st century, but that goes both ways.