The Power of Student Voice
I have dyslexia, ADHD, and depression and I was an outsider socially, athletically, and academically in school from when we started reading out loud in 1st grade through my postdoctoral fellowship. And now my son is experiencing the same thing in 4th grade. I stand for preventing other children from being traumatized by school. That is why I founded Collaboration Nation: to re-imagine and re-make learning in schools to promote Equitable Collaboration through transparent research and transformative professional learning experiences.
In my role as a facilitator with Collaboration Nation, I often find myself standing in front of educators who are sitting around tables, leading professional learning experiences. That relationship tends to suggest a “traditional” teacher-student relationship, with me, the instructor, dispensing wisdom and knowledge to people who know less about the topic.
Of course, as I know quite well from my own educational experience, this model is not the most effective way to reach students, and it’s definitely not the best way of reaching educators. This has been known since the early nineteenth century when Piaget and Vygotsky introduced theories of constructivism, according to which people learn by constructing or building their own understanding and meaning. This is something that most educators can agree on.
It’s been a key part of my work with Collaboration Nation to help move our education institutions away from the traditional teacher-directed or transmission model of learning that drives the continued oppression of anyone who does not fit the mold and toward a learner-centered (see Education Reimagined) facilitation model with discussions and experiences that fully engage all participants as they are all pushed to step out of their comfort zones to grow. This idea is captured by the emerging concept of Equitable Collaboration, which I coined to capture the goal of creating the conditions and competencies needed to cultivate equity within the processes and outcomes of learning—in other words, to ensure that everyone is welcomed and challenged to grow while shared goals are accomplished.
For facilitators and educators to allow space for students to own their learning, it requires us to pull back and hand over control to the learners. This is challenging. Even though I’ve long been aware of the need to relinquish control over the learning that occurs in events I facilitate, I’m still learning. That’s my takeaway from my recent experience co-facilitating a pre-conference workshop called “Bringing Equitable Collaboration to Schools” on June 25, 2019, at the Personalized Learning Leadership Conference, in Pittsburgh.
As described in a blog post, the afternoon event put a spotlight on student voice, demonstrating the importance of making space for students to share their perspectives, and for teachers to be able to listen.
I left the session feeling excited, and even overwhelmed by the power of what those 19 students had shown me—and I wasn’t alone. I heard from one teacher after another how exciting it was to share the room with such bright, thoughtful students, and what a different perspective it offered to engage in professional learning in partnership with these young people, rather than orchestrating their learning experience for them. Student voice has always been an incredibly powerful component in equitable learning, but my experience in the session brought that fact home with renewed force.
As it turned out, however, I was missing something important, and it wasn’t long before I was clued in to what that was--and fittingly enough, it was the students’ themselves who enlightened me.
The young people who brought so much to the session were there because of Dr. Tyra Good, Professor at Chatham and CEO of Good Knowledge Connections. Tyra and I met at several remake learning events in the past, so when she asked to bring her students to the pre-conference workshop at the Personalized Learning Leadership Conference, I was delighted.
After bringing her students to the conference, Dr. Good, in turn, invited me to join her and her group of scholars at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, where local filmmaker Emmai Alaquiva was presenting his newest photography exhibition, “OpticVoices: Roots,” an immersive exhibit that invites viewers to caption photographs via social media. The exhibition focused on four key events: the killing of Antwon Rose, Jr., the Black Lives Matter movement, the Holocaust, and the 2018 shooting at the nearby Tree of Life synagogue. Set against the backdrop of the Holocaust Center’s ongoing exhibits highlighting the history of the Holocaust and its connection to contemporary events, the exhibit brought together the common pain and suffering of African American and Jewish people and was incredibly powerful.
It’s very telling that this was the setting where I first had an opportunity to get to know several of Dr. Good’s students. In that particular space, encountering Emmai’s exhibit as a Jewish person, I came across not as Dr. Lippman, the educator, but as a fellow person--one who was having a powerful experience in the midst of these images, a number of which depicted events that are extremely close to me. Put another way, it was natural for me to open myself up more in that space, and for the students to open up to me.
While I was there, I took the opportunity to speak to as many students as I could, and I asked for feedback on our June 25th session that they had attended. I knew what the students had brought to the experience for me and the many teachers who had expressed their appreciation of the #GOODscholars, but what did the students themselves think about what they’d seen and heard?
Their answers took me by surprise.
Here’s a sampling:
“When I first walked in I thought I didn't fit in with the teachers. I felt as if they overpowered me. The teachers I worked with were super cool”
“When I first got there . . . they weren’t paying me no attention. We were supposed to do icebreaker questions, And no one asked me a question so I got up and left”
“I wanted to leave . . . I felt that they didn’t want us to be there. I got very direct signals from people that made it clear they did not want us there.”
“They should have known we were not there just to sit there and hear them talk about equity. When you’re the black kids … they tried to tell us what we should be saying instead of hearing what we need.”
It was eye-opening, to say the least. If I’m being honest, a lot of what they had to say was disappointing—I would have liked to think they’d enjoyed themselves more, and perhaps felt empowered by the experience.
Personally, it was a struggle to accept these viewpoints, which punctured the good feelings I’d been left with following the conference. But after some reflection, I returned to the conclusion that letting student experience guide the learning process is essential. Nothing could matter more than honoring what the students had told me--and learning from their feedback.
The truth is, I’m still processing what I learned from Dr. Good and her scholars. The reason I wanted to write about it now is that this progression, from standing up before an audience facilitating their experience, to recognizing the importance of student voice in forging their own experiences, to learning and truly hearing how far that experience fell short for the students themselves (and how similar those shortcomings are to what these students experience in the school system year in and year out)—this journey is exactly the one that inspired me to write this blog post. It’s also the kind of experience that is fueling a book-length exploration of my learnings I’m currently at work on.
But amid the disappointment, I can also point to a valuable lesson: that when students can see you as an authentic person, as someone they can relate to, they will be more willing to open up. I believe that’s what happened at the Holocaust Center event, and that seeing me in a place where I was authentically myself helped spur the students to tell me what they really thought, rather than concluding that I wouldn’t understand or, worse, telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. It’s a key lesson, and one that I’ve taken with me.
I feel lucky to have been one of Dr. Good’s "students. " Some of what I have learned is that it takes careful preparation to empower students to be advocates and allies; it is critical and that this deeply personal and challenging work is grounded in a personal "Why". As I emerge from my time as her student, I realize I want to be a better ally and to help other white people do the same.
Together with the students’ comments, these new insights have helped to spur the next leg of this journey. Together Collaboration Nation is convening a summit on Equitable Collaboration and SEL not just including students and their voices, not merely striving to put those voices at the center of conference programming, but actually putting students in a position of co-conspirator.
I will be moving to Boston this year -- this will not end my work in the region, but it will mean I need to shift to fewer events that have a bigger impact. As I'm leaving, I've been reflecting on everything I've done here, and pouring my insights into the design of the 2020 Summit on Equitable Collaboration and SEL. The dates of the 2-day summit are Thursday and Friday, December 2nd and 3rd, 2020.
We’re always looking for partners and co-conspirators, so if you’d like to get involved, e-mail me at Jordan@collaborationnation.io or go to https://www.collaborationnation.io/ to join our mailing list and receive updates.
You can also join our session at TRETC, on October 14. We will explore strategies for authentically bringing student voice into instructional design making to advance Equitable Collaboration.
Written by Dr. Jordan Lippman
Research Director at Collaboration Nation
CEO of The TeamBuilders Group