Student Voice, Agency and Leadership  Naomi Wiseman, 2020

My passion and a driving force for me is meeting the needs of 21st century learners.  I first came across this term at uni and I had no idea what it was.  I learnt pretty quickly that 21st Century learning refers to vital core competencies that all schools need to teach students in order to prepare them for life in our ever changing world.

There is no doubt we are moving towards a new age, characterised in education by self-managing learners, peer-to-peer student engagement, transdisciplinary learning, and authentic, active assessment.  As educators, we need to take control of learning so that we can adequately prepare our students for success in their futures. 

The Education Department of Victoria has a vision for student learning.  All students are empowered to learn and achieve, experiencing high quality teaching practice and the best conditions for learning which equip them with the knowledge, skills and dispositions for lifelong learning and shaping the world around them.

Victoria’s vision for learning recognises the fundamental importance of empowering students and the contribution that student voice, agency and leadership make to improved student outcomes.  The vision outlines an aspiration for all students to achieve and grow as learners, and to generate their own course for lifelong learning.

 

We know our world is changing rapidly. We see change every day in communication, transportation, the ways we access and create information, and in emerging enterprises that place consistent emphasis on new capabilities.  We know that climate change, new technologies, and a new geopolitical landscape, make our future hard to predict and open to great possibility.   According to CEDA (the Committee for Economic Development of Australia) in the next 10-20 years 40% of Australian jobs will be replaced by automation.  That’s 5 million jobs.  Many people see this as an incredible threat but the reality is, it creates massive opportunities for our students.  How you view it, depends on your mindset.

Take the self serve checkouts at the supermarket.  Self service allows the customer to process their own purchase, pack their items the way they want, and be in and out in a flash.  It’s an efficient system that supermarkets have embraced.  However, many shoppers refuse to use self serve claiming the system takes peoples jobs away. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Whilst there is no denying supermarkets are saving money in checkout staff wages, self serve checkouts have opened a plethora of jobs.  Machine designers, makers, installers, service technicians, software writers, trainers and help desk attendants to name a few.  

A recent McKinsey report claims that for the students we are teaching today, 60% of them will hold jobs that do not exist yet.  The pace of digital change on a global scale continues to blur our reality and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down.  In fact, change in our world is so rapid that navigating it requires constant resilience, adaptability and perseverance.   The Melbourne Declaration of Educational Goals for Young Australians outlines nationally consistent future direction agreed upon by all Australian Education ministers.  One of the two overarching goals demands all young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.

So how exactly do we inform our students if we don’t know what the future holds?  The answer is pretty simple.  We work with what we do know.  What we know is that employers are increasingly valuing skills such as creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, questioning, risk taking, problem solving, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. 

We might not know just what the future holds for our students but we do know that education in the 21st century is a high stakes enterprise and it is our responsibility to arm students with the skills they will need to succeed in the future.  If we are not directly responding to that, then we are doing our students a disservice.

William Spady has been an agent of change in education.  He is a sociologist, an educational researcher and a university professor.  Spady began his research back in the 80’s when student success was largely defined as improved test scores.  Spady started to think about student success in terms of success beyond school.   Spady’s core belief was that it is our collective responsibility to design, structure and operate educational programs that do the best job possible of preparing students for life beyond school.

The only way to do this is to allow, encourage and demand students to become agents of their own learning.

Student voice and agency are not new concepts.  They have been around a long time but it is only now that we are truly beginning to understand the power behind increasing student voice and agency in our classrooms.  

The Education Department of Victoria believe the best schools build a culture where voice, agency and leadership are understood to be interrelated factors that add to the notion of empowerment and a sense of school pride.  So how do you do it?

 

You begin with giving kids a voice and really listening to it.  When I talk about student voice, I don’t mean just giving students the opportunity to communicate ideas and opinions.  It’s about students having the power in influence change.

ESTABLISHING A LEARNING ENVIRONMENT THAT PROMOTES VOICE, AGENCY AND LEADERSHIP

As educators, we feel a sense of achievement when students can communicate a concept we have taught. It is very satisfying to know we have been listened to, and we have impacted our students in a positive way.  It is important to remember that students enjoy this feeling also. They need to feel like their opinions, ideas and feelings matter to ensure they are engaged and empowered.  The key is consistent, safe environments that support students in sharing exactly what it is that they have to say.   

 

Of course, there are a myriad of ways you can do this in the classroom:

  • Encourage students ask questions and share ideas and opinions

  • Allow students to negotiate learning goals and assessment

  • Actively seek feedback from students on learning tasks and activities

  • Allow time for lesson reflection and sharing

  • Develop team-building skills which enable students to collaborate

In 2018, The Education Department of Victoria published Amplify, a practice guide for school leaders and teachers  The guide explains how to create the conditions, employ the practices and develop the behaviours that are consistent with best practice student voice, agency and leadership.  Utilising Amplify as a guide to assist the implementation of student voice in the school community is a sound idea that holds considerable merit.  Amplify aims to ‘empower students through voice, agency and leadership’ and states that ‘students are empowered when they are supported to develop their knowledge, skills and dispositions…and when schools have a deliberate, planned and coherent approach to embedding voice, agency and leadership as part of a positive climate for learning.

To create these opportunities, we must listen to our students and work with them to determine what they feel they need.  It is also equally important to provide chances to exercise agency outside the classroom.  This builds school pride and a sense of connection.  It also communicates to students that their voice is important.  To really empower your students, consider establishing a Student Voice Council where students make meaningful decisions that shape their future. 

Once you have established a safe and nurturing learning environment, you can further encourage the expression of student voice within the classroom by involving your students in curriculum planning, implementation, and negotiating learning goals.  When you do this your students become responsible for their own learning.

Other ways to build agency in your classroom:

  • Students can track and measure their own learning growth with goals, graphs reflection etc

  • Have students contribute ideas about what and how they will learn

  • Co-design individual learning plans with students

  • Promote critical, creative and higher order thinking skills

  • Provide opportunities for students to share their learning, teach, question and challenge each other

I know, some of you will be thinking what the hell.  I don’t mean getting your students to lesson plan.  What I mean is creating tasks that give your students choice and agency in their learning pathway.  One of the ways that I like to do this is to create Choice Boards for learning tasks or assessment.  A choice board is a graphic organizer that allows students to move at their own pace and have choice over what they learn and how they interact with the content.  The choice board strategy can be used to present students with new information, to have students practice and master academic content, to assess student mastery, or as a combination of all three. Choice boards increase student ownership and provide teachers with opportunities to differentiate and support students at their individual learning levels. 

Choice boards are easy to make and adapt across all grade levels and content areas. By exercising choice in the learning tasks, as teachers, you are aligning yourself with Practice Principle 3, Action 3.2 – Teachers co-design opportunities for students to exercise authentic agency in their own learning (DET, 2018b).   I have provided some links to choice boards at the end of this article.

Student empowerment through voice, agency and leadership contributes to building a world class education system which brings equity and excellence to the learning experience of every student.  This, in turn, enables every student to manage their own learning for life.

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​© 2020 by Naomi Wiseman.

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