Inviting and listening to pupil voice

My Masters research project (on which I am about to embark) involves drawing from three students their perceptions of the music program I run at the Language School, so I had a particular interest at this conference in hearing from people whose research involved encouraging forth, and creating forums for, pupil voice.

I heard one person speak about her project which focused on getting children in a ‘gifted’ program to write and talk about their responses to music. There were some lovely, heartfelt comments that she shared, and it seemed like an interesting site for research. However…. I couldn’t quite see the point of the research, or what her research question was. Maybe it was simply, “What do the children think about music?” But I found the research, as she presented it, to be a bit limited in the way she described. Most of the audience, when it came time for questions, seemed far more interested in the research context of the gifted children’s class, than they were in the content of her research.

Later comment – I’d revise this assessment now. Just to know what students are thinking is valuable. Her students offered such reflective, personal, honest responses to her questions. They articulated their feelings about something as complex, ephemeral and personal as music. The research is valuable, I realise now, simply because it asks questions that we adults often forget to ask. We assume we know what children are thinking. Or we assume they are thinking the same as us. Or we are not concerned with what they are thinking! But the truth is that, unless we ask them, the inner worlds of children will be unknown to us, and we will be much the poorer for this. [Added 9 December 08]

I went to a very inspiring presentation by a Dr Finney, from the University of Cambridge. He presented a very compelling argument for the importance of including student voice in school decision-making, including the fact that the qualities we want to develop in young people, and see them equipped with for the future, can be developed through consultation and discussion with them. He described one particular project where this had been done.

In this project, three students in a Year 8 music class were asked to be the teachers. They were not students who were the class stars – in fact, they were children who were considered ‘difficult’ or ‘troublesome’ by the teachers in the school.

These three took part in many detailed discussions, about what they felt worked in the music classes, and what they felt could be done differently. They were invited to teach a series of three lessons with a Year Seven class, and they agreed to take on this challenge, though apparently were extremely nervous. They took the task very seriously, spending a lot of time developing their ideas and testing them out through role-play. All the while, the researchers, and their music teacher, supported them.

The lessons that the students taught were very successful. The Year Sevens responded really well. The teaching skills they demonstrated, and their communication skills, were apparently very sophisticated.

This process revealed their ideal and preferred creative teaching and learning process. The researchers concluded that when young people are engaged as leaders in music education they can model appropriate musical behaviour. The inclusion of student voice can be valuable in all aspects of teaching, including designing curriculum, by engaging them in planning processes, and in discussions of practice. They can also play a valuable role in research, researching key issues in music education from the ground.

The final part of the presentation suggested some of the potential perils or stumbling points in this field:

  • the complexity of power relationships that are at play in any school
  • that it really needs to be an authentic and genuine opportunity for the students to be invited to talk, and to be listened to. In other words, much good will and trust is lost when the voices of the students are heard, but not taken seriously, or not engaged with in a genuine way.
  • schools need to consider also the principles of inclusiveness, of considering which voices are heard, and why. Being open about potential biases or excluding policies or beliefs.

The curriculum tends to be build on inferred needs – that is, what adults feel the child needs in order to be educated. Expressed needs tend to have a different place in decision-making processes. The presenter concluded by asking what the balance should be, between the expressed needs of the students, and the decisions taken by adults.

There was a postscript to the story of the three children. While they continued to shine in music, they commented to the researchers that no-one else in the school realised a transformation had taken place. “They don’t know we’ve changed,” they told the researchers, when talking about problems with other teachers in the school.

One ended up leaving school – I think the presenter said he was expelled, or had to leave to go to a specialised facility for kids who don’t cope with mainstream school. The other two he had lost touch with. The research took place a few years ago, and we calculated that they would have finished school by now. I know I was hoping to hear about some wonderful outcomes for them – as their participation in the research sounded like it had been so extraordinary for their confidence and sense of themselves as contributors. I wanted to hear about them making good, going on to further study, lighting up the world and other classrooms… but no.

Perhaps that shows how fragile we all are, and how particularly fragile some of our students are. Once the die is cast in a school, it might not ever be changed. So perhaps the biggest challenge is to we the educators, to remain mindful of this – to nurture and bring out the best in our students (even when it seems way, way below the surface). That sometimes, it is the system that is working against this, and in such a system, efforts made by the student can go unnoticed. All the more reason to build genuine structures and frameworks for inviting their input, and being prepared to be changed by it.

1 comment so far

  1. […] have the opportunity to pursue this question for this study, however, I posted in July about a paper I heard at the ISME conference, about the perceptions of gifted children of this age group, about music. Their answers were […]

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