You don’t learn, if you don’t listen Published in Tall Poppies Magazine March 2017

By Brooke Trenwith

Over the course of this year, I will be providing three articles focused around student voice and student agency. In regard to our gifted learners, it is very important that they feel empowered in the school setting and that their voice is listened to. The article in the middle of the year, will be on how to run effective gifted focus groups in a school setting. The end of the year, we will look at increasing student agency based on this data. But to start us off, let us set the scene of what is student voice and how does it relate to student agency?

In some settings student voice and student agency are used interchangeably but this is not entirely accurate. Here are two definitions that I am using in regards to these key phrases. In your context, you need to co-construct with your community what these phrases mean in order to have a shared understanding.

Knewton defines student agency as:

“Student agency refers to the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation. Student agency can be manifested in the choice of learning environment, subject matter, approach, and/or pace.”

Russell Quaglia and Michael Corso in their book, Student voice: the instrument of change, state:

“Student voice is when a student expresses their opinion, it is heard by the teacher and something is done.”

Whakatupuhia te reo, whakatupuhia te tamaiti (Enhancing Student Voice to influence school-wide decision-making and accelerate student progress) has gone further with the following definition:

“Student Voice is the intentional collection and use of students’ thinking and feedback on their learning and using these voices to inform and improve teaching, learning and school-wide decision-making.”

Often students will give their voice but it has no impact – for example, think of students filling out a survey at the end of a course or the year. It is too late for any action to be taken on their voice, or to influence their learning so the voice is ‘tokenism’ rather than authentic. The students who will benefit, if the teacher reflects on the comments, is a class the following year.

If we look at this from a gifted context, the New Zealand National Administration Guidelines state:

NAG 1 c. on the basis of good quality assessment information, identify students and groups of students:

  1. who are not achieving;
  2. who are at risk of not achieving;
  3. who have special needs (including gifted and talented students);
  4. aspects of the curriculum which require particular attention;

Many school leaders, teachers, and parents will look at that first line and think that “good quality assessment information” relates solely to National Standards or NCEA data. This is something that we need to challenge. Assessment does not mean formal testing – think of ‘assessment FOR learning’, ‘assessment AS learning’ and ‘assessment OF learning’. Gifted student voice is integral in all of these to allow for maximum engagement in their learning. The table below outlines some basic examples of these three assessment strategies

Notice that the examples above are not formal collections of student voice, rather they are the teacher listening to what is being said and taking action on it to improve the learning engagement for the child. This action is also discussed with the child, rather than automatically assuming that it will be okay. Giftedness is not a label that comes with instructions – and even if a teacher has catered well for a gifted student in the past, it does not mean that by ‘hitting repeat’, the new student’s needs will be met. That is why student voice is so important in our classes. It is the mechanism to allow students to be engaged, build self-efficacy and make progress. And note that I am including all students in that statement, not just our gifted students. By taking this inclusive approach, it allows all voices to be heard – including our twice exceptional and gifted underachievers.

Between 2014-2016 Whakatupuhia te reo, whakatupuhia te tamaiti (Enhancing Student Voice to influence school-wide decision-making and accelerate student progress) was funded by Cognition Education Trust to investigate the role of student voice in New Zealand and to inform strategic planning within our schools. If you are interested in the methodology of this project, you are able to read the grant outline.

From this project, a New Zealand based Student Voice Rubric has been developed for three dimensions – the learning environment, teaching and learning, and assessment. The guidelines recommend that you start from cycle of inquiry to investigate what you don’t know in regards to how student voice is collected and responded to, you can view these guidelines.

Often when I am talking with teachers and parents, I use the phrase “your intent does not necessarily equal your impact” and this is very true of the collation and acting upon of student voice. If you are using the Student Voice Rubric in your schools, ask yourselves “what evidence do we have to place ourselves here?” Your evidence should come from your impact not your intent. For example, teachers intend to seek authentic student voice by getting them to fill out a survey for their teacher appraisal. However, if nothing is done with this information, or there is no teacher reflection, then it has no impact and would mean you would place yourself at a lower stage on the rubric.

From my experience working as a facilitator, there is nothing more powerful than authentic student voice from the school’s context. I vividly remember one twice-exceptional boy saying “the teachers here see the curriculum as a path through the forest, and there is only one path. They don’t see that we could make our own way through the forest, which would be more interesting, and still end up at the same destination.” This quote sparked powerful change within the staffroom, because it came from their “kid”.

If you are seeking to encourage change for your gifted students, then begin with looking at student voice. We know that for schoolwide change to occur, school leaders need to be involved but that does not mean that you cannot begin the change in your own classroom. When you are choosing an inquiry topic this year, think about choosing student voice. Look at it form an inclusive angle – ensuring that you are including your gifted students also. If there is a teacher at your school who is not fully on-board with the gifted programme, ask them to join you in a professional learning group on student voice. By making it not solely about “gifted” you are allowing the gifted voice to be heard by those least inclined to listen. You are also igniting a catalyst of change that will allow the voices of twice-exceptional and gifted underachievers to have their say.

Using the Student Voice Rubric will give you a New Zealand based tool to help guide you on implementing authentic student voice practices in your classroom and across your school. For parents, it gives you a tool to introduce to schools to help them begin to listen if you feel your children are not being heard. The site also includes case studies, learning stories, exemplar documents, templates and videos to help you on your student voice journey. The documents and exemplars are there to guide you, find what works best in your context and make them your own based of the feedback your students give.

Implementing student voice will allow a framework to increase engagement and progress of gifted students in the regular classroom. Simply by “being heard” students feel more connected with their teachers and this allows them to have more agency over their own learning. Here again, it becomes a vital part of the positive student/teacher relationship. It is not about doing a survey, or adding in more work. Authentic student voice needs to be integrated through every seam of our education system.

I will leave you with one of my favourite quotes from Russell Quaglia and Michael Corso’s book is:

“Recently, while conducting a professional development session, several teachers stated ‘I am the expert and I really doubt students can add anything useful that will make a difference’. First we must realise that simple fact that students do have something to teach us. They have points of view that are uniquely their own, and can provide insights into their world that we will never know about until we learn to ask and listen.”

Created By
Brooke Trenwith


Created with images by Gem & Lauris RK - "Raw Emotions" • Priscilla Du Preez - "untitled image" • Chris Liverani - "Math exam" • langll - "beautiful child happy" • qimono - "philatelist stamp collection stamp collecting collection glass" • Tommy van Kessel - "untitled image" • Nathan Dumlao - "untitled image"

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