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EdTech & Design, Engagement, Opinion, Promising Practices

Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard!

Reimagining Educational Spaces to Raise Student Voice

It’s not uncommon to hear those advocating for deep and resounding change in education to introduce their position by reminding us that our current way of designing, organizing and “doing” school is based on principles inspired by the industrial revolution: a time when mass production, factory-based assembly lines and a whole culture of efficiency began to replace home-based, hand-crafted and time-intensive approaches to the creation of goods. Our attempts to create a new vision for schools, and for the type of education that occurs there, are constantly bumping up against the deeply rooted assumptions and beliefs that are part of this industrial-age thinking.

But there’s another equally stubborn set of assumptions that runs alongside this industrial mindset—a set of assumptions that is currently being challenged by some of the work being done on student engagement.

Isn’t it just a little ironic that so many initiatives are emerging that seek to raise the voices of students when, in fact, schools were designed to do just the opposite.

Consider for a moment how the very familiar proverb, children should be seen and not heard has had a profound influence on the practice of schooling. From the assumption that a quiet classroom is a well-run classroom to the image of groups of students walking silently through the halls. From the requirement that students raise their hands in order to speak, to the expectation that tests and evaluations, in order to be legitimate, must be completed in silence. From the familiar warning, “Shh…the teacher’s coming!” to the admonition, “Boys and Girls, please keep your voices down!”

Isn’t it just a little ironic that so many initiatives are emerging that seek to raise the voices of students when, in fact, schools were designed to do just the opposite. Take a good look at the physical structure of school buildings, the way that students are gathered into physical spaces, the rules governing movement from place to place, the way that curriculum and programs are designed and delivered, and you’re likely to realize that there isn’t a great deal of room for the honest and authentic voices of our students. These very familiar and recognizable aspects of the school experience may have been fine for a time when the authority of the teacher was central, but they quickly become curiosities when we attempt to make room for other voices.

Yet we know that deep levels engagement are intimately connected with real and meaningful opportunities for student participation through both voice and choice. And at both local and regional levels, the valiant and innovative energies of educators are starting to capture some imaginations and inspire further action. Some are looking to redesign traditional school spaces in order to encourage and facilitate more conversation, dialogue and collaboration among students. (For some great resources on thinking about this on an “elemental” level, see the DesignShare Project: The Language of School Design).

Many educators are beginning to work with colleagues to redesign school timetables, curriculum relationships and pedagogical approaches to create more open spaces for student voice. (See this year’s Ken Spencer Award Recipient project descriptions.

On February 28th, Clarence Fisher (@glassbead), Heather Durnin (@hdurnin) and Andy Forgrave (@aforgrave) had the courage and ingenuity to begin the Hive105, and internet-based radio station that has as a mission and vision to provide students with a motivating opportunity to develop comfort sharing their voices

And on May 13, 2013, Canadian educator Darren Kuropatwa (@dkuropatwa) tweeted from a student led unconference held at the Winnipeg Technical College.

All of this is hopeful, inspirational forward-thinking and inspirational. It really is! It is, however, just the beginning. Despite what we know about school design I would venture to suggest that most new schools are still erected using the same basic architectural blueprint that has been used for the many years,  without being informed by current learning research or serious consultation with educators, students and the community. (I would be very happy to be proven wrong on this. Despite what we know about the effect that powerful conversation can have on learning, schools that I visit are still pretty quiet places—still a definite division between indoor and outdoor voices!

I’m thinking that the way many of us think about school is still very much influenced by the snippet of wisdom:  children should be seen and not heard.

So two different items to place before you.

First, tell us about the initiatives in which you’ve participated (or ones that you know of) that have aimed to raise the voices of our students in meaningful and effective ways.

Second, what would you change about your school design (physical, or otherwise) that would help you to raise the voices of your students on a more authentic level.

In collecting instances of people working on the edges of school design, and imagining how that energy can become part of the way that we think about our own environments, we may be able to begin to challenge some of those assumptions that still hold us firmly grounded in our traditional practices and approaches.