Engagement, Promising Practices

Illuminating the Blind Spots – Climbing from Student Voice to Student Involvement

“Industrial-age schools have a structural blind spot unlike almost any other contemporary institution. This blind spot arises because the only person who could in fact reflect on how the system as a whole is functioning is the one person who has no voice in the system … the student is the one person who sees all the classes, the stress of home, the multiple conflicting messages from media and the total environment … but they have no power or standing in the system.” Peter Senge[1]

Alberta Education’s Speak Out is one initiative seeking to remedy this structural “blind spot”. Thousands of young Albertans have shared their desire for positive, respectful relationships with motivated teachers, challenging and meaningful work in the classroom, and opportunities to apply what they’re learning to real life.[2] Students shared similar calls for reform in CEA’s Imagine a school… initiative when “respect us” became the mantra for participants who were asked how school could better meet their needs .[3]

Clearly, student voice is an invaluable data source in the context of school improvement, but it’s less clear to what extent this voice has been heard. How has it impacted policy and practice? We invite students to share their opinions, but how often do we invite them to become an integral part of classroom practice and co-design their everyday experiences of learning? And yet we know that students are both willing to and highly capable of shaping decisions about the content, process, and outcomes of their learning.[4]

Increasingly, young people are demanding to know what the surveys they participate in will be used for. In the summer of 2010, for example, five Social Planning Councils in Ontario conducted youth focus groups to “test-drive” a draft survey designed to measure students’ confidence in learning and in their futures. When asked to identify effective ways of involving them as partners in school and community planning and change, the young people – many of whom are marginalized – said they were tired of being asked about things that don’t matter to them, and given empty promises of change.

Similarly, students who participated in follow-up focus groups after being surveyed in the What did you do in school today? initiative reminded us that they are often frustrated by being the objects of research without knowing its purpose – they want to know what it’s for, to see the results, and to know what impact it might have. In other words, they’d like to see a shift from student voice to student involvement.

It is this shift that Adam Fletcher articulates in The Ladder of Student Involvement in School,[5] which identifies eight steps toward increasing recognition of students as agents of change, climbing from exclusion (”adults manipulating students in decision-making”) to voice (“adult led decision-making informed by student voice”), co-design (“Student-led decision-making shared with adults”).

High school students from North Delta Secondary School in B.C. climbed beyond student voice when they conducted student-led focus groups to learn more about results from the What did you do in school today? survey and their peers’ learning experiences.[6] The resulting presentation – complete with student demographics, student views, and recommendations – helped administrators to realize the issues that students wanted resolved.[7] These students demonstrated the benefits of involving young people in a survey every step of the way – using data as a tool for democratic action that engages students in making a difference.

With a taste of critical involvement in school decision-making fresh in his mind, one Delta student asserted that 51 percent of his peers being intellectually engaged was “higher than the Canadian norm, [but] still not high enough because that’s only half of the school that’s intellectually engaged so half of the kids are still going to school because they have to – they’re just sitting back and going along for the ride.”

Educators at Dartmouth’s Sir Robert Borden Junior High School have propelled their students to the pinnacle of the student involvement ladder by involving them as equal partners in school decision-making processes. Students and teachers are building their own professional learning community to co-design learning environments that make students more interested learners.

Education lags behind other sectors, like social justice and municipal governments, where youth engagement is an integral component in program development and city planning. We know how to collect students’ ideas and opinions; now we need to get better at allowing their voices to guide us and honour the contribution that all students can make to deep meaningful change in education.

[1] P. Senge, Schools that Learn, A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education (New York: Doubleday/Currecy, 2000): 58.

[2] “Speak Out: The Alberta Student Engagement Initiative Year in Review 2009–2010,” Alberta Education: 38 (www.speakout.alberta.ca/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=uwkiMK8PcH4%3d&tabid=108)

[3] K. Gould Lundy, “Imagine a school…,” Education Canada 46, no. 4 (Fall 2006): 49-53 (www.cea-ace.ca/sites/cea-ace.ca/files/EdCan-2006-v46-n4-Lundy.pdf)

[4] J. Dunleavy and P. Milton, What did you do in school today? Exploring the Concept of Student Engagement and its Implications for Teaching and Learning in Canada (Canadian Education Association, May 2009), 18,19. (https://www.edcan.ca/articles/what-did-you-do-in-school-today-exploring-the-concept-of-student-engagement-and-its-implications-for-teaching-and-learning-in-canada/)

[5] //www.soundout.org/ladder.html

[6] The What did you do in school today? survey was a modification of the pre-existing Tell Them From Me survey of The Learning Bar. CEA’s measures of Intellectual Engagement and Instructional Challenge are now available to all schools within the Tell Them From Me survey. (www.thelearningbar.com)

[7] Puneet Bhatti J. Chauhan, G. Grewal, S. Sachdeva, “Exceeding All Expectations: Student-led Initiatives in a North Delta School,” Education Canada 50, no. 1 (Winter 2010: 28-31.

Meet the Expert(s)

Max Cooke


Max Cooke is the CEO of the EdCan Network.

Max Cooke est le directeur général du Réseau ÉdCan.

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Jodene Dunleavy

Jodene Dunleavy

Jodene Dunleavy is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Nova Scotia Department of Education.

Jodene Dunleavy est analyste principale des politiques au ministère de l’Éducation de la Nouvelle-Écosse.

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