A sense of emerging mastery of the craft of teaching—and consequently of making a positive difference for students—is one of the primary motivating factors for teachers, but with a process as complex as teaching and learning the definition of “mastery” is necessarily convoluted. Moreover, the impact of teaching on students is often delayed so evidence in the form of student development is seen best—and sometimes only— in hindsight. With important aspects of the evidence of impact being subtle, hard to define and slow to emerge, teachers often use immediate student response as their real time feedback.
This is natural and appropriate, but also laden with pitfalls. Student experience is subjective and as dependent on the student’s personal perceptions as it is on the teacher’s actions. Moreover, student expectations and preferences may not coincide with the teacher’s mandated role in relation to the curriculum or the operational requirements of the classroom. Similarly, what teachers hear and see is inescapably selective and their subjective interpretation of it may be either defensive or rosy.
Nonetheless, listening to the “student voice” is a logical and potentially insightful way to monitor the teaching and learning process and to determine how the students’ experienced curriculum relates to the teacher’s intended one. In fact, since students’ perception is their reality, the student’s own voice is the only way to tap into it; all else is projection. So how does one listen for the student voice? This may seem obvious, but it is not, and there is nothing automatic about it. Just as astronomers have to construct the right kinds of telescopes to detect the types of electromagnetic radiation that contains the information they seek about the universe, so teachers need to be very intentional and strategic in their listening.
Exams are one legitimate form of student voice but they are circumscribed by what we ask and the student voice that comes through them is suppressed and/or distorted by the anxiety they create. In any event, exams occur after the fact. While exams are both necessary and useful, what teachers really need is ongoing feedback.
This feedback should relate to both the teaching-learning process and its consequences. Process feedback is a critical supplement to formative assessment, which tells us about outcomes but not about experiences. It is important to understand not only what students are thinking but also what they are feeling and how engaged they are in their learning since this is the source of the outcomes upon which formative assessment is focused.
Understanding what students are doing, experiencing, thinking and learning requires that the teacher reach out actively to create an interactive classroom dynamic that may not only be unfamiliar to students but directly contrary to their previous experience. Reconstructing the student-teacher relationship as a partnership within which there is such a dialogue may not be easy for either party since it involves unlearning some deeply rooted assumptions and habits.
A partnership with students does not make life easier for a teacher. Indeed, it may complicate things, particularly if what students have to say is not what is anticipated. Some may mistake the invitation as a request for praise while others may take it as an opportunity to vent. Some may be so externally focused that they find it difficult to monitor and/or express their own thoughts and feelings. It will take time for students to find their authentic voice, and for the teacher to learn how to listen objectively, interpret wisely and respond constructively to it.
One way to start is with end-of-lesson or end-of-day responses. Of course, this is only a transition towards more ongoing and embedded feedback, but it is a good place to begin and a useful practice to sustain even when the student voice becomes more ubiquitous. This could be done in many different ways, but some generic steps towards a “closing thoughts” mechanism might be:
- Share Your Intentions: Tell students what you are trying to do and why. Share with them some of the complexities and acknowledge that this may be unfamiliar for them, as it is for you. Invite them to be co-conspirators in the project.
- Provide A Scaffold: Use a variety of strategies to enable students to participate anonymously. This might include such things as exit slips, one-minute essays, 3-2-1 responses and so on. Include invitations to comment on big ideas, lingering questions, surprises, satisfaction and disappointment, hopes and fears, suggestions etc.—but only one or two of these on any particular occasion. The exact method is not as important as it being simple, short and open-ended so that neither student nor teacher experiences it as a burden.
- Report: Every time you do this, close the loop by sharing a brief informal synthesis of the input you receive, your reflections on it and what, if anything, it has suggested you might continue, enhance, change or eliminate. Include individual comments and suggestions illustratively if appropriate but sparingly. Honour and respect everyone’s input, don’t slight some by highlighting others.
- Repeat: It will take time for students to understand, trust and become proficient at this process. Do this regularly so that it becomes a natural part of the classroom process and not a special event, but vary the format so that it does not become perfunctory. Manage your expectations. Look at it from the studemts’ point of view. Modify the process as you learn about it. Celebrate emergent success. Stick with it.
The purpose of such a process for activating the student voice is to obtain useful feedback to assist the teacher in knowing that what s/he does is experienced as helpful by students and thus in developing a sense of emergent mastery that motivates and sustains. Professionalism is defined not by the perfection of generic techniques but by a constant focus on specific individual student experience, a commitment to optimize it and the willingness to engage in continuous self-critique and growth for that purpose. Thoughtfully enabled student voice may be the most meaningful source to inform the teacher in this quest.
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