Monday, 10 August 2015

LEARNING from the Student's Perspectives

At the start of the summer I took a look (rather late, I must admit) at Cook-Sather's 2009 text 'LEARNING from the Student's Perspective: A Sourcebook for Effective Teaching'. I think it's a wonderful text, full of ideas for practicing teachers to use when attempting to incorporate the use of more student voice into their practice. I'm going to attempt to explore some of the ideas presented in the text below, for those who want a quick snap-shot of the text.

The book starts with a very powerful introduction, where she responds to the question 'Why This Book Now?'. She quotes Nieto (1994, pp. 395-396) who says that one way to begin changing schools is to listen to students' views about them; as such, the books provides evidence towards supporting student engagement with educators at all levels. The ideas explored within the text are ones that influenced my own Master's project re: student's perceptions of feedback; I completely agree that students should be given more agency when it comes to policies and practice that affect their education. As Cook-Sather says in the text, 'it will only be through learning from the student perspective that schools, teachers and students will succeed not only according to standardised measures but, more importantly, in terms of their own commitment and capacity to become critical thinkers, engaged human beings, and responsible participants in the world' (pp. 2). The idea that students' perspectives should be consulted and used alongside the perspectives of teachers and researchers is the main reason I started my MEd in the first place.

One argument which Cook-Sather makes, which comes up a lot in the literature around student voice, is that education is one of the only public-service sectors that rarely consults the opinion of the consumer; in this case, the students. Students are the reason we produce the 'product', so it makes sense that customer satisfaction should be taken into account; their needs should drive everything that we do. Unfortunately, I don't think that's always the case, especially in the current political climate. The amount of stress placed on students, especially those at GCSE and A-level, is not done for the well-being of the students - it's done so that they can 'complete' on a global scale, an objective set out not by the students themselves, but by government bodies. If we want to decrease the stress placed on students, we need to consult them on ways to do this; they're the only ones who truly know what their experiences are like!

That being said, it can often be hard to hear what students have to say, another point that Cook-Sather acknowledges. However, I think any good practitioner should be open to constructive criticism. After all, we give constructive criticism to students on an almost daily basis. It seems fair that the process should go two ways. My own research has shown me that student opinion often aligns with a lot of what educational researchers have already said, though with some minor differences that deserve further exploration. Teachers and school leaders shouldn't fear what students have to say; they should welcome it, as it will often confirm things they already knew or suspected. In my own experience, consulting the students about feedback has helped me pinpoint my own strengths and weaknesses, making me a better teacher for it!

The relationships that I gained with my student-researchers was also one of the most rewarding parts of the experience. It was really nice to work collaboratively with students, exploring what other students thought and comparing it to their own experiences. The depth of the data gathered in this way was astounding. This is yet another area that Cook-Sather highlights in her introduction - my own experience shows that the ideas and perspectives she explores are true!

However, she does acknowledge that 'no teacher ever learns once and for all what the student perspective is and what works for learners' (pp. 6). The idea of working with and consulting pupils should be ongoing; I can attest to this fact. No cultural phenomenon exists forever - the very nature of humanity is that we're constantly growing and adapting. What one group of students thought one year will naturally change as the years progress. As such, much like Cook-Sather states, it's important that teachers and researchers continue to create ongoing relationships with students. Student voice initiative shouldn't be on-off opportunities; they should become well established parts of schools. This is exactly what I hope to do as my career progresses.

The text then goes on to offer 'Guiding Principles for Consulting Students', including things like:
1) being committed to listening and responding,
2) being prepared to explain your purpose and focus,
3) creating conditions for dialogue,
4) choosing methods that focus on deepening understanding,
5) giving students feedback on the process
6) being realistic.

Since I read this text after the completion of my MEd research, it was heartening to me to see that I had followed these principles myself. I can concur with each of these criteria and agree that you must be able to achieve all of these in order for a student-voice initiative to work.

The text then moves on to provide some contextual information on things like how to know your students, creating positive classroom environments (which are essential for establishing good relationships with students), designing engaging lessons and instilling a sense of respect and responsibility in classrooms. I think the text is a must-read for Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) in this respect, as each section covers a lot of the literature and provides realistic insight into how student voice can be used to develop greater practice inside everyday classrooms.

The second section looks at various strategies that have been used to learn through the perspective of students, specifically focusing on consultation and the use of questionnaires. As someone who has used both of these methods, I found the information contained very helpful and encouraging. I would highly recommend anyone who is looking to do a formal research project using student voice or even students-as-researchers should give the chapters a read.

The third section provides a variety of case-studies in which student voice was consulted for a variety of purposes. I found each chapter an interesting read; it was great to see how different schools, at different levels, approached student voice.

I haven't gone into too much detail in this blog, as I don't want to give too much away; I think anyone interested in making use of student voice in their school should read the text for themselves. You won't regret it!

Cook-Sather, Alison. (2009) LEARNING from the Student's Perspective: A Sourcebook for Effective Teaching. Paradigm Publishing: Colorado