Pupil voice: an opportunity for real culture change?

Pupil voice or learner voice is one of those ‘buzz words’ that must have been uttered at most interviews over the summer, in the hope of standing out as a current and well read professional. But scratch below the surface and the research in this area of education is overwhelmingly positive and boasts real impact on learner outcomes.

The main body of work carried out in Ireland by Paula Flynn, The Learner Voice Research Study, provides many insights into international and national research conducted in this area. Reading into this has led to – for me anyway – many light bulb moments on small changes in the classroom, as well as whole school strategies that can be used to raise the profile of the student to truly being at the centre of school culture.

The research talks of an ‘embedded culture of listening’ and ‘strategies to support a sustainable structure’ but a realistic (or even sceptical) eye would argue that change cannot occur over night.

The junior cycle reform offers the perfect catalyst for a spotlight to be put on pupil voice. In education reform we often focus on negativity deriving from staff members who are overly anxious about change. However, it would also be neglectful to presume that all students are happy to move with change at the same pace.

The learner voice methodology and its recommendations would lead to a collective responsibility over education. With rights come responsibility, and although a cultural shift towards pupil voice is already well in motion, unless we equip our young people with the skills needed to cope with this responsibility are we setting ourselves up for failure?

Enter into the spotlight the junior cycle key sills and statements of learning. Over the coming years, every teacher in every subject will be developing key learning skills alongside the development of content knowledge, meaning that students are being given the stepping stones to be greater participants in their own education.

Practically in a school, what does this mean?

  • A focus on literacy in the sense that students will have the language to articulate and communicate thoughts and ideas. The study recommends a common language between young people and professionals should be used. From personal experience, this takes time. A classroom focus on the meaning of command words, opportunities for discussions, focussed assessment for learning activities following on to allow pupils to put into practice more than one method of communication. The use of self and peer assessment against criteria so students develop critical thinking skills and see learning is a constant process.
  • A wellbeing curriculum embedded both in the classroom as well as in the timetable. My personal opinion here is that teaching practices will change but discrete lessons on ‘wellbeing’ will offer reflection time for students to analyse and evaluate their successes and weaknesses throughout these changes. Developing visual overviews of learning and a shift to tracking progress over time with students could be at the heart of these reflection opportunities.
  • A focus on emotional intelligence. This one is more difficult to quantify or focus on solely. With maturity comes emotional stability, and many teenagers are neither mature nor emotionally stable! But allowing time to focus on the emotions experienced through the learning process will enable students to become comfortable with what they are feeling throughout their school day. A simple practical method would be the use of emojis during self and peer assessment. I have yet to meet a teenager who doesn’t use emojis and therefore this is a language they are comfortable using to communicate feelings to others. (Also an example of developing a shared language)
  • A greater emphasis placed on variety in teaching and learning strategies. Many training events I have been to on the development of pupil voice have lacked emphasis on this important ‘easy fix’. The delivery style of us as professionals is the most common opportunity for ‘habitual practice’ and ‘authentic listening’. If we are providing a range of stimuli, variety of activities and regular reflection time for students within our own classrooms then the student is developing the skills and sense of responsibility we are encouraging. All this provides the stepping stone for all other platforms within a school to place a spotlight on pupil voice.
  • An identified recommendation from the research was inclusion at a greater level of those with additional educational needs. For me a core ‘leadership group’ for pupil voice would not be complete without the inclusion of those on the margins. That is to say students whose behaviour isn’t always what we would want it to be, those who are at risk of withdrawing from education early and those who struggle to maintain social relationships. These pupils are at the core of helping us to understand complex issues which impact daily on our ability to deliver in our classrooms to the highest of standards.

Throughout the research there is an emphasis placed on the development of a positive relationship between the teacher and the pupil. I feel the question now needs to be asked, are we at a place whereby CPD needs to reflect the practicalities of teaching both content and skills? Is there a need to develop sessions on the role of pedagogy in the development of wellbeing in schools?

A focus on small changes to delivery in the classroom with teachers wanting to know their role in this culture shift will only work to build on the work being completed by the junior cycle advisors up and down the country. I would fear that without this step there would be too large a proportion of teachers in Irish schools without enough understanding of its benefits to see this as a natural step in the evolution of Irish education.

As a biologist I would liken the introduction of this step to shift towards stabilising selection and away from directional selection – the education environment needs to favour towards the ‘specific value’ of classrooms underpinned by an understanding of pupil voice rather than the model of a few well informed staff always relied upon to disseminate and drive change. (moving from the periphery to the core)