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Keeping the Education Focus on Student Voice

September 30, 2015


Emily Nelson_02For Dr Emily Nelson, an interest in student voice means bringing the world view and perspectives of children into the classroom, involving them in educational debate, design and decision-making and elevating their status and influence alongside educators. Her key interest is what student voice means for teachers and how it can be used to bring teachers and students together.

There are many reasons to consider student voice in education but Emily’s main motivation concerns social justice. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child includes the child’s right to be heard, positioning respect for children’s views as a legal obligation within education. She recognises that, despite 30 plus years of research and pedagogical practice addressing student voice, the change it evokes in student status remains problematic and challenging.

For her PhD thesis at The University of Waikato, entitled, ‘Is this student voice?’ Students and teachers renegotiate power through governance partnerships in the classroom, Emily engaged a three-cycle action research model and worked with three teachers and their year 7 and 8 students within a New Zealand intermediate school. The teachers each identified one pedagogical area that their classroom students saw as relevant to their learning but needing redesigning for effective teaching. The teachers met regularly to plan and reflect on collaborations with their students and to ensure that aspects of teacher voice were addressed in the process of enacting student voice. A research group of 12 students drawn from the three participating classes also provided ongoing insight into classroom power dynamics.

As an outcome of the research, teachers and students worked together in the ‘governance zone’ where decision-making, usually the sole domain of teachers, was shared with students. Teachers gained valuable insight into their students as learners as well as the efficacy of their teaching from their students’ perspectives. Emily’s research suggests that student voice in the classroom is a joint student/teacher practice that requires building student capacity for decision-making. However, without parallel consideration of the conditions that impact on teachers’ autonomy to build student influence, student voice will remain more rhetoric than reality.  Teachers and students were constrained by school expectations and accountability demands.

Emily is now considering student voice in ‘modern learning environments’, including digital technologies.  She is collaborating with US academics on a literature review to establish the research direction for the American Educational Research Association Middle Level Education Special Interest Group regarding digital technologies.

Emily Nelson PhD
Senior Lecturer
School of Education