“Learner voice” is one of those phrases that at some point in time was a useful hook for those revolutionising how students learn. Rather than seeing young people as cogs to be prepared for an industrial age future, learner voice focused school leaders and teachers on letting young people have a say in how their school was run and, much more importantly, what and how they learn.
However, it is quickly becoming edu-jargon, with its actual meaning for day-to-day learning becoming less clear to those teaching young people and, vitally, to young people themselves. Learner voice has all too often been reduced to making choices on what the lunch menu will be.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in New Zealand, seeing how the actions and approaches of individual teachers, head teachers, and, in some instances, the school structure itself are being adapted to facilitate deeper appreciation of what students want and what they are capable of. What’s clear is that where practice might be considered “the best,” learner voice has not been reduced simply to asking students what they want at school (“What can we at the school cede to learners?”) but has become the principal vehicle for teaching and learning (“What do you want to learn, how do you want to learn it, and what can we at the school do to help make it happen?”).
In Albany Senior High School on the north shores of Auckland, it is the whole system that has been geared up towards letting students direct their own learning. This brand-new physical space has one aspect notably lacking in its architecture: walls. Teaching takes place in wide “learning commons,” with smaller break-out rooms for those needing a little more privacy and quiet. But the physical representation of the wall-less classroom has become a metaphor for this institution, which maintains high attainment in New Zealand’s high-stakes testing regime for senior students.
Every Wednesday, for the whole day, students have the time and the efforts of the whole staff turned towards their passions: whatever community Impact Product they want to create, the school will do what it can to make it happen. One student built a VW “Herbie” car, designed to attract attention and raise funds for Auckland’s children’s hospital, only to be invited to have it shipped to the States for an event. Another student has built a working EPG-fuelled rocket. Others repaired nearby waterways. Still others have designed a content delivery platform for the school’s LCD screen system, inadvertently undercutting the commercial outfit pitching to the local university by some $NZ 280,000. The vision for this is based around Professor R. Shrank’s philosophy:
“There is really only one way to learn how to do something, and that is to do it.”
At the beginning of this process, not all students know what their passion is, and so over the initial weeks of these 15-week projects, mentors in the teaching staff help them to identify what it is they are passionate about, what makes them tick. In the words of one member of staff: “When they eventually work out what it is that makes them tick, their eyes come alive. At that point, there’s no stopping them in achieving what they set their hearts on.”
This wall-less Wednesday undoubtedly has rubbed off on other elements of pedagogy, thinking, and school management. “Students feel that they are being treated as adults, asked to make important decisions on large projects, and to construct real products of their learning,” said the school principal, Barbara Cavanagh, on my recent visit. Barriers to thinking about technology implementations also are taken away: The school does what few have managed, and uses only open-source operating systems and software on its machines, saving around $NZ 200,000 a year (as noted in this Education Gazette article).
Such an “open plan” student-led learning process is not unique to New Zealand, of course. A recent prominent example would be Gever Tulley’s Tinkering School, whose empowerment of very young children with power tools, nails, and saws to achieve something spectacular wowed crowds real and virtual at TED: (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/gever_tulley_s_tinkering_school_in_action.html)
This innovation is not limited to those reaching the lofty heights of a $6000-a-ticket innovation conference. In North Lanarkshire, Scotland, infants are being empowered in similar student-led, student-designed projects that spawn from often banal-seeming “inspirations”–the delivery of some sand to the school leads to children as young as four constructing their own machines from wood, metal, and other materials: (http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/video/g/video_tcm4596973.asp?strReferringChannel=search&strReferringPageID=tcm:4-615801-64)
Harnessing learner voice in your own school is not just about letting students “have their say” in how the institution is run. On the back of examples of practice like these, it’s quite possible that learner voice, where it genuinely has an impact, has nothing to do with that at all, but is all centred around how, what, and when the students choose to learn.