Student Voice “Undermining”?

RespectHe towered over me, easily twice my size, shaking with anger. How dare I undermine him, making him look like a fool! Having a very large, angry man only inches away from me triggered me into a calm state that he probably interpreted as uncaring.

He had a habit of misinterpretations and making assumptions.

It was my first year teaching in public school full-time, at an “alternative school” for kids labeled at-risk. He was a fellow teacher who had just come out of a large group teacher-parent conference with the student and administration also present. The student was intelligent, hard-working, and mature beyond her years, and also one of my best students. The counselor expressed concern over her not doing well in my colleague’s class, and he then took a turn talking about all the things the student was doing wrong and why.

When it came to my turn to speak, I turned to the student – who was gripping her mom’s hand – and asked her what she thought or felt, and then held space for her to speak.

This is what my fellow teacher was enraged about. I “allowed” the student to speak. And she spoke calmly, intelligently, and gave important information that brought everything into clear focus, and this focus resulted in him feeling foolish for having made false assumptions.

When a kid is acting out or not performing, there’s usually a reason. There’s a backstory to learn. Sometimes it’s mundane yet still important. Sometimes it’s something horrible, and nine out of ten times that story won’t make you angry; it will break your heart.

In this case, the information changed the tone and focus of the rest of the meeting to one of respect and proactive solutions.

Student voice is essential. Sometimes they are eager to speak, and sometimes they need a coach to mentor and advocate for them to find and use their voice. While our school’s philosophy is all about empowering the student, and we have a learning model that focuses on that, I wonder what more we could do to give students opportunity to practice using their voice. Do you have any ideas?


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Self-Efficacy & Personal Agency: Move from Conformity to Empowerment

Photo by Gaelle Marcel

Ever hear about a student who can pay attention and have follow-through for projects of interest, but then fail to turn in the simplest homework assignment? What is said about this student? Not working to potential? Lacking consistent self-efficacy?

Does this sound like anybody you know?

Your self-efficacy is how effective you think you are in being able to accomplish a particular task or meet a goal. Educators often lament about low student self-efficacy and ask how to help students take personal responsibility for their own learning.

The problem is in the framing of the question. The unspoken part. The part about the expectation being that each of us should be effective at cramming ourselves into pre-defined boxes, conforming to expectations that might have nothing to do with our needs, desires, or even career goals. Think back to that student scenario. Perhaps not doing homework, and instead spending time engaged in other, meaningful tasks is exactly how some students “take personal responsibility for their own learning.” The students following the scripted program are seen as having high levels of self-efficacy. They are very effective at conforming.

Now, to be fair, if the script matches your needs, interests, and goals, then by all means, carry on. To personalize learning means to do so for all students, including those who would work well with a more traditional approach. We do not want to discriminate against one category in our efforts to meet the needs of all the others.

However, how do we know? How do we know if the box that has become comfortable is the “right” one for us, or the right one for a student we are serving? The answer: don’t stop at self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a means to something more. It is a strategy that can be used to successfully conform, but it can also be used toward higher level goals: empowerment, and – ultimately – personal agency. How can we get students in the driver seat in their education and, more importantly, their life? We need to remember that the goal is for students to each have a voice and a choice in all things pertaining to their selves and their own lives.

When mentoring teachers, I remind them that it’s not about us. It’s about them, the students. Don’t tell them what to think, but teach them to think – critically – and that means questioning everything. After all, what happens when you change your mind? Are you going to send all of your former students an update? Perhaps you can create a smart phone app for that? Of course not. Also, their world might not be your world; they need to be life-long learners who have been empowered to have full personal agency in their own lives – from their own bodies to their career choices.

Is it really that simple? Yes and no. Yes, the attitude as described above is really just that. However, the implementation can be challenging at times. It can take time to detox a student from previous experiences and social programming, and you can expect some flailing about or at least looks of suspicion when offering the driver seat to a student. That student might not even have a sense of direction, answering with “dunno” when asked what they want, and it can take awhile to discover and tap into something meaningful. Even if they get in the driver seat, they might not go anywhere at first. They need guidance; it is a process that is as self-paced as all other things the students might learn.

But know this: it can be done. It has been done. And we continue to do it. It’s an important part of preparing students for a future we cannot fully imagine, and it’s our best hope for that future being a good one.


Careful questioning: Nurture student voice and unlimited learning

raise hand question little boyI was once in a college literature class where the professor confidently said, “I assume we are all of Judeo-Christian background here, so…”  She then went on to apply this filter to the analysis of the stories and poems we had recently read, and she was coming up with interpretations that differed from my own. Do you think I raised my hand to let her know that her assumption meant I was left in the dark about all the analogies she was now using to teach me? Today I would have, but not then. Raised in a militant-atheist household, I had only started learning about various religions, and I felt instantly stupid. In retrospect, I probably had something unique to contribute, especially in interpreting the works by authors who were also not of Judeo-Christian backgrounds.  Instead, I struggled silently, and this was just another case where a teacher was telling students what to think.

One of the things I often tell new teachers is don’t tell students what to think.  Teach them to think, but not what to think. Instead, help them build critical thinking skills, the ability to recognize logical fallacies, and the habit of questioning everything – including their own current beliefs.  Try on different filters. Invite others to describe their perspective. Be open.

And when a kid starts to go a direction you think is wrong – ALL WRONG – don’t panic. For one thing, they might be right. And regardless, it is part of their journey. Just keep asking questions and encouraging them to do the same.

Sounds simple enough, but those questions! Teachers sure know how to load a question to get a specific answer, don’t they? This isn’t just a teacher thing; it is a human thing to do. Begging the question or loading a question with assumptions is a very normal, but limiting, approach to communication.  Let’s look at a simple example from daily life:


Question loaded with suggestion: Do you want to go to Location A? (In scenario where many other options would be just as possible)

Question loaded with Begging the Question: Since you like Location A, when are you going there?

Pure Question: Where do you want to go?


None of the above seems like a problem in most circumstances, but let’s use this simple scenario to understand how loaded questioning works.

The question loaded with a suggestion requires that the person answering either agrees to go along with the suggestion or be put in the position of rejecting it in order to answer with another option.  Think that isn’t a big deal? What if the location was instead a person, and what if the person was standing in the room? Also, people can feel uncomfortable having to reject an idea offered to them, especially if they’re students in a classroom responding to a suggestion made by a teacher.

The question that begs another question in the above example makes the assumption that the person feels a certain way about something. What if this is an incorrect assumption? What if the person doesn’t really like that location, or perhaps just doesn’t want to be there today? Now the person has to wrestle with countering an assumption plus rejecting a suggestion.

The pure question allows for the greatest freedom for the person doing the answering. It also requires the most work from that person in coming up with an answer! If you wanted to help that person a little, offering several suggestions that end with a “or anywhere else you want to go” statement would be the best.

Again, the above scenarios seem rather benign, but we can apply the pattern to other situations. Think of how the same types of questioning can be applied to politics, views on social justice issues, or career exploration topics. What happens when we do this in interpersonal communication? In that literature class, the professor made assumptions about the religions of the students, and even applied her religious beliefs to the interpretation of works by others who also didn’t share her religion. Her questions then assumed that this same religious and cultural filter would always be applied. It was as valid a filter as any, but not the only one. So many assumptions, suggestions, and limitations resulted in a poor learning experience for at least this one student.

I have witnessed several scenarios like the one above, and not always with religion. Political affiliation, socioeconomic perspectives, cultural assumptions, and other personally-important yet limiting filters can come into play. Sometimes it is less personal; the limitations are simply based on the limited experiences and knowledge of the teacher. And everybody is limited!

By modeling careful questioning, and recognizing when a question is loaded, teachers are helping students think critically and openly about topics. They are expanding the horizons beyond their own perspectives. We should never limit students to that which we believe or think we understand. Not only is this pedagogically unsound, it is unethical.


To learn more about teaching students how to question, check out MindShift’s post: Why It’s Imperative to Teach How to Question as the Ultimate Survival Skill


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