Student Voice-Transformative or Symbolic?

There is a fierce debate on how students should exercise their voice.

Francis is the student body president. She has a 4.3 GPA. She is enrolled in honors and AP classes and has gained early admission to Stanford University. She is a regular contributor to the school newspaper and a member of the varsity tennis team. She has also won two state championships in speech and debate. As part of her presidential responsibilities she chairs the prom and senior trip committees. As student body president she often meets with the principal to update him with the student body pulse. Francis works hard and is determined to use her leadership as a platform for enhancing the quality of her and other students’ educational experiences. 

Josephine is a sophomore. She is enrolled in one honors class and has a 2.9 GPA. While she plans on attending college, she is not yet sure to which schools she’ll apply. She played basketball her freshman year of school but stopped because she needed to get an after-school job. She co-founded her school’s multicultural leadership club, which meets at lunch. In response to students of color feeling unheard and unsupported by their teachers, the multicultural leadership club hosted listening sessions between selected teachers and students of color.  As a consequence of the listening sessions, the multicultural leaders are pressuring the principal to implement an implicit biases training as part of the required annual teacher professional development. The multicultural leaders are also working with students of color at other schools in order to build alliances and support. Josephine works hard and is determined to use her leadership as a platform for enhancing the quality of her and other students’ educational experiences. 

Which of these constitute Student Voice?

Student voice is an umbrella term, broadly defined as any strategy that engages students in sharing their views on their school, classroom, or district experiences (Conner, 2016; Cook-Sather, 2006; Mitra, 2007). However, there is a fierce debate on how students should exercise their voice. Some argue that student voice should focus on student-facing initiatives and events, such as organizing school dances. Others argue that student voice should legitimately inform school and district level policy decisions, particularly as students are the ones who experience the outcomes of those decisions (Conner, 2016).  This debate corresponds to two types of student voice initiatives implemented in schools:

  1. Symbolic Version of Student Voice (SSV): Where student leaders who are already winning in the structures and policies, engage exclusively in youth facing leadership activities while being excluded from structural decision making.
  2. Transformative Version of Student Voice (TSV): Where student leaders, who may or may not already be winning at the structures currently in place, seek to participate in school policy discussions and transform school structures to be more equitable and representative.

Although presented as two types, in practice student voice initiatives can range from the symbolic to the meaningful, and sometimes include elements of both. Symbolic versions of student voice are more commonly enacted in schools and are typically reserved for high achieving, high socioeconomic status, and White students. In cases where Black and Brown students are invited to participate in symbolic versions of student voice, they must usually meet normative metrics of respectability and achievement. Whereas, transformative versions of student voice are more inclusive of all students, but less commonly embraced by schools and are often rebuffed by school leaders. 

There are benefits to both types of student voice initiatives. SSV initiatives boost student resumes and enhances access to college and career. Francis, a composite student featured in the first opening profile, represents the type of student who traditionally engages in SSV. Francis’ engagement in SSV will mostly result in her individual gain – boosted personal resume, leadership experience, and expanded personal network – but will do little in the way of aiding others, expose her to deeper learning, and/or prepare her for civic life outside of school.  Adults, such as teachers, administrators, and district leaders, typically prefer SSV because it maintains an approach to education wherein adult voices, objectives, and preferences are centered in the decision-making process. SSV is built on a long tradition of adultist approaches to education, where adults are positioned as the only or best knowners in the learning contexts, therefore knowledge flows unidirectionally from teacher to student (Cammarota, 2017).   

TSV, like SSV, also boosts resumes, enhances access to college and career, but unlike SSV, transformative initiatives center equity and can promote students’ sociopolitical development. By centering student voice, TSV enables students to engage in transformational leadership, while simultaneously increasing access for others. Josephine too will enjoy the boosted personal resume and expanded personal network that Francis experiences. But Josephine’s leadership will also push the school to be more inclusive at a structural level, potentially for generations to follow. TSV has the potential of addressing “a core issue that has been missing in the discussion of school reform—the dilemma of ownership. Simply put, student voice initiatives push schools to reevaluate who gets to define the problems of a school and who gets to try to improve them” (Mitra, 2007, p. 727).  In this way, transformative student voice has the potential to democratize classrooms, schools, and districts.

TSV initiatives, unlike SSV initiatives, can be aligned to core content and support student mastery of academic standards and enduring civic commitments. In order to host listening sessions and make policy recommendations to her principal, Josephine engaged in action research, which required her to identify root causes, execute research methods, collect and analyze data, synthesize findings, and propose data driven recommendations to key stakeholders. The learning that Josephine gains from her experiences as a transformative leader reinforces core social studies competency while setting her up to be a lifelong civic actor. For an example of how TSV can be aligned to common core standards see the Amplifying Student Voice website.  

TSV Initiatives, such as Critical Civic Inquiry, are aligned with  the Students at the Center Framework, which rests on the core principles of personalized learning, student-owned learning, competency-based learning, and learning anytime anywhere. Josephine’s experience with TSV is deeply personal in that it is rooted in her lived experiences as a racially and academically othered person. Unlike SSV, where the teacher is the primary director of knowledge, TSV allows students to also be knowers and drivers of their education. TSV allows students to lead in substantive and meaningful ways, thereby making their leadership and learning student-owned and competency based. TSV requires students to engage in policy thinking, social science research, and root cause analysis, core competencies that extend beyond the secondary classroom into college and life. Lastly, TSV encourages youth to execute their leadership, their voice, and their skill in any contexts at any time. Unlike SSV, TSV is not limited to the school house, it is a learning and practice that is enduring.  

Despite its benefits, transformative student voice is rarely supported in schools and districts across the country. While SSV is the common practice, Zion and Petty (2013) present a continuum of practices and framework for educators to utilize as they support authentic student voice and engagement. For a rare glimpse of how transformative student voice is being implemented in one school district, see Denver Public Schools Student Board of Education Program as partnered with the Critical Civic Inquiry Research Group.

Additional Resources

  • Get more information on the Critical Civic Inquiry Research Group
  • Learn more about the Student Board of Education
  • Find more information on sociopolitical development.
  • For more information on the different types of student voice, see:
    • Cammarota, J. (2017). Youth participatory action research: A pedagogy of transformational resistance for critical youth studies. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 15(2), 188.
    • Conner, J., & Rosen, S. M. (Eds.). (2016). Contemporary Youth Activism: Advancing Social Justice in the United States: Advancing Social Justice in the United States. ABC-CLIO.
    • Cook-Sather, A. (2006). Sound, presence, and power:“Student voice” in educational research and reform. Curriculum inquiry, 36(4), 359-390.
    • Mitra, D. (2007). Student voice in school reform: From listening to leadership. In International handbook of student experience in elementary and secondary school (pp. 727-744). Springer, Dordrecht.
    • Zion, S., & Petty, S. (2013). Student Voices In School And District Improvement: Creating Youth-Adult Partnerships For Student Success And Social Justice. In Kozleski ,E. (Ed.), Ability, Equity, and Culture: Sustaining Inclusive Urban Education Reform, Teachers College Press, NY

Ginnie Logan is a PhD student at the University of Colorado and member of the Critical Civic Inquiry Research Team.Ginnie Logan is a PhD student at the University of Colorado and member of the Critical Civic Inquiry Research Team. Her work focuses on designing emancipatory civic and STEM related learning environments for girls of color. She can be reached at ginnie.logan@colorado.edu 

This blog was created with support from JFF and KnowledgeWorks through the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative and its funders. Learn more about this work.

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