Out of the Mouths of Babes: Bringing Students into the Conversation

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How often do our conversations about students replace our conversations with students?

I’ve reflected on this question in my work at the Mobile Technology Learning Center (MTLC), where our teams endeavor to include students in critical conversations about education. At the end of the most recent session I facilitated, a student remarked to me, “Thanks for listening!”

I was taken aback momentarily as I digested the full weight of her comment. I realized that in her — and many other students’ — experience, schools don’t often take the time to listen (and I mean really listen) and act on student voices. In this case, our work in the session was focused on collaboratively crafting a vision, mission, and values statement, in addition to a “graduate profile” (an outline of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes graduates need to be successful) with the Perris Union High School District (PUHSD).

From the beginning, the PUHSD leadership has been proactive about including all stakeholders in the process, particularly the groups that are traditionally under-represented in the process of conceptualizing educational goals. As such, our cross-sector committee included a number of student, parent, and classified staff representatives (in addition to the typical participants: teachers, administrators, and district-level employees).

Besides participating in the committee, students comprised almost half of the responses to our district-wide survey. And guess what? They have a lot to say.

And what they have to say is powerful.

This was even more apparent in our recent symposium: (Re)Creating Safe Learning Environments and Fostering Civil Dialogue. The highlight of the symposium, apart from a thought-provoking keynote speech by Dr. Mica Pollack, was a panel on how students perceived their schools’ reactions to the presidential election. The panel, composed entirely of students, was gripping. Many attendees commented on how deeply they were affected by these student voices.

Despite the fact that students are the main reason most educators do the work we do, there are few opportunities for students to participate in dialogue with educators about teaching and learning. This is, perhaps, why experiences where they do partake stand out as significant.

This is one reason we engage in a Design Thinking process in many of our professional learning sessions. This method, grounded in empathizing with the end-user, allows us to approach teaching using a truly student-centered angle. That is, we engage in the process with the student in mind as our end user, focusing on their experiences in school as well as their needs and goals.

Educators typically have theories about what students are thinking, and it’s important to have space for them to explore the trends they notice. But using Design Thinking, we don’t start, or stop, with our own understanding of student needs. Instead, we put our own egos aside and approach the work with a beginner’s mind by observing and interviewing students to understand their experience from their perspective.

This is often a profoundly empowering, mindset-shifting experience for the teachers we work with. When educators hear students identify and explain what engages (and disengages!) them in school, it forces teachers to reflect on their role in the learning experience. And this isn’t something that can come from the outside; many teachers can be quick to disregard critical feedback from those who do not deeply understand the learning context. And, students, somewhat by definition, are experts on this.

So, the next time you realize that you are with a group of educators talking about students, I challenge you this:

Talk with them. And if you’re shocked by what you hear, remember: out of the mouths of babes…

Dave Trautman
Professional Learning Specialist, IEE
Follow me on Twitter: @datraut

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