Selected from 19 schools, Clevedon School, Marist Catholic School (Herne Bay), Gladstone Primary School (Mt Albert) and Rhode Street School (Hamilton) are the first to participate in Cognition Education Trust’s inaugural Student Voice Impact on Teacher Decision Making project.

Shane Ngatai’s email signature features the words ‘Principal and proud of it’. His school, Rhode Street School in Hamilton, is one of four New Zealand primary schools that have embarked on a year-long professional development project that is all about integrating student voice into decision-making.

Ngatai is clearly passionate about student voice and it is not hard to understand why his school was selected by Cognition Education Trust for the initiative that will see the schools taking part in a series of workshops facilitated by consultants from Cognition Education Ltd. Rhode Street School has focused on including student voice to inform teaching planning and direction for many years now.

Ngatai points to a range of initiatives that have encouraged this focus on student voice, including the school’s student-led conferencing, where students have total ownership and control of the process; over 98 per cent of whānau attend these conferences.

Then there is the “phone home initiative”, where students call their whānau at least twice a week to share their learning successes and log these conversations into the school’s student management system for data analysis.

Students also attend the staff’s professional development and learning sessions to input their ideas and suggestions, which has proved particularly useful in areas such as ICT development and environmental issues.

They run the school’s annual Kai Festival, where over 2000 people attend to sample the kai grown, harvested and cooked by the students. They then decide how to spend the profits for their community.

This year, with the help of the Cognition project, the school intends to take student voice to the next level, specifically targeting its focus to include student voice in designing the local curriculum for writing, reading and mathematics as well as incorporating students’ ideas for authentic learning contexts, modern learning environment design, and whānau engagement. Students will also design the profile for what a successful Rhode Street scholar will look like after Years 1 to 8 at the school.

The school’s appraisal procedures also reflect this focus on student voice, with teachers linking to archived documentation, video and mp3 voice evidence of student voice in action in their appraisal blogs.

Ngatai says that although it is early days, they are already seeing results for this year’s focus on student voice.

Edeh Nobari, deputy principal of Clevedon School, which is also taking part in the project, says so far the project has been wonderful for their school.

“We are really grateful to be on it and feel like we won the lottery!” she says. “The two training workshops run by Cognition so far have been extremely valuable and helped us to develop our project plans and challenged our thinking around how we gather students’ voice and our project design.”

Like Rhode Street School, Clevedon School is using the project to build on what they have already started to achieve.

“Over the last two years we have been working very hard to develop our students’ assessment capability and this project is going to be a huge support as we continue this journey. Our school currently gathers student voice on a variety of things and have started to analyse the data we gain from this but are aware that we need to do much more with what we learn. We are looking forward to learning a lot more about how to improve in this area in order to do the very best for our students.”

Nobari says the project has helped the school to focus its attention on the importance of not only gathering, but of using student voice to inform practice.

“Since starting the project, we have become more strategic in our school-wide focus of this area. For example, we have used staff meetings to look at and develop our school-wide expectations of what assessment capable learners look and sound like at each level, of which gathering student voice is a integral part of this.”

Like Rhode Street, Clevedon’s charter also now includes specific actions on gathering and using student voice, and has incorporated it into teacher appraisal processes.

Gladstone School in Auckland, another project participant, hopes to use the project to build students’ awareness of learning so they can better partake in learning processes. Jesse Lee from Gladstone says that the first step has been to develop the students’ awareness around the language of learning. Interviews were conducted with students across the school around ‘what makes a good learner?’ and it was concluded that students generally do not have the language to articulate what makes a good learner.

Ultimately, Gladstone hopes to use students’ views on their achievement as the benchmark for school planning and practise. It is also interested in student voice as a way to measure teacher effectiveness with an aim to develop effective pedagogy at the school.

Student voice is not a new concept. There is a lot of research, both here and internationally, on incorporating student voice into school decision making: Rudduck and Futter’s UK study looked at the benefits of student input into designing school environments; Jagersma and Parsons’s Canadian study discussed the importance of student voice in curriculum design. In the United States, Soundout is an assistance programme designed to help schools garner meaningful student involvement throughout education through a series of frameworks, each including tips, outlines, rubrics and other devices to help engage students as “partners in school change”.

Closer to home, Rachel Bolstad looked across a series of “student voice” projects undertaken for the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) in 2011, questioning, among other things, how much influence student voice had on engaging adult audiences and assisting in educational decision making. In doing so Bolstad concluded that ‘student voice’ was better reframed in terms of “youth-adult partnerships” and suggested that while these partnerships are already working well in many schools, in other schools they contradict the more traditional ways of thinking about the roles of adults and youth.

In her book Student-centered leadership, Viviane Robinson states that these relationships, along with those with the community, must be strengthened in the course of everything else the school is working on.

“Effective educational leadership is not about getting the relationships right and then tackling the difficult work challenges. It is about doing both simultaneously so that relationships are strengthened through doing the hard, collective work of improving teaching and learning.”

Certainly, student voice can be used in different ways to achieve different things, and this is reflected in the Cognition initiative: each of the four schools is looking to use the project in slightly different ways, reflecting their own aspirations.

The four schools will be given opportunities to collaborate throughout the project. Cognition intends to publish and distribute the collective findings of the project so that educators throughout New Zealand can learn from the schools’ experience.

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