Giving Students a Voice

I just completed a timed writing sample as part of the application process to the Doctor of Education program I’ve mentioned previously.  The prompt required me to take a pro or con stance on allowing students to participate in the curriculum development process.  Please forgive the lack of links or expounding on examples; after all, I only had 45 minutes to complete it, and the clock was a-tickin’ the entire time.  Below is my unedited response, as provided to the university admissions folks.

Educators, and teachers in particular, are often relied upon to be experts in many areas: content area knowledge, behavior management, child psychology, and public relations are just a few of the fields teachers must be able to navigate proficiently, if not expertly, throughout the course of their careers.  Most often, when teachers need support in these areas, they can turn to colleagues, mentors, or even external sources such as consultants.  Curriculum development, however, is one field in which the “experts”, at times, reach out to the people most directly impacted by the choices made throughout the process: their students.  This is not a universally accepted practice, as many educators feel that as experts, we should dictate curriculum.  While few people would suggest swinging to the opposite end of the spectrum and asking students to devise their own curriculum in its entirety, there is certainly merit to the idea of students and educators working collaboratively to develop meaningful, relevant curriculum.

Recognizing students as stakeholders in their own education speaks volumes to the tone and atmosphere of a school community.  When students are asked their opinion, whether on a controversial topic discussed in class or a plan for a new school program, it sends a clear message that these young people are respected and valued as members of the community, as opposed to simply recipients of our collective wisdom.  Many school communities give lip service to the concept of respect, but fail to act in ways that support the platitudes.  At one of my previous schools, students were included in nearly every committee-based decision making process, including hiring teachers and professional development planning.  The difference in how those students related to their school versus how students at other schools at which I have worked related is utterly palpable.  While it may not be logistically possible to have face-to-face meetings with every individual student, especially in larger schools, it is possible to either meet with small groups or designated student representatives in the curriculum development process.  This act of inclusion not only actively demonstrates how the school values its students, it also gives the students a more acute sense of belonging to the school community and of having a vested interest in their own education.

When students feel they play a proactive, rather than reactive, role in their own learning, they tend to be more engaged with the subject matter.  Educators are constantly looking for ways to increase student engagement due to the suggested correlative relationship between engagement and learning outcomes – i.e., the more engaged students are with the material, the better they learn.  What better way for educators to learn what engages a student than to ask one?  As desirable as a wholly individualized learning program for each student may be, most schools do not seem to be up to the task yet.  It is possible, however, to collect feedback from students about their individual strengths and interests, as well as potential career goals for older students.  From these data, educators can then work to incorporate their desired skills and standards to be taught into a framework that best engages their students.  Anecdotally speaking, I have observed this phenomenon many times as both a teacher and a school psychologist, especially among students who struggled in traditional classroom settings.  Given the opportunity to practice skills such as research, writing, and problem-solving in a context in which they had some say, they tended to do much better there than when contexts were imposed upon them.  Again, one hundred percent agreement is beyond the scope of most schools at present, but soliciting students for this kind of feedback at least raises the opportunity for increasing engagement, and thereby learning.

Of the myriad of skills and standards teachers are expected to instill in their students, very few are more important than the love of learning.  By tapping students for their interests, strengths, and opinions in the curriculum development process, not only do we allow them to perform better on our local assessments, we also allow them to develop all these skills in such a way that they can and will continue to use them long after their formal education has ended.  When a student has learned to conduct research on a preferred topic, the skills involved in the research process will be transferable to other aspects of his life, both in and out of the school setting.  My former students may not remember every detail of every novel and play we read in our classes, but I would like to think that, because I gave them some flexibility and choice in their assignments, they have retained those skills because they learned them in a preferred, familiar environment, as opposed to being dragged kicking and screaming through the process learning about a topic with absolutely no connection to their lives.  Skills must be taught within some kind of authentic, meaningful context; otherwise, I fear they will be forgotten as quickly as they are taught and assessed.

There are varying degrees to which educators can involve students in developing curriculum.  Certainly, there is no “one size fits all” approach, and each individual district or building must approach the prospect as best fits their unique situation.  There are also logistical and philosophical challenges that each school will face as they attempt to meet the diverse needs of diverse communities; however, these challenges will not deter the school districts that feel strongly enough about the inclusion of all students in their own educational process.  The sense of ownership, community, and engagement that such a program can bring to a school should be reason enough to give each student some degree of say in his or her own education.


  • I love the points you make about the benefits to students of being included in the process. It would be easy to get caught up in debating how to incorporate students in the process or whether they can make a major positive impact…but it’s doubtless that the students would feel valued and take more ownership of their education if they were included. Great points.

  • Thanks for the feedback, Dave, and deep apologies for not responding sooner. I agree that the particulars would need some serious hammering out, and I don’t even proclaim to know exactly how that would look (though I imagine it would have to be different at every school), but that’s what I was going for – that students would perhaps feel a greater sense of investment in the whole process if they were at least helping to steer the ship.

  • BRAVO! As a parent I am always looking to find educators and mentors just like you! I want my children engaged in the process. In return they immerse themselves in the subject at hand and truly take ownership of the process. Thank you for your thoughtful work here. Thank you for all that you do as an educator to engage your children. Keep it up!

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