Student Experience Research Network Blog

The Student Experience Research Network convened nearly three dozen researchers, students, leaders of educational organizations, and university and school district administrators and educators together with representatives of education foundations at its annual funder briefing to discuss what the education system can do to create environments that signal to students that their voices are heard and that their perspectives matter. This is the first of three blog posts in which we synthesize lessons from the event.

The Student Experience Research Network has long been focused on how learning environments influence students’ belonging, sense of purpose and relevance, and belief that they can grow their abilities. Our 2018 funder briefing focused on belonging and prompted a discussion that led to the theme for our most recent event: students’ perceptions of whether their voices are heard and their perspectives matter, and how those perceptions relate to learning.

Importantly, speakers pushed beyond typical conceptions of incorporating “student voice” into education – in which students may literally be heard through a survey or council, but may not perceive that they were listened to or that their perspective is valid in the eyes of their institution.

By listening to students and being responsive to their perspectives, K-12 and postsecondary practitioners can better understand students’ identities and what they find meaningful based on the goals, values, and cultural knowledge they bring to school. These insights can serve as building blocks for learning environments that can support a sense of belonging and purpose and relevance. At the same time, a climate of belonging and purpose and relevance creates the conditions in which students can feel safe to share their perspectives.

When students recognize something about themselves – be it an interest, a shared goal, or people from a social group they belong to – mattering in their educational institution, this can provide implicit confirmation from the institution that their voice and perspective matters.

At High Tech High Chula Vista, two students launched an ethnic studies course that illustrates how these concepts are connected.

The purpose of ethnic studies, as defined by Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, a speaker at the event and professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, is to eliminate racism, and the content of ethnic studies curricula centers on the first-person perspectives of indigenous people and people of color.

Allyson also referenced the work of the late professor of history Dawn Mabalon, which frames ethnic studies as helping students and educators to answer three questions. The first two connect to students’ sense of belonging by validating students’ whole selves in the classroom: Who am I? What is the story of my family and community? The third relates to a sense of purpose and relevance by grounding instruction in students’ individual and collective lived experiences and their connection to something bigger than themselves: What can I do to make positive change and bring social justice to my community and the world?

Ana De Almeida Amaral, one of the founders of the High Tech High ethnic studies course and now a student at Stanford University, explained how this pedagogy signals to students that their voices and perspectives matter and can help fuel student engagement:

“We mentored students to teach the class with us so that we could have that experience of co-creation and ownership of our education,” she said. “From that, we saw an incredible transformation in our students who, from that feeling of ownership and belonging, became empowered and passionate and excited and angry about all the issues that we were learning about. And it created just an incredible transformation among our students who went from sometimes being detached, feeling like they didn’t belong, to being completely enthralled and involved and excited about their education to the point where they were ready to step up and ready to share knowledge with their peers.”

Ana’s description shows students’ voices being prioritized on two levels. First, Ana and her partner were able to create and teach a credit-bearing high school class that provided the education they sought. Within that class, a climate of belonging, purpose, and relevance, and Ana’s invitation to other students to become co-teachers, helped to engage students who previously felt “detached” from the classroom.

Throughout the funder briefing, speakers challenged the audience to broaden their thinking about the cues in learning environments that can shape students’ perceptions of being heard, including how educators relate to students, whether or not students have the opportunity to co-create their learning experiences and participate in the institutions that shape their day-to-day lives, and whether students have access to curricula and pedagogy that reflect and validate their identities and experiences.

How can inclusion in what is taught and who is teaching shape students’ perceptions of mattering?

When students recognize something about themselves – be it an interest, a shared goal, or people from a social group they belong to – mattering in their educational institution, this can provide implicit confirmation from the institution that their voice and perspective matters.

At last year’s funder briefing, Stanford professor Claude Steele explained that our education system was constructed to serve a much more homogenous community – primarily white and financially advantaged – than it does now. The continued impact of this legacy means that some groups and individuals are more likely than others to receive confirmation that their perspective matters.

“When a student comes into the classroom and they only ever see themselves represented in academics as a victim of oppression, or as a victim of genocide, as a slave, we’re sending our students a very clear message,” said Ana, explaining why she was driven to start an ethnic studies course.

The question of representation in ‘what is taught’ also requires asking what students are taught outside of school and before they enter school.

Francesca López, professor of educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona, pointed out that students of color are underrepresented in picture books, which can lead all students to believe that the stories and experiences of students of color are less important than those of white students.

Francesca also pointed to the deficit-based language that is “all around us,” including in headlines that compare students from minoritized groups to white students and reinforce prejudiced narratives.

Representation among educators also shapes students’ ideas about whose voices matter. Elan Hope, professor of psychology at North Carolina State University spoke to this during the event: “Who’s at the front of the classrooms? Who are in the administrative positions? […] In the 55-year history of my program, my tenure package is in the system now. If I get tenure, [I will be the] second black woman ever, right? This is problematic.”

How can the engrained norms and structures in our education system affect how teaching happens and what does that communicate to students about the value of their voices and perspectives?

“Adultism,” Michelle Morales, president of the Woods Fund Chicago, explained, “is a disease we all have that builds with age. […] When we say things to young people like, ‘Get over it, suck it up. It’s not that big of a deal.’ That is our adultism creeping in of not honoring what that young person is going through and diminishing their everyday lived experience.”

Enoch Jemmott, a student at Queens College and a peer counselor featured in the documentary Personal Statement, echoed this idea: “The atmosphere when students walk into rooms with adults and policymakers… […] you can feel the belittlement. You feel that doubt, and that is what truly needs to reform. [It] is subconsciously affecting students’ voices.”

In order to truly incorporate students’ voices and perspectives, speakers argued that educators and administrators must challenge the expert vs. novice hierarchy that has traditionally underpinned our educational system.

Speakers highlighted several different strategies for doing this, which are featured in-depth in the next two blog posts. They include involving students in the curriculum development process or having students choose their own topics to investigate within the curriculum; supporting students in creating professional learning opportunities for educators; and bringing students’ and educators’ home cultures into education in various ways, in order to strengthen relationships between students and educators and provide continuity between home and school that supports learning for all students.

Izadora McGawley, a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and co-founder of the High Tech High ethnic studies program, described what this looks and feels like: “Our teacher mentors [wanted to] build that relationship where we could see each other as learners from both the teacher and student perspective.” Izadora’s partner Ana agreed: “When we break down that student/teacher hierarchy, we’re able to acknowledge that teachers don’t know everything and students don’t know nothing.”

Adultism can show up at both the classroom and the systems level. District administrators at the event described how expanding their student engagement initiatives in order to allocate more power to students has required a considerable culture shift among district staff.

“I think that we have this frame that culture and learning matter [only] for brown people, right? But learning as a process happens with social others, in culturally constructed environments, towards culturally organized ends and goals; it is inherently cultural in nature.”

Adultism is one aspect of the culture of schooling, which can also affect students’ perceptions of mattering in terms of how students’ home culture is reflected in curriculum and instruction. Na’ilah Suad Nasir, president of the Spencer Foundation and scholar of education and African American studies, addressed this in her remarks about common misperceptions of culturally responsive education: “I think that we have this frame that culture and learning matter [only] for brown people, right? And I maintain scientifically, learning is inherently cultural for everyone. It’s just that schools are set up to be predominantly Eurocentric and middle-class centric. And so the cultural nature of learning goes invisible, right? But learning as a process happens with social others, in culturally constructed environments, towards culturally organized ends and goals; it is inherently cultural in nature.”

While white, middle-class students operate in a familiar cultural frame in schools and postsecondary institutions, students of color, students from families facing economic disadvantage, and members of other minoritized groups are navigating a space in which their voices and perspectives may differ from this dominant culture, creating uncertainty as to whether or not those perspectives will be heard, understood, and respected in schools.

Why is it important for students to perceive that their voices and perspectives matter?

Throughout their educational trajectory, students encounter cues from the environment that either confirm or call into question the value of their voice and perspectives. While speakers addressed this experience across the K-16 spectrum, students’ perceptions are especially acute during adolescence.

Adriana Galván, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained that during this developmental stage humans have an “increased need and desire to be valued, respected, and admired, in part because there are greater connections between the social brain and regions of what’s called the prefrontal cortex, which helps us think about the future and think about our own sense of self within the context of others.”

Meeting these psychological needs has been connected to tangible outcomes in research studies.

Thomas Dee, professor of education at Stanford University, completed a causal evaluation of a 9th grade ethnic studies course in San Francisco that centers the voices and experiences of people from minoritized social groups in the context of historical and current events. He found that students’ grade point average (GPA) in 9th grade increased by 1.4 points on average due to their enrollment in the course. He also found that the African American Male Achievement program in Oakland, which embeds a culturally-centered curriculum targeted to black male students into the regular school day, increased the rate at which students persisted to the next school year by 3.6 percentage points.

Youth organizing is another context in which students may pursue a sense of being heard and respected in ways that contribute to their social-emotional and academic development. Elan Hope found that for first-year Latinx college students at predominately white institutions, political activism also helped to reduce stress and depression caused by racial/ethnic microaggressions on campus.

The experience of being heard can shape student outcomes, but it has to be facilitated thoughtfully. Elan explained how complex and important this is: “We know from years of civic engagement research that early civic engagement is related to long-term participation, better education outcomes, better health and well-being outcomes. But for students who are facing racial oppression, marginalization, and in the worst cases, death because of their race, civic engagement is more consequential. […] In the best cases, activism can build leaders, strengthen skills like critical thinking and perspective taking, promote well-being. And when schools reinforce the structural inequalities, when nothing changes, students face additional threats to their well-being and academic success.”

Whether in political activism, student government, or mathematics education, efforts to hear students and reflect and incorporate their perspectives must happen in a sustained and authentic way. Our next two posts outline the strategies that speakers recommended for developing structures and projects that do this and for supporting educators in this work.

Read the next post in the series >>>

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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