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Meet the editors of... The Student Voice Handbook: Bridging the Academic/Practitioner Divide

An interview with: Gerry Czerniawski and Warren Kidd
Interview by: Margaret Adolphus

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Photo: Gerry Czerniawski.Gerry Czerniawski is a senior lecturer in education at the Cass School of Education at the University of East London, where he is responsible for the education and training of teachers in the humanities and social sciences.

His research interests include teaching and learning; teacher and teacher educator identities; comparative education; teacher values; the impact of globalization on the teaching profession and "student voice". Prior to moving into higher education, he worked in the multi-cultural and urban environment of Newham, in East London in secondary and post-compulsory education.

Photo: Warren Kidd.Warren Kidd is senior lecturer in education at the Cass School of Education at the University of East London, where he is a teaching fellow.

His research interests include podcasting for learning, teaching and assessment; the use of Web 2.0 tools for professional learning in teacher education; and the adoption of the student voice (and e-learning) as a means to "train" vocational education and training professionals.

The Student Voice Handbook: Bridging the Academic/Practitioner Divide is an edited collection of contributions addressing various aspects of the student voice movement. It acts as a one-stop shop for interested practitioners and researchers.

Including case studies from five continents, this volume will locate this debate within wider theoretical and policy perspectives, providing guidance to researchers and practitioners on how to use the student voice within their work. Contributions reflect multiple theoretical perspectives, and all educational contexts and levels.


Editorial mission and objectives

Margaret: Can you begin by providing some background on the student voice – what exactly is meant by the term, and why has it become so important?

Warren: Student voice is a broad agenda and a broad church, and has many different strands reflecting, in most cases, a democratic and social justice perspective on education.

So it might be about using students as researchers; it might be about practitioner action research; it might be linked to issues of social justice and democracy in the classroom or in educational institutions or in society as a whole.

It might also be part of the notion of active citizenry, which means valuing the role of young people and students of all ages in co-constructing the meaning and outcomes of their education.

So the term "student voice" means the involvement of learners in a meaningful conversation which then has the power to transform both the act of learning, and also the institutions and organizations within which they learn.

That act of transformation could go two ways, and a lot of our authors talk about the difference between authentic and inauthentic student voice. The authentic sense is when local learners, institutions and communities construct, negotiate, control, and have an input into the educational systems in which they learn, live and grow.

However, student voice can also be used for more neo-liberal agendas of performativity, marketization and the commodification or consumerism of learners. That's the type of student voice which many of our writers see as inauthentic; not the right use of something which has its background in more democratic ideals.

Gerry: Many of our authors adopt a far more radical and critical approach to the student voice concept. For example, the first chapter of the handbook, by Michael Fielding, questions the very nature and purpose of education and sees young people as being central to a repositioning of what education is (Fielding, 2011).

That sort of approach is a million miles away from one where, for example, some schools might seek to increase their strategic position in the league tables by claiming to run student voice initiatives. In actual fact, as opposed to letting students have a say in determining the direction the schools take, some schools already know where they are going and only consult students on initiatives that are firmly in place.

Warren: However, many of our authors have positioned themselves into the space created by a government agenda and are subverting it. So they are creating the opportunity for some very rich and meaningful engagement with learning which they probably wouldn't be able to do if the agenda of performativity wasn't there in the first place.

Margaret: Do you see the pedagogical issues of active and constructivist learning, which put the emphasis on the student, as part of student voice?

Gerry: I think that it depends on where geographically we are talking about, but pedagogically we are a million years ahead of where we were 25 years ago. Speaking from the perspective of a teacher educator in East London, I no longer see active learning as something different or new, but as a default starting position for any teacher. So for me that is not necessarily where student voice has a particular impact.

Having said that, one of the joys of this book is that it includes international perspectives, particularly in Part Five, "Student voices around the world" [which includes contributions from the USA, East Africa, Australia and New Zealand, Sweden, China and Brazil]. Here we can see that in some institutions in some countries, to adopt active learning strategies is to take a radical position so if young people have a part in bringing that about, then to some extent this is student voice in action.

Warren: I think there are some parallels between valuing learners, and seeing them as having something of value to contribute back to teachers, teaching and educational institutions. If there is one claim the student voice can make, it's possibly that.

Both constructivist pedagogy and the student voice movement see learners as having agency and offering something to teachers, as opposed to teaching being a one-way process. Although we mustn't confuse the student voice with the act of speech itself, constructivist pedagogies are based on the notion that learners construct meaning through talking, collaborative dialogue and interaction, and many in the student voice movement would see interaction and dialogue as essential for radical transformation of educational institutions.

Gerry: Equally though there would be some colleagues that would be completely supportive of active, constructivist learning but not of the student voice movement. So there may be complementarity, but no automatic overlap.

Margaret: What was the rationale behind putting together an edited volume on the student voice?

Warren: I think we've always been quite impressed with the genuine rich diversity of academic research and practitioner enquiry which seems to link the student voice agenda. Just to give some examples of practice: getting learners to evaluate the curriculum or to build their own, learners giving feedback to teachers as an act of educational evaluation, learners co-constructing rules and policies within their organizations through citizenship initiatives, and student councils.

What we wanted to do with this book was find a way of bringing this diversity together. Also to bring together theoretical positioning and educational practice.

Practice and case studies are the very bread and butter of academic enquiry, but at the same time practitioners need to be theoretically informed so that they can move their practice forward.

So the rationale behind the book is to construct a space where practitioners and academics can actually come together and contribute something meaningful around the term student voice.

Gerry: There is also the danger that we tend to construct and view education based on what we know. What has sometimes been referred to as an "apprenticeship of observation". As a researcher I've been very lucky in that I've been able to travel and visit different sorts of schools in different countries.

Going to countries like Germany, Finland and Norway, for example, you see fundamentally different sorts of relationships between pupils and teachers – relationships that are far more democratic and lack the contrived distance that many British teachers construct with their pupils. So for me the starting point was very much to get an understanding of how education works in different countries.

That was part of the rationale behind a conference on student voice we put together in April 2009. We were incredibly lucky to have a fantastic array of speakers, including top academics and leading practitioners who also agreed to contribute to the book.

Warren: However, this book is much more than conference proceedings; in one sense it has no connection with the conference beyond its inception.

There was a moment when we were both sitting in the lecture theatre listening to one of the keynotes, and looking round the room at the diversity of the audience – we had younger learners in school uniform, top international academics, teachers, practitioners, action researchers – we both thought, we've constructed this space, wouldn't it make a great book?

Margaret: The chapters of the book follow a very clear structure – setting student voice in context; case studies of student voice in specific contexts; student voice and teacher training; research on student voice. How did you decide on this structure and how did you select the topics?

Gerry: We wanted to represent the different sectors of education and the complexities and dynamics that you find surrounding student voice in primary, secondary and lifelong learning sectors. We also needed to address the diverse and passionate theoretical discussions and debates which, in some cases, set policy initiatives.

It was also very important to get away from what I see as an Anglo-American white middle class conception of student voice. There's some great stuff happening in South America, for example and in many other parts of the world, and we hope we have been able to give a flavour of this in the book.

Warren: We wanted a multi-contributor book, something that would capture diverse voices about student voice; we wanted a space where there would be a meeting of theorizing on the one hand and practice and case studies on the other. We wanted theory informed by practice, but also practice informed by theorizing.

So the book's subtitle, Bridging the Academic/Practitioner Divide, came to us very early on and we feel that it sums up the nature and flavour of the book and its diversity.

Gerry: In reality, practice and theory don't always inform one another, but the book provides the opportunity to make those links. Practitioners have launched some amazing initiatives, but they are not necessarily being informed by the bigger debates going on. What is fascinating is that some of the theoretical chapters earlier in the book pick up on situations where these initiatives have emerged.

Margaret: Emerald's core values are about research influencing practice, but business practitioners (at least) don't always take a lot of interest in research. To what extent is there a research culture in schools?

Gerry: On the one hand, continuing professional development permeates many senior management agendas, but on the other, sadly many teachers are phenomenally over-worked, and have little time for engaging in academic matters even though many would if they could find the time.

But, I also think that we don't really have a research culture in most schools in the UK, unlike, for example, Finland, where research is absolutely embedded into the professional identities of teachers from the start. Many European countries also have a significantly longer period of training in contrast to the year that most trainee teachers experience in England.

The process

Margaret: Putting together any edited volume is a major undertaking. How do you manage the process of finding contributors, reviewing drafts, etc.?

Warren: The process began at the 2009 conference, where we were lucky to have had some absolutely key people.

We talked about the possibility of constructing a book around student voice issues at the end of the conference. We were lucky that some internationally recognized academics and nationally recognized practitioners agreed to be contributors, which added a legitimacy to the enterprise (we call it the Bob Geldof factor) so other people started saying yes too. So we had an initial burst of activity and enthusiasm which got the project off the ground.

Gerry: What also helps is that Warren and I have written together and actually taught sociology together at a sixth form college. So we clearly know one another very well professionally; but we also work together at this university, so that makes it very easy to communicate as we can just walk along the corridor to each other's offices.

Margaret: How did you make the contributors stick to time?

Warren: We didn't need to make them, they wanted to. We were absolutely clear with all our communication; we structured a regular series of deadlines all of which had meaning and value. We also communicated with our authors on a very regular basis with updates of our discussions with Emerald, so that they could see our own progress.

Gerry: The moment that Emerald gave us the design for the front cover, we sent it out to all the authors; we also let them know as soon as Emerald told us that they were going to launch the book at BERA (British Educational Research Association), the biggest academic educational event. So we just kept the momentum going.

Warren: We supported different authors differently; we are conscious that first-time, practitioner authors, who may have presented at conferences but never written something up, need more from us than their internationally established research colleagues.

So for the former, we built in absolutely rigid and formal acts of review, starting with a first draft. And we each read everything, but separately, meeting together at various points to look at each other's comments.

Gerry: We gave formal feedback, with track changes and a separate front sheet with bullet points and key messages. This support and guidance was appreciated and really added value to our authors' work.

Very early on, even before they'd written the articles, we asked all the authors for an abstract and keywords. Then we got all the abstracts out to our authors to give them a sense of what was in the book and what the expectations were.

Warren: It also builds momentum; you are not an individual author writing for something from which you feel disconnected, but you are part of something bigger, a group of colleagues. Knowing that will make you more likely to deliver on time.

One of the things we became aware of as editors was that we had contributions of varying length: initially, we asked for longer theoretical contributions, conscious that first-time practitioner authors might not feel comfortable writing 5,000 to 7,000 words, but it didn't quite work out like that.

We've also got chapters that are very different in style – one is presented as a conversation between two people, lots of practitioner chapters are written in a very practical way, a couple are presented as personal anecdotes, and we also have the theoretical chapters.

We wanted different voices, approaches, perspectives, countries and educational sectors, but we didn't want something that was all over the place.

So in the end, we imposed our own structure through having chapters start and end with similar headings, which we made clear to authors from the start.

The wider context

Margaret: How does involving students in curriculum development and design of learning sit with the very prescriptive, target-oriented nature of much (at least secondary) education today?

Gerry: This picks up on the discussion we had at the start of the interview. If you look at it through a radical lens, if you consult and involve young people and solicit their views, these young people have got such unbelievably in-depth insightful understanding about what good teaching is, albeit through the lens of the world that they understand.

If you allow these people to give feedback that goes beyond thinking about school in the way they perceive it, then there's some real space for exciting initiatives which I think come through very powerfully in this book.

Equally if you go to the other extreme in situations where student voice is part of the whole school improvement agenda, there's lots of evidence, and again the book reflects this, of students being extremely responsible and offering insightful advice and guidance to teachers.

Warren: There should be a health warning around the inauthentic capture of student voice; as many of our contributors comment, it's possibly another layer of institutional control, another mechanism or discourse through which we exercise control over young people.

But the authentic use of student voice can actually be made possible by the very liberal market agendas that your question refers to and can subvert those agendas.

So you can have your cake and eat it, and student voice can actually be viewed by institutions in the way that targets and funding mechanisms are asking them to, and at the same time provide an additional means through which we support the growing agency of learners and democratic values within our education system. But that doesn't happen very often.

Gerry: The problem is, students' views on education can be conditioned by their perception of those institutions where they receive their education. So as long as we're only getting kids to pass judgement on institutions that they understand then we are losing opportunities for their wider and more critical engagement about the nature and purpose of education.

Where it starts to become incredibly exciting is when young people are encouraged and trained to become researchers, and look at different sorts of educational environments outside the institution where they are studying, then come back to their home institution and bring about change, whether it be through action research or other means.

Warren: I think capturing student voice and being seen by students and learners to listen to it has genuine value morally, in terms of the wider notions of social justice and education for citizenship, but it also has value pedagogically because you are getting learners to articulate their learning and how it sits within the organization they are part of.

But as Gerry quite rightly points out, they offer an opinion which is heavily contextualized by the unique locations they learn in.

In a sense that is also true for teachers – they are bound by the social and cultural context in which they practice.

But that is also a reason for involving student voice in teacher education, because through doing so we can show it has value to trainee teachers, something we would wish them to value as professionals. Learners articulating their learning, and teachers using that as a stimulus and source material for evaluating their own pedagogies, that seems a really valuable exercise.

Margaret: How can students evaluate teaching without it getting too personal?

Gerry: There's a fantastic article by Joy Morgan that deals exactly with this issue. Joy works in a school where the student voice initiative is extremely powerful but with a specific interest in training teachers (Morgan, 2011). Her work highlights how ethical relationships between teachers and pupils is an incredibly sensitive issue, and many teachers don't like the idea of student input in teaching.

So how that sort of evaluative relationship is cultivated is incredibly important, and there are lots of sensitive dynamics and ethical issues. And yes, you should make it clear to your learners that it's definitely about teaching and learning and not about the person.

Margaret: Is action research – firmly based in, and impacting on, practice – the "dominant model" in student voice research?

Warren: It's not the dominant model, but it does have a very strong relationship with student voice research when done by practitioners researching their own context, and seeking to transform it.

Gerry: I think that what's fascinating about student voice and action research is that both can be subject to a huge range of interpretations. As with student voice, action research can be hijacked into quite a narrow focus on school improvement. But where there is genuine transformation and emancipation, then when these two strands overlap you've got something magical taking place.

References

Fielding, M. (2011), "Student voice and the possibility of radical democratic education – renarrating forgotten histories, developing alternative futures", in Czerniawski, G. and Kidd, W. (Eds), The Student Voice Handbook: Bridging the Academic/Practitioner Divide, Emerald Group Publishing, UK, Ch. 1.

Morgan, J. (2011), "Students training teachers", in Czerniawski, G. and Kidd, W. (Eds), The Student Voice Handbook: Bridging the Academic/Practitioner Divide, Emerald Group Publishing, UK, Ch. 12.

Publisher's note

Gerry Czerniawski and Warren Kidd were interviewed in May 2011.