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Incorporating Student Voice: Choosing Courage over Comfort

Exploring the Power of Student Voice
By Anna Rose Sugarman
Incorporating Student Voice: Choosing Courage over Comfort

Photo by jose aljovin on Unsplash

Throughout my career I have engaged in many conversations with students that have shifted my thinking over time. In most cases, I have found that students are very honest with me and grateful to have an adult authority listen to them. Early in my practice when I pre-assessed gifted students for mastery, some students who pre-mastered the material would ask me to allow them to participate in an upcoming lesson to further build up their confidence. Others would request permission to study a topic in greater depth. We would work together to design their learning paths. Having the privilege of being the Coordinator/Teacher of the Gifted, I had flexibility to advocate for alternate pathways with the classroom teachers based on student voice.

Over the last twelve years, working as a professional learning coordinator, a great deal of my work has involved working with teachers designing curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of students. Through this work, I have found, in most cases, that teachers design instruction and content according to what they feel confident in teaching and how they feel confident teaching it. During our sessions, I put forth questions to push teachers to think more of student engagement. How do students respond to the activities that you have used? How do you know that the assessments accurately measure the learning targets? Have students had any voice in the trajectory of the learning? Most of this planning is based on teachers and their thinking. In fact, to date, I cannot ever remember having a student involved in this planning. Most recently, I have started to ask students about what is the best way for them to learn, inviting them into the conversation.

The reality is that most of us listen to children’s voices early on. At some point in time, we have been around a new baby in the family. With the newborn comes an entirely new language where we are constantly listening to assess what the baby needs or wants. When the baby becomes a toddler, we are able to witness the child at play, without formal language, expressing joy and laughter when learning successfully or crying when frustrated. We learn about how they learn best by listening to them and watching them, making continuous adjustments to facilitate that learning. How can we continue this process throughout their school careers?

Throughout history, voices have been used to change our society. Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Anne Frank, Sheryl Sandberg and Sting have all used their voices and influenced our lives. In recent years, we have heard single voices working together as a collective for social justice, as with the students of Parkland School in Broward County, Florida, USA, who won the Children’s World Peace Prize for speaking out on gun control. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, other students across the world have been speaking up about climate change to move nations forward in saving the planet. During the pandemic, many students self-promoted their thinking about various ideas and topics using YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. It is very clear that their voices have power.

Student voice “refers to the expression of values, opinions, beliefs and perspectives of individuals and groups of students in a school and to instructional approaches and techniques that are based on student choices, interests, passions and ambitions. Listening to and acting on student preferences, interests and perspectives helps students feel invested in their own learning and can ignite passions that will increase their persistence.” (St. John and Briel, 2017)

The Learning principle of the Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE) New School Project states that, “We ensure dynamic, engaging, impactful and joyful learning experiences owned and driven by learners.” If this is foundational to our practice, then student voice becomes part of the driving force for our schools. Five years ago, I proposed a program level leadership outcome for Shenendehowa’s district goals to increase listening to our students. “Student focus teams are formed and meet annually to identify instructional practices that work best for them to increase their learning.” While this was a meager beginning, as I went throughout the district and interviewed students, principals started to listen to the students.

John Hattie states that, “Feedback is most powerful when it is from the student to the teacher” (2009). When beginning this work, parameters for the use of student voice have to be clearly defined and adults have to hold an open mind for exploring new possibilities. Ground rules and norms for student voices have to be established. One of the difficulties that can be encountered in this process can occur when adults receive feedback that they are not ready for or do not want to hear. Preparing adults to listen first, reflect and then respond is essential. Working with students to put their ideas into action builds student confidence and benefits the organizational culture.

Leading with “fearless inquiry and collaborative interrogation” as Will Richardson and Homa Tavangar have proposed lead us all to use provocations in this process. What systems do we have in place to listen and act on student voice to improve their learning experiences? How do we ensure that students own and drive dynamic, engaging, impactful and joyful learning experiences?

Pathway to Empowerment

There are many ways to begin to access student voices. In 2011, Grant Wiggins surveyed 9,600 students offering two prompts: “I learn best in class when…” and “What is a very common teacher practice that occurs all the time in class but just does not work for you?” Either prompt offers an entry point for surveying students. To begin, classroom teachers can simply start to query their students with a learning style inventory. This information can be integrated in planning to include more student choice. Using video recordings allows teachers to capture the interactions where the students are most actively engaged.  Flipgrid can be used by students to record their thinking about how they learn best. Simple methods such as exit cards or post-it notes on the way out the door also provide valuable feedback instead of waiting until the end of the course or year.

Recently, I have been conducting book studies for students on The 9 Big Questions by Will Richardson and Homa Tavangar. In reflecting on the recorded sessions, I try to identify areas where we need to close the “knowing-doing gap.” This includes how we measure student learning, the type of assessments we use, and flexibility in learning environments with student self-selection and time management. Looking toward the future, my vision includes students and teachers planning curriculum and lessons together, students working with our administrative teams in our strategic planning sessions, and developing new courses for high school. The possibilities are endless.

Moving forward with designing schools that are more student-centered, we require a collective vision, action plan, persistence, and lastly courage. As Brene Brown says,  “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; it’s choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast or easy; and it’s practicing your values, not just professing them” (2018). In my own work in pursuing this challenge, I try to remain fluid in my thinking of what learning can be.

At the end of each session when working with students, I ask them to share what they are thinking or what they are feeling about our discussion. They have responded with, “It’s been really great to listen to different perspectives and meet new students!” and “Inspirational or groundbreaking? More like revolutionary.” This is the heart of the matter; student voice empowers me to choose courage over comfort. What about you?


Brown, Brene. (2018). Dare to Lead. New York, NY: Random House.

Hattie, John. (2009). Visible Learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

St. John, Kendel. and Briel, Lori. (2017, April). ”Student Voice: A growing movement within education that benefits students and teachers”. Center on Transitions Innovations.

Wiggins, Grant. (2011, December). “The student voice - our survey, Parts 4 and 5”.


Anna Sugarman is an international educator who has worked with international schools for more than two decades, is the Professional Learning Coordinator at Shenendehowa Central Schools in Clifton Park, NY and has spent over 30 years working with gifted children.

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