This was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University. A version of this was published on his Edutopia blog , and he also publishes a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips

School’s out. Politics is in. Five months of presidential political combat lie ahead. It’s time to consider the challenge of effectively educating kids to be active participants in our democratic process.

Here’s what we know:

(Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg)

2) to teach students to be actively engaged citizens you have to enable them to practice this.

One place to begin is to look at whether and how students are included in both classroom and school-based decision-making processes in our secondary schools.

The truth is that instructional, curricula, and policy decision-making usually excludes the direct voices of students, their experiences, perceptions, and preferences. And this is a big problem.

Student Voice and the Teaching of Democracy

Doing research on classroom environments some years ago, I was surprised by how accurately upper elementary school students evaluated their teachers strengths and limitations. Their assessments of their classroom environments were generally dead on. I was particularly impressed with how perfectly they differentiated flexible from inflexible teachers, nailing one of the key variables that distinguishes good teachers and bad teachers.

It stands to reason that high school students are capable of doing this even more accurately. If you spend time talking with high school students about the school climate, you will learn how much they know about even the subtlest political workings of the school administration.

Interviewing students in a San Francisco Bay area high school a few years ago, I was repeatedly told about a known student drug dealer who administrators were hurriedly trying to help graduate rather than risk exposing the school to a public scandal. As one student put it, “It’s the same old game. They don’t want anything in the paper!”

Although using student input for teacher evaluations is a complex and potentially tricky challenge, using student input to help guide instruction and curriculum is a no-brainer. There is no excuse for failing to do this.

The dual purpose is:

(a) to help empower students and train them to use their voices effectively and

(b) to get the best possible feedback to make adjustments in both curriculum and instruction.

The biggest obstacles to this are: habit, the usual key culprit, the allocation of valuable time (“If I take time for this I may not get to the Civil War by Christmas!”); ego (only masochists enjoy receiving negative feedback!); and skepticism regarding the value of student perceptions.

Habit and skepticism can only be overcome by taking the risk of trying it. Time allotment should be easy; this doesn’t take much time. And as for our delicate egos, teachers need to remember that feedback used effectively will always improve student-faculty relationships.

Here are some easy and quick ways teachers can include student voices.

First, teachers should provide some short instruction on the art of giving feedback at the beginning of the semester as one part of preparing students to give each other feedback for project presentations. Click here for one of the many good guidelines for this that are available on the Web.

Second, they should give students a short anonymous questionnaire periodically, to be filled out anonymously. There are only four items: “what I like most about this class,” “what I like least,” “more time should be spent on,” and “ less time should be spent on.”

Finally, a student advisory group should be formed in each class. The students elect two or three student reps who will meet with the teacher or communicate online with her/him once a week to provide feedback on how things are going in the class. This makes it easy for students who might be reluctant to speak up to at least share responses with their rep.

These three small processes alone will:

(a) provide valuable information that can be used in the ongoing formative assessment of your instruction and curriculum

(b) give students a sense of empowerment

But this is the easy challenge! It just means individual teachers making some easy changes. And, I think the more teachers begin to do this with positive results, the more others will slowly try it. Moving to the school-wide level, the challenges are far greater.


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