The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Students don’t need a ‘voice.’ Here’s what they really need.

Placeholder while article actions load

Sam Levin was a student when, in 2011, he founded the Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Massachusetts. He had thrown out an idea to administrations about allowing students to create a learning environment in which teachers serve as mentors and coaches while students post questions and design ways to answer them in unorthodox ways. The project started as a pilot and is now in several different schools. Levin graduated and went to Oxford University in England, where he is now a senior. Here’s a piece he wrote about what students really need in school.

By Sam Levin

I hate the phrase “student voice.” I’ll tell you why.

People are starting to throw this phrase around a lot in discussions about education reform. “We need to give students a voice.” “More student voice!” “A place for students at the education reform table!” But I think it’s a mask.

When people talk about giving students a voice, what they’re really doing — whether they realize or not (and to their credit, I suspect they don’t) —  is finding a band-aid solution to a big problem that really needs surgery. “Student voice” is cushy and comfortable because it doesn’t actually require serious, deep-rooted change. We do need to give students something, but it’s not a voice.

I know, because I’m a student. I’m in my final year at university. I also know because four years ago, in my junior year of high school, I designed an alternative school, one that was run by students, and I implemented it as a school-within-a-school at my public high school in Western Massachusetts. As you can imagine, it was a hard sell. Convincing an entire faculty and an elected school board to allow a student led school to run for a whole semester took a lot of legwork. But, in the end, they approved it, and what happened next was pretty cool.

In our pilot year, my senior year, there were eight students in the program. They spanned the spectrum from kids on the edge of dropping out of high school to straight-A students headed for the Ivy League. The program was split into two components. Mornings were dedicated to academics. First, we had the sciences, in which each of us came up with a natural and social science question for each week, and spent Monday to Thursday finding the answer, through books, people, the internet, and experiments. On Fridays, we would teach other about what he had found. Then we had the Arts, in which we practiced the art of reading and writing, and the art of mathematics. The afternoons were dedicated to our individual endeavors, which could be anything we wanted, as long as we were excited about it and it could take up a whole semester. Write a play, build a boat, synthesize a protein.

Those five months were some of the most amazing months of my life. Kids about to drop out not only finished high school, but became passionate about their education. High-flyers who had been coasting by pushed themselves more than ever before. We learned about Mobius strips and toruses, we read Faulkner and Wilde, learned to teach each other and push each other. Joe wrote two novels, Eric made a film, Sarah made podcasts about rape and domestic abuse. And when the semester finished, the group decided that they wanted to make a video about the Independent Project, because they wanted other students to be able to experience what they had.

There are now two videos about the Independent Project on YouTube. Between them, they have 120,000 views. As soon as the first video went up, e-mails began pouring in from students, teachers, parents and principals from all over the world — all with the same message: “we want to try this in our own schools.”

Last October, I attended Waterloo Global Science Initiative’s Equinox Summit. The purpose of the summit was to design the high school of 2030, and I was invited because of my experience with the Independent Project. Forty of us gathered from all over the world, from all different backgrounds, and spent a week arguing, talking, thinking, and, eventually, agreeing on a model for the school of tomorrow.  We’ll be launching our blueprint at the coming World Literacy Summit, in Oxford, England. I’m excited about that, and I’ll be there to take part in the fascinating and crucial conversations about the future of education. But I’ll also be there as a watchdog, to make sure people aren’t using the phrase student voice.

Why? Because students don’t need a voice. I think the Independent Project, now in its fourth edition at my school, was a success. I think it demonstrated the amazing things that can happen if we make some simple, but profound changes to our schools. The change involves giving something to students, but it’s not a voice. Students already have a voice. They have student senates, and student advisory committees. When people talk about student voice, they’re talking about feedback sessions and letting students be part of hiring committees. When they say, “Let’s give students a voice,” they mean, “let’s give them a seat at school board meetings.”

That’s not what they need. They need a lot more. We need to give them a pen and a microphone and a hammer and a shovel and a chalkboard. We need to give them a classroom and an audience and blank sheet that says “curriculum” at the top. We need to give them a budget and a building.

Kids are disengaged. They aren’t learning, and a lot of what they are learning is no longer relevant to the 21st  Century. Fortunately that’s becoming more kosher to say. It’s no longer radical; people are starting to see the problems. But unfortunately, a lot of the proposed solutions aren’t radical enough. They’re superficial.

People talk about giving students a voice. A seat at the table. If we’re going to solve these problems, we’re going to need more than that. We want kids to be engaged in learning, to be excited to show up and happy about school? Give them real agency in their own education.

We want kids to be learning, to be passionate about their work? Let them learn things that have real meaning to them. Make them the authors of their curriculum.

We want kids to learn how to learn, to be innovative, to make change, to be able to tackle the nuanced and constantly shifting problems that the future presents? Don’t give them a voice. Give them our schools.