Marc Brasof is an associate professor of education, director of secondary social studies and English education, and the Rosemary and Walter Blankley Endowed Chair in Education at Arcadia University.
Joseph Levitan is an assistant professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University.
Is educational research finding all the necessary knowledge to address the most pressing issues in our education systems? Are educational leaders and teachers learning what they need to know about students to be responsive and effective educators? Does most research have real impacts in schools, and are researchers prepared to do such work?
As educational researcher-practitioners working in schools throughout the Americas, we have come to realize that the answer to these questions, in most places, is no. There is a pressing need to make schools more socially just spaces and to improve student learning, success, and wellbeing. These issues are firmly established in research literature, but only in general terms.
Our collective knowledge is still falling short in identifying specific root causes of injustice within schools to address the most pressing and actionable issues facing students and teachers today (Fielding 2006). Organizational change that fosters transformative, power-sharing social dynamics and treats its members as holistic, whole beings (Woods & Woods, 2012) seems always to remain a dream deferred. To realize the dream of transformative, democratic, holistic schooling, we have found as researchers that working directly with students on research projects produces critical knowledge that can have a dramatically different effect than the typical top-down change work we often see in schools (for an example, see the Journal of Educational Ethical Leadership Special Issue, 2018).
Part of the challenge of moving research to action is creating the energy, time, and space necessary to bring people together—educators after all have so many conflicting priorities and demands placed upon them. Schools are high-paced environments, and educators need information specific to their spaces that will result in substantive and helpful changes. A more inclusive research process can spur the kinds of work necessary to realize democratic aims that improve learning for all and address inequities. In Student Voice Research: Theory, Methods, and Innovations from the Field, we argue that research that helps to address injustices within schools cannot and should not be done without youth. Working with students—engaging with those to whom education matters most—can surface the kinds of critical knowledge that cultivates responsive schools, and research with students supports the development of students’ sense of agency. To get student voice work moving, though, there are important practices and even more important reflections that need to happen in order to understand and address biases (Ball & Jaynst, 2008).
Too many adults assume that students are not mature, capable, or insightful enough to identify the core issues within their lives, despite the growing number of counternarratives emerging from student voice research. Adult assumptions about students lead to school structures that limit and marginalize students’ opportunities to contribute insights. This creates systems in which too much educational research relies on externalized data such as student test scores—adult-created surveys that treat youth as narrow achievement metrics or data points—or educator perspective-sharing that denies students an opportunity to share their knowledge. Though such research is important for surfacing trends, the disconnect between research and practice means that these approaches rely on the kinds of knowledge that are insufficient to provide all of the critical insights to move our systems forward. It is rare to see students genuinely and authentically included as stakeholders in school leadership work, yet they are the main stakeholders.
Where have you seen students invited into the work of understanding school life and (co)leading school change? How can their participation increase the quality of research and practice?
In addition to accepting that youth have important perspectives on school and community life and can be effective participants in change activity, we must ask if the the unproductive assumptions and attitudes about students that lead to externalized data collection also seep into the design of our research projects when we engage with youth. Students bring deep funds of knowledge about their schools and the contexts in which they are learning and growing. However, to make that knowledge actionable and to understand it within the greater ecology of the school requires significant investigation. To do that investigation in a way that brings forth students’ insights, researchers need to consider their personal biases and how those attitudes manifest in the design and implementation of their research projects. That is, the subtle work of individually, relationally, and collectively understanding biases is needed to create open authentic dialogue and adjust the inequitable power dynamics adults often have with youth. Without working through the foundational facets of both self-understanding and communication, reflection, and interpretation with others, we see that attempts at work with students can fall short.
How do you know students are offering you their honest insights? Are these the right students to be asking? Are you asking the right questions? To what extent are both parties communicating well with each other?
These are the kinds of questions we ask when developing our own projects or working with aspiring researchers at our universities. From our over 30 years of combined experience, and after careful examination of the field of educational research and the sub-field of student voice research, we have developed four principles to support the work of including youth in research. Together, we call these principles The Student Voice Research Framework:
- Intersubjectivity: Do researchers and the youth we work with understand each other?
- Reflexivity: How do conceptions of youth, the influence of the researchers’ own childhoods and schooling experiences, and theoretical choices on their interpretation of students’ voices impact our projects?
- Power dynamics: Being that youth are a non-dominant group, how do we address power imbalances between youth and adult researchers?
- Context: How can data collection strategies be more congruent with students’ contexts, including their cultures, experiences, organizational membership, perspectives, and other knowledge that researchers are seeking to access/understand?
It can be challenging to address injustices when we misunderstand each other, when adults are not being thoughtful or youth are being passive, when power strips voice and choice away from the most vulnerable, and when strategies for change are mismatched with their environment. In future blogs we will discuss each of these principles and how they can affect research with students, especially as it relates to addressing injustices in schools and communities.
Our book, Student Voice Research: Theory, Methods and Innovations in the Field elaborates the four principles of the Student Voice Research Framework and shows how these principles are applied in research by top scholars in the field. The book is a guide and reference for researchers and practitioners interested in generating the knowledge we need to build more socially just schools.
Ball, J., & Janyst, P. (2008). Enacting research ethics in partnerships with Indigenous communities in Canada:“Do it in a good way”. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 3(2), 33-51.
Brasof, M. & Mansfield, K. (Eds) (2018). Student voice and school leadership [Special issue]. Journal of Ethical Educational Leadership, March(1).
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