Creating spaces for student voices

by catherinecronin

“Why can’t we be tested on what we learn,

rather than learning what we’re going to be tested on?”

– Colm Keady-Tabbal, secondary school student

When asked to give a keynote at the ICT in Education conference “Student Voices” at LIT Thurles recently, I knew that it would be impossible to speak for 40 minutes about student voices. Students would need to play a key role. Indeed, student voices were present in many of the workshops and presentations during the event — in addition to students participating in the conference as part of the Youth Media Team (described in previous post). As the ICTEdu conference is focused on creating connections across all education sectors, I shared student voices from 3 different groups: third-level students (IT Professional Skills, which I teach), secondary students (Media Studies with James Michie) and primary students (5th class with Maire O’Keeffe). Following are the keynote slides and a short summary.


The first appearance of “student voices” in the educational literature was in the early 1990s, when educators and social critics like Jonathan Kozol and others noted that in conversations about learning, teaching and schooling: “the voices of children have been missing from the whole discussion”. These critics challenged the previously dominant images of students as silent, passive recipients of what others define as education. Over the past 20 years, many educational research and reform efforts have focused on student voice.

But what do we mean by student voice? The term tends to signify a set of values and behaviours which includes Sound (the act of speaking), Participation (student presence and involvement), and Power or Agency (see Cook-Sather, 2006). Making space for student voices confronts the power dynamics within schools, classrooms, and the relationships between teachers and students. Without addressing the notion of power in these relationships, student voice initiatives may be simply window dressing. When we truly value and create spaces for student voices, students feel respected and engaged, teachers listen, and students and teachers learn from one another.

During my keynote, I included student voices from three different learning environments (as noted above) where students and educators are working towards this goal:

  • 3rd level: The work of IT students was shared via the showcase of student presentations and projects, as well as the CT231 class blog , our class Twitter account, and individual student reflections.
  • 2nd level: James Michie and I have connected for some time via Twitter and I recently joined James and his Media Studies students via Skype to discuss the topic of digital identity. After a fascinating discussion with the students, I asked if they’d be willing to contribute their thoughts on the theme of Student Voices for the ICTEdu conference. They kindly contributed a set of creative slides and videos, many of which I shared, and all of which are available on the CCC Media blog.
  • Primary school: I’ve interacted with Maire O’Keeffe and her 5th class students here in Kinvara throughout the past year, discussing how learning is changing, their own class blog, the 100 Word Challenge and much more. Maire’s students expressed their ideas about Student Voices through a wonderful range of artwork showcased on Flickr, much of which was shared at the conference.

Of course not all students have these opportunities. Students often complain about school, about their lack of choice and comfort, let alone voice. One student whom I asked to share her thoughts about student voice and agency sent me links to these spoken word performances by @sulibreaks — Why I hate school but love education and I will not let an exam result decide my fate, saying “this sums up everything that students feel about the education system and the importance of students’ voices”.

To attempt to give these students a voice at the conference, I invited a talented young filmmaker Colm Keady-Tabbal — still in secondary school — to create a short film for the conference. Colm asked fellow students: “How do you like to learn?” and created a powerful 3-minute film. The message from these students was clear: more freedom, more choice, less listening to teachers lecturing, more practical work, more fun, and more opportunities for connecting and interacting.

Although this film is not directly available online (the participants preferred that it not be shared via YouTube or Facebook), the video will be included in the set of keynote videos which will be available soon from the ICTEdu conference website. Please contact me if you would like the link.

My thanks to every one of these students for their generosity, creativity and honesty. Your contributions led to a powerful learning experience for all of the educators who participated in the conference.

Thanks also to the wonderful Grainne Conole, someone with whom I’ve connected via Twitter, Flickr and our blogs, but had never met before. Grainne explored the theme of Student Voices in her keynote “Learning journeys and learner voices – promoting innovative pedagogies through new technologies”, focusing on the importance of learning design in creating spaces for active, authentic and connected learning. Grainne’s blog post The Trip to Tipp! summarises her experiences of the conference. Thanks also to Martha Rotter, developer at and founder of Idea Magazine, who gave a wonderful overview of student voice initiatives globally. Both Martha’s and Grainne’s keynotes are well worth viewing once they are available on the ICT in Education website.

Many thanks again to all — Pam O’Brien and the conference organisers, the participants, and especially the students — for the opportunity to learn and to share.