RESEARCH
It's an equal thing ... It's about achieving together: student voices and the possibility of a radical collegiality

Bragg, Sara & Fielding, Michael. (2005)

January 30, 2005

Introduction

According to Bragg and Fielding (2005), it’s not possible to enquire effectively into teaching and learning processes or into school itself without the emphasis on student voice.  They argue that students’ ability to change or influence what goes on in schools is central to education.

They propose that we need to re-examine the roles of both teacher and student, whereby we ‘shift to working with students collegially rather than collaboratively’ in an enquiry framework.   

When referring to enquiry that enhances student voice, Bragg and Fielding identify it as a process for student involvement in examining learning or teaching processes or the school itself.  For example, students may lead an enquiry about the school cafeteria. 

The benefits of student-led enquiry

The benefits of student-led enquiries include:

  • Promoting the importance of student voice
  • Increasing collaboration and trust between students and teachers
  • Improve student motivation and increase sense of ownership of learning
  • Helps teachers tailor teaching to suit student needs
  • Positions schools as champions of student voice  

They aimed to research and make recommendations on the following questions: 

  • Why involve young people in collaborative enquiry?
  • What are the different types of student engagement as researchers?
  • What examples are there of student enquiry in action?
  • What are the benefits of student enquiry?
  • How do you start and sustain student enquiry?
  • What dilemmas and issues are posed by the development of Students as Researchers?

1. Why involve young people in collaborative enquiry?

Bragg and Fielding argue that it is agency and autonomy in terms of students being able to change and influence what happens in schools that precipitates their collaboration. 

They also contend that students have the right to a voice in the increasingly test-driven, heavy scrutiny culture of schooling, as this influences their learning outcomes and futures.


2. What are the different types of student engagement as researchers? 

Four different modes of students as researchers are identified: students as data source, students as active respondents, students as co-researchers, and students as researchers. Each is summarised below.

Students as data source: With students as data sources, there is a real teacher commitment to pay attention to student voice.  This approach utilizes data about past performance, including work samples, attitude surveys or exam results. Teachers adjust their practice for a better informed pedagogy.  

Students as active respondents: With 'Students as Active Respondents' there is a willingness by teachers to move beyond the accumulation of passive data and a desire to hear what students have to say about their own experience in lessons and in school.  Students are discussants as opposed to passive participants in the learning process. This may involve negotiated lesson objectives, students evaluating teaching units, or peer-led action groups.

Students as Co-researchers: the relationship between students and teachers is more egalitarian, where discussion replaces teacher-led dialogue. This may include student-led focus groups or joint research into a relevant area.

Students as researchers: the students are actively involved in leadership and initiation of research. Students are responsible for the design, collection and reporting of data. For example, student-led investigations into bullying.

3. What examples are there of student enquiry in action?

The researchers aimed to identify ways in which students can take the lead while working with teachers to bring about change, with teachers supporting and facilitating the process.

They examine five scenarios of student enquiry in action: Individual teachers working with students, several enquiry groups, researching teaching and learning, the work of the School Council, changing school structures and processes.

These are examined below:

Individual teachers working with students: teachers aim to develop greater student participation in their classroom, through one-off or ongoing enquiries.  This can serve as an effective test before embarking on wider student enquiry initiatives, which can be undertaken by individual teachers.

Several enquiry groups: these may involve multiple teachers and student groups working together in consultation about how to improve teaching content, approaches or assessment processes.  A commitment to student voice and to accessing students' views through student-led research might also be built into school policy.

Researching teaching and learning: students are in charge of investigating issues concerning teaching and learning, such as what makes a good teacher? What makes a good lesson? What helps and hinders learning?

The work of the School Council: students investigate areas, such as playground observations, which are then discussed at school council level.

Changing school structures and processes: students’ own research evidence contributes to changing school structures and processes. 


4. What are the benefits of student enquiry?

The research evidence identified benefits for students, teachers and schools. 

Benefits for students: 

They experience greater control over their learning in a more flexible environment and learning structure, which generates commitment and excitement. 

Students feel pride and satisfaction that their views have an impact on how things are done in schools.

They reflect on enjoying self-motivated activity, with involvement in planning, pace and style of approach, as well as learning useful new skills.

Benefits for teachers:

Teachers reported being surprised and delighted by the students’ capabilities, insights and maturity. 

They developed an understanding of students’ perspectives, and may implement approaches they’ve seen working in the context of Students as Researchers project.

They often developed greater levels of trust, more positive attitudes and higher expectations of student groups.

Benefits for schools:

The higher level of student involvement can make specific contributions to school improvement. 

They became learning organizations that are self evaluating. 

Including students as part of a school improvement project indicated organizational maturity and confidence, and highlighted its readiness to expand the boundaries of its own understanding.


5. How do you start and sustain student enquiry?

Careful planning and discussion surrounding expectations is vital for the process to succeed.

The areas for consideration are ensuring effective communication systems and how to involve students, discussed below:


Ensuring effective communication systems:

Lines of communication and responsibility about the aims and processes need to be clear. This includes students, teachers, student council and senior management.

How to involve students:
Students can either be selected or volunteer. Selection by teachers can lead to student resentment, while volunteering may overlook more reserved students.

Choosing topics to research:
Motivation to see through the action is more likely when student researchers choose the topics. However, it’s important that staff understand and support the topic and that other students feel represented.

Establishing staff roles:
The role teachers play may be quite different to the one played in formal class teaching. Some examples include: helping to organize, encourage, prompt or coordinate and sharing wider knowledge about the school to put things into perspective.

Matching enquiry strategies to the topic:
Careful piloting of research instruments is essential. Student and teacher methods need to be examined and implemented appropriately.

Resourcing and facilitating student enquiry:
Elements to consider include: allocating appropriate time for teachers and students and funding to cover small costs.

The importance of building trust:
All parties need to come together to foster a culture of trust. Starting points may include: considering what different people (students, teachers, senior managers, outsiders) might each contribute to the process; sharing hopes, fears and expectations of the research; and working out ground rules.

Guiding the process:
Student researchers need to be given the opportunity to acquire research and social skills such as listening, responding and negotiating to be active participants in the research. School’s may draw on internal expertise to help with research methods, for example. Others prefer to involve external figures to offer training and ongoing support to students. 

Analysing and sharing the process and findings:
Analyzing the data may involve: breaking it down, drawing conclusions and checking back to see if the data support them, producing a report or record of the work. 

With regards to sharing, everyone involved in the research should receive clear feedback. 

It is essential that the relevant staff provide a thoughtful response to student work.

Building and developing student enquiry traditions:
Schools need to consider how to make the approach sustainable. This may include new staff inductions and ongoing involvement of past students in support roles such as acting as advisors to new groups.

 

6. What dilemmas and issues are posed by the development of Students as Researchers activities?

Dilemmas and issues via the Students as Researchers approach can be viewed in two parts: practitioner concerns, and the limitations and possible pitfalls of student concern.

Practitioner concerns: whose voices, whose purposes?

Teachers may feel anxiety working in a new way, including skepticism about students’ knowledge, intention or competencies to comment on their work. 

Student enquiry is likely to succeed only if teachers are continuous learners, seeking new ideas, analyzing results, reflecting and trying out new practices. 

The limitations and possible pitfalls of student concern

It is important to be reflective and self-aware about the limitations of student enquiry. For instance, we should acknowledge that there tends to be an agreed upon way to articulate a point of view, and an expectation of a positive attitude towards schools and teachers. 

It should be recognized that consultation and participation tend to require specific skills or dispositions, such as the ability to articulate viewpoints in an ‘acceptable’ form, and a conciliatory or positive attitude towards teachers and schools. 

Schools often recognize the risk of creating new elites in the student body, but are less aware of the danger of missing out on those students who are less engaged or quiet learners.

Another consideration is whether students are bringing about genuinely fresh insights, or rather simply ventriloquizing routine teacher-approved ideas.

Conclusion

The student enquiry projects examined proved to be a rewarding and positive experience for young people, teachers and other school staff. 

For students, the projects were found to be motivating in contributing to the development of school. Other benefits included developing skills such as working independently and in teams, across hierarchies of age and status. They acquired attitudes and skills to develop as lifelong learners. 

Students as Researchers formed constructive partnerships with staff, by actively reflecting on the purposes and workings of schools and formulating ideas for improvements. 

As the traditions of enquiry and collaboration deepen, new structures and spaces emerge, which belong to both students and staff as co-facilitators of change.

Under certain conditions, the imperative shifts from school as a high-performance learning organization becoming person-centered learning communities. This process involves a deeper narrative, in which we develop both student and teacher roles and what they can become when enmeshed.


References

Bragg, Sara & Fielding, Michael. (2005). It's an equal thing ... It's about achieving together: student voices and the possibility of a radical collegiality. Published in: Improving Schools Through Collaborative Enquiry (pp.105-135)