Including student voices in education

This post is a modified version of an earlier commentary I had made on a previous blog, which I have since deleted.

From discussions about student government to policies that give children responsibilities in managing their classroom experiences, common justifications for these practices include (a) that kids will be more invested in their education if they are a part of shaping it and (b) that it gives children good experience in participating in democracy.

I’ve never been a fan of either of those reasonings for including youth voices in the formation of the education vision. I get that both of those things are probably true, but they feel patronizing to me. Basically, we’re asking kids what they think just so they feel included, which we’re doing so they’re “better” at doing what we want them to do. This has never felt like a sufficient reason to include people in democratic processes, as if we’re doing them a favor.

I think that at the root of it, the more compelling reason is that the voices of young people have value in the visioning of education. Yes, of course, we were all children once, but education changes every day, and so do we. I think the value of including the voices of youth is that they are the ones most directly affected by the decisions we make in education, and at least in the short term, they can provide the best insight into how things are working on the ground and what can be done better, what should be better and how they, in the short-term, are being disserviced or benefited.

In the long-term, I think it’s a more complicated question, one to which I honestly haven’t ironed out my answer that well just yet. What does the uniquely youth perspective add to the discussion of the wider economic and social benefits and consequences of education practice and policy? In my estimation, not that much. This isn’t to say that youth don’t have value in that discussion. I’m just saying that I think that what youth can say there, generally, is more muddy in terms of its potential to really make that conversation more comprehensive. Overall, I think that the primary value of including them from a long-term perspective isn’t that it benefits the conversation.

As such, I think that the inclusion of young people in long-term, larger discussions of education vision comes from a different motivation. They’re the people who will be living in the society we’re creating. I think it’s the right thing to do, then, to include them in these discussions. This isn’t an empirical position, since I can’t speak much to whether current structures of student input are actually working, but a moral argument that students need to be in these discussions from a justice point of view. Not only that, but we’ve seen some brilliant ideas come from young people. It’d be a shame to miss out on them because we think they’re “too young.”

So overall, I think the discussion about youth voice needs to be less about how it’ll help students as individuals, but more about what youth bring to the table and the right of students to be there, which I feel like is kind of the point of youth voice.