Thursday, January 19, 2012

Education: not ready to listen?

"The customer knows best." It's an adage seemingly old as time (for us young'uns, anyway). While it's not always the case (as anyone who has worked an intense over-the-phone customer service job before may know), it's certainly always valuable for businesses to listen to what clients are saying--whether surveys, market research, or feedback cards, many businesses have some structure in place to listen to their customers. And public feedback can have an important impact--Bank of America cancelled its $5-a-month debit card fee before it even began due to customer backlash.

In almost every area of the private and public sectors (think of representatives meeting with constituents or city hall meetings), there are ways for "customers"--those receiving the services or being represented--to make their voices heard. So why should education be any different?

Education? you might think. Surely there are those school board meetings or PTAs? But a crucial voice is missing in education: that of the student's. How often do classroom teachers ask students to provide them with feedback on how their teaching could be improved so students learn better? When was the last time administrators sat down with students and gave them decision-making power or at least input--no, not just over the theme of the Homecoming Dance or how to decorate the school for the holidays, but important issues like curriculum, required courses, or assessment?

I'm asking these questions because of an email from a prestigious education membership organization that my mom recently received in response to talks about a potential book I was hoping to write (that would bring issues of student voice, reciprocal learning, and education technology to the forefront). It said that based on their research, the education community "is not yet ready to receive the message from a student."

If the education community is unable or unwilling to receive a message about education from a student, I think we have problems. We'd find it unacceptable if our representatives suddenly started refusing to meet with constituents or if companies like Bank of America kept on charging ridiculous fees despite public uproar. Yet we accept that education doesn't want to hear from students? We are the "customers" of our nation's schools. It's in our interest to learn in the best way we can--many of my fellow students have plenty of wise insights that I think could help change education for the better--but that simply won't happen if the adults in the room are covering their ears.


  1. Anonymous1:04 AM

    There are programs out there that include student and/or parent voice in significant ways. In my own school, we just designed a brand new "Life Skills" course with parent and student input into the topics covered, and in my "Humanities 7" and "Rock Band" courses, students help choose and drive the curriculum, choosing music, designing units, setting and meeting personal learning goals within each unit.
    That said, I agree that we need way more student voice in schools. But at least we have positive models to build on.

  2. Anonymous8:39 AM

    Could you find out what research they are referencing when that educational membership organization responded " that based on their research, the education community 'is not yet ready to receive the message from a student.'"

  3. I think everyone should go to college and get a degree and then spend six months as a bartender and six months as a cabdriver. Then they would really be educated.

  4. I think your book needs to be written. Please continue to look for a publisher. If you can't find a publisher, consider publishing electronically or self-publishing. I am a teacher, have been for 26 years (11 in the public school system). You are absolutely right in your thinking that students voices are neither sought out, nor heard and I personally think the time has come. Education,in great part, is not relevant to the students we are teaching and it not only should be, but HAS to be in order for students to succeed at life after school. Most educational "experts" where I am want every student to be "college ready". What do the students think of that? Do ALL students want to go to college? What is wrong with being an auto mechanic, or electrician or other trades person? Most students who do go to college will need to work to put themselves or help put them through college. We are not preparing students for that either. And innovation, imagination and critical thinking are not at all encouraged in school. It's sad and I for one am thrilled that you are taking on this challenge.

  5. David-Ray7:45 PM

    I enjoyed your article very much. And i agree that the students should have (the ultimate) input into their own education.

    Problem is, in the public school system (and private schools for that matter) the students are not the customers. The state and big business are the customers and they are for the most part a very satisfied with the product that they get.

    Personally, i look forward to seeing more young minds like yours.

  6. We currently prepare our students in authoritarian regimes for participation in a Democracy. We then wonder why their participation in Democracy keeps declining, even while we continue to up the pressure in schools. Crazy.

    Yes, Adora, you are right. We need to listen to students more, and give them authentic voices in decision making. Some of them might make poor decisions, but they'll only get better through practice.

  7. And, that is the sad part. It is not just in the United States but across the world.

    Your book needs to be written. If the publishers don't back it, release it as an e-book.

    On a related note, using the internet some companies are trying to build what are learning marketplaces. The learners rights and feedback is closely sought, monitored and factored in the learning process. It would be interesting to see what do you think about learning marketplaces like and

    Disclaimer : I work with WizIQ courses and follow e-education people on Twitter. That's how I landed here :)

  8. Have you read 'The Play Way' by Caldwell Cook? It was written in 1917 and many of the issues he raises (such as not addressing the student's voices) are still relevant today. I'm only in the second chapter, but I think you'd enjoy it.

  9. Andrew Kewley8:59 PM

    I'm not convinced that the government or corporate marketplace effectively listens to the populace.

    Nevertheless, given the importance of education, there really is no excuse.

    I believe the problem is lack of capacity. The government tries to enforce top-down changes, but to get all involved to discuss substantial or even radical changes is extremely difficult to do.

    For any new idea there needs to be a 'first adopters' which means school boards need to have a substantial degree of autonomy to try new ideas. Most boards even when given autonomy tend to be conservative because they don't want to 'fix what ain't broke' (no matter how ironic that may seem to us).

    It is not just the students that are often ignored, but parents as well.

    The statement "is not yet ready to receive the message from a student." is mostly a statement from ignorance since it hasn't yet been tried on a large scale.
    However the published literature is overwhelmingly positive towards encouraging such a voice.

    For example, you can search in Google Scholar for "education reform student voice".

    If there are articles that you don't have access too (paywall), you can either access through a university network or kindly ask the author for a copy directly. I've found the best written articles are written by the most helpful authors.

    Reading some of these articles will arm you against the ignorance of those who are unwilling to commit to reform.

    “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” ;)

    A side note (though I am not American myself):

    Despite national ideology in the USA being in favour of personal choice, parents are not given a choice of schools to send their children too unless they are rich.

    Contrast this with the Swedish system where the funding follows the student, public or private. (Sometimes called a 'voucher system'). (Also note that private schools are not permitted to charge extra fees).

    This system would permit people to found new schools based on Sal Kahn's system for example.

    Detractors argue that some schools may fail in such a 'market-based' system negatively harming the students at the poorer performing schools.

    Apparently those people are unaware that many schools are failing right now but the outcome is worse because most students and parents aren't given a choice.

  10. I think you make a convincing argument. I hope you didn't feel that you had no input when you were in my class! (Though I know I was a bit of a tyrant.)

  11. Yeah, "customers knows the best" is not always true in all cases its just that we producers always want to know what are the opinions from our consumers.

  12. I love you Adora. Too bad so many adult wont listen - but I think that kids will!

  13. Adora, you are for kids, what Martin Luther King were for the Civil Rights Movement.

    Too bad so many adults wont listen, but I believe that kids are more willing!

  14. London Teacher12:43 PM

    @ Andrew Kewley

    Sadly the Swedish experience has been increased segregation, no significant improvements in outcomes - particularly for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and chains of privatized schools that care more about profit than children and their learning.