According to many of the individuals, organizations and networks I follow on Twitter there is a keen interest in student voice and engagement.  What I find exciting is that the corresponding advocacy seems to be across all grades acknowledging the opportunity for students of all ages to express themselves and contribute to their learning and development.

What I find challenging is that for many of these advocates the focus is on student voice, ensuring schools hear and consider the voices of students.  For me, student voice is a starting point and by no means the ultimate strategy for students to contribute to school change and education reform.  Whereas student engagement puts voice into action.

Students need to be engaged if we actually believe they are part of the school community.  They need to be empowered and have the skills to make good choices for themselves, their peers and the school community even when adults are not present.  This level of support requires a high level of commitment and investment by all members of the school community.

Let’s consider how we treat and what we expect of others and ask:

  • Do we want our employees/co-workers just to feel they can say something that may be considered or do we want them to be able to take the lead and put ideas and strategy into action?
  • Do we want our fellow community members simply to feel they can voice their concerns and frustrations or do something about them?
  • Do we want our teaching colleagues to voice a problem in the school or do we want them to be motivated, supported and empowered and have the skills to do something about it?

Student voice means that they are part of the conversation, their input is considered but they may or may not have influence on decisions.  It means students have an outsider’s input on a system.   Student engagement, however, puts students in the position as the primary drivers of work from conceptualization to implementation.  Students are part of and have ownership within the system.  Control in voice is wholly with adults and corresponding accountability and responsibility lie with adults as well.  Student engagement requires co-ownership and shared accountability and responsibility for results and impacts.

To further this comparison the roles and responsibilities of adults supporting student voice center on developing and setting agendas that include input from students; in student engagement adults provide a supportive role and create a more equitable and balanced relationship between students and adults in schools.  Therefore adults move from management to coordination to partnership to coaching responsibilities as students advance from participation to voice to leadership and ultimately to engagement.

To me, it makes a difference if we encourage students to have a voice that can be considered versus expecting students to co-develop and lead efforts that improve schooling and lead to positive education reform.  The former is an option for schools the latter is a commitment and obligation that students can be fully engaged in school-based deliberations and decisions.

For example, we can seek student input into the food that is available in the school’s cafeteria or we can rely on students to determine how effective the current food vendor is providing high-quality nourishing food and suggest ways that food can be better selected, prepared and offered.  This means that they not only have to understand the school’s needs, the system that fulfills them, but their own and other students’ nutritional needs as well.

Corresponding student engagement actually occurred in a middle school I visited in which students identified the characteristics of nutritious school meals, created an assessment of the existing food services, conducted a corresponding evaluation and used the data to suggest significant changes.  Their engagement led to a change in the food vendor ensuring more nutritious food for students.

This strategy is different from student voice where a focus group of students respond to questions and share their experiences but with no guarantee that their insights will be part of the decision-making process.  Voice in this case is similar to just being able to vote, but not being a part of the system of organizing campaigns.

I encourage each of us to consider whether ultimately we want to hear students’ voices or authentically engage them in deliberations and decisions that lead to more effective and efficient teaching, learning and leading.

I believe student voice is a good beginning but a focus on student engagement is more beneficial to students, adults, schools and communities.  Student engagement requires higher levels of encouragement, support and commitment and from my experience is well worth the work by both students and adults.

NOTE: This blog is informed and influenced by Anderson Williams’ Understanding the Continuum of Youth Involvement framework. To find out more about Anderson’s work, please click here.


Terry Pickeral
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Terry Pickeral

Terry Pickeral, has extensive experience in policy development, advocacy, education reform, youth leadership, teaching and learning strategies, education collaborations, evaluation and civic development. His commitment is to ensuring schools create and sustain quality teaching and learning environments for all students to be successful in school and contribute to their communities as active principled citizens.
Terry Pickeral
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