Tuesday, January 24, 2012

If you could ask students ANYTHING about schools....

Over the last several years, I am starting to realize that I have been somewhat hypocritical about something that is very important to me.  I have prided myself on having an open door policy, and I have always valued when someone has come to my office to talk to me about anything, education or otherwise.   But typically, adults are the ones that come to my office more regularly than students.  When students come to see me, typically it is purposeful; they have a proposal for something at the school, they are applying for a program or scholarship, they are telling me how the weekend tournament went and dropping off a trophy, or they have an issue that they need my help with.  However, with nearly 1400 students, the number of students that just stop by to 'shoot the breeze' is relatively few.  Let's be honest, who would want to come to chat with the Principal?   So when I espouse my belief that student voice is a critically important voice in our school, I am being hypocritical by not going out into their classes and actively listening to them, where they are at. 

That is going to change.

As adults, we (and I very much include myself in this) frequently make many assumptions about our students.   We often assume we know how they feel about our school, about how they perceive us as adults, about how they learn, and what experiences they bring to the classroom.  We assume that we know their likes and dislikes, what engages them and what bores them, and how best to communicate them. 

But if I asked our students, they would tell me
  • anyone over the age of 20 is old
  • there are very few people in education who have ANY idea what is cool (and the term cool?  Not cool.)
  • and FYI, I am not one of those few people.
We make these assumptions because as educators, we can slip into the mindset of 'we have been in this business for a long time'.

But kids haven't.

Each year, a new group of students enter our schools, and they bring their own (and often VERY diverse) set of preconceptions, beliefs, needs, wants, skills, and experiences.  And each year, it is conceivable that if you asked students, they would tell you that we have done very little to discover what those preconceptions, beliefs, and experiences actually are to change our approach to their learning and their being a part of our school community.

I am endeavoring to change this.  And I am willing to do the research with as many focus groups as I can over the Spring Semester. But I need help.

I have shared a Google Document called "If you could ask kids anything about schools" , and I would like to get as many bits of input as possible about things people would like to ask students about schools.  Now I will be asking Grade 8-12 students from our high school of 1350 students, so that may not necessarily fit your learning situation.  But regardless of your particular educational context, I think there is a litany of rich information that I am going to find (and share) that any educators might find interesting.

SO, if you could ask kids anything about schools, what would YOU ask?  Please add your questions to my list so that when I start these focus groups in Semester Two, I will be able to make these conversations valuable and meaningful.


  1. Great project Birk. I added a question that I'd love to ask students. I know that my head of school does exit interviews with students when they are leaving school, but I don't know what he does with the data he collects.

  2. Very nice Cale. It is amazing how the voice of students can change a conversation. For the first time yesterday, our Presidents Meeting (leaders of our partner groups - teachers, administrators, parents, support staff) included the head of the district student council. It was great - changed the tone and the assumptions. We had a great conversation about ebooks and the student relayed his challenges with them. A conversation we wouldn't have had without him, and one which would have been built on assumptions of what students think. I look forward to seeing you share your results.

  3. Great idea - contributed more than 10 questions.
    Best of luck with the project!

  4. I too have added a few questions....
    This was my first experience with a shared doc (probably embarrassing to mention in this forum). I have realized that I don't do "check-ins" and/or forums for general discussions with student voices often within my classroom. I have however found exit interviews using multimedia is an engaging way for students to comment on their experiences in class. I am often surprised by their brashness, honesty and insight that tech. allows. Removing them from the power imbalance of teacher-student face-face conversation has lead me to (in my opinion) more thoughtful responses for reflection.

  5. Interesting idea Cale. Rather than having an open-door policy, how about having an open-office? Try setting up a desk in the Library or some other open area, and have some specific scheduled times when you are working from that location (obviously aware of sensitive materials). Just a thought.

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  7. When I was in Gr. 12 (1987!), my principal Doug Hallman used to ask me and a friend to stop by his office about once a month. He had a couple of widely-spaced upholstered chairs for us to sit in, very lounge-like on the gold carpet in a big office at the old Duchess Park. Doug would light a cigarette, tilt back on his chair and ask us how things were going in the school. That's about it. We were on student council, and had opinions about pretty much everything, so once we realized he actually wanted to know about a student perspective on school culture (and the school building -- very important to students!), we started talking. He followed up with questions and thanked him for keeping him informed. He also took some time to explain why he had made certain decisions about the school that he thought students might be wondering about. He knew this, of course, because he started by listening. Back in the day, the principals in our district made decisions first and let the board office know afterwards, so some of the things a principal did had impact and originality. He showed some trust that we would act as ambassadors for the school and in return would expect that we'd bring problems of a school-wide nature to his attention. My understanding is that he took this approach with most students he talked with. Anyways, start with some basic questions about how things are going for the students in and out of class, and what they think about how the school lives up to its goals. Hopefully you get a conversation about school goals out of this... do they recognize them? do they like them? Once you get the ball rolling they'll give you all the "markers" you'll need to keep the questions going for a while. There is a power imbalance, as Tristan says, but don't give up on face-to-face. If a small group of students can't feel comfortable talking with you, something's wrong... maybe leave the cigarette part out.

  8. Hi Cale, great idea! It is incredible the kinds of feedback and comments students will come up with when given an opportunity and forum to express themselves. 2 weeks ago, 15 of our students attended Edcamp Delta and they all came out of it feeling like their perspectives and ideas are valuable and had been heard by the many adults involved in the conversations. Earlier this week, I had a chance to debrief with many of these students and although we didn't have the time to get in depth, the students were very interested in discussing the impact of marks/grades, technology, student leadership etc. As you mentioned, each year a new group of students enter our schools who do not have experience and have not yet been heard. Focus groups are an excellent way of ensuring that the voices of students continue to be heard. Best of luck!



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