A personal reflection on my journey as a Dr Vince Ham eFellow, by Karen Nicholls
This blog post is about my journey as a Dr Vince Ham eFellow and how the research process challenged my assumptions and resulted in a significant conceptual shift in the way I understood ‘agency’.
In 2020 I embarked on a collaborative action research project aimed at exploring student identity through multimedia texts. I selected a group of 14 students between 11 and 13 years old. To find out what they thought, I set up focus group hui during which, I hoped, we would discuss their identity as a learner and student in the school, and that the data from these hui would result in examples of texts I would then code.
I went into the process with a strong belief that students had something to say, and that they were strong in their identities, and that what they needed was a space to be heard and celebrated for who they are. I had a plan for how the research process would unfold and I had the first few sessions planned and resourced. That’s what good teachers do, right?
The crunch point
The crunch came early on when two students shared with the group that they were unsure what reflected their identities as they were still working out who they were and what they were like. What I soon realised was that I had to truly sit back and listen to what was being said in our conversations. I had to really hear and respond to the stories of the students.
At this point I had a choice:
A. Continue with my plan and steer the conversations towards the end I had in mind?
B. Recognise that my belief had been challenged and respond accordingly?
From this point onwards, I had to reframe my thinking, slow down and focus on listening to learn, rather than controlling the student voice for my own ends. My focus changed to one of considering the importance of honouring the stories of my students: the stories they were sharing about their own developing identities.
As a researcher, this was exciting. However as a teacher, I had to quiet that voice in my head that was outcomes-focused: What if we just talked about identity and didn’t “achieve” anything? What if student voice was confronting? What if it led me to places of discomfort and challenge?
I chose to centre my thoughts on my students. I considered what it meant to honour their voices, their vulnerabilities, their willingness to allow each other, and me into their worlds. What could this look like?
Do to this, I referred back to the statement of intent I had written when embarking on the research project:
I am passionate about students being represented strongly and securely in their identities in our school environment. A strong and secure identity is a key aspect of student empowerment and achievement. All our students deserve to be seen, heard and celebrated in our place.
While I was still interested in exploring and creating expressions of identity through multimedia artifacts, I wondered whether making space for authentic conversations – truly hearing and responding to student voices – was where the representation and celebration of each student needed to sit.
So, I took the plunge. I put aside my carefully timed and structured scope and sequence plan, and made space for the narrative to flow. This was my first action to honour their voices.The pressure of expectations to DO eased. Students were able to BE. I was able to hear. Together we were able to explore what they wanted and needed to be seen and heard.
So, how did they want to be seen, heard and connected in our space?
My initial assumption was that through the multimedia texts used in our classrooms, we could better represent our students’ identities and provide ways for them to connect with themselves and one another. What I learned was that they wanted to be heard. They wanted to see evidence that their voices, their stories, their lives were important and worthy of teacher time and conversation. In short, they wanted relationships, connections, and response.
The group kept coming back to their shared reality: their identities were developing, changing, growing as they were. They wanted to have a safe place to grapple with all that was going on in their lives as they began the shift from child to young adult. Over and over again I heard how much they valued our weekly research group hui as a safe place where they could be themselves, even if they didn’t know what that meant all of the time. It became a space where they felt that they could speak and be heard. For many, this was not their usual experience of school where in the past when they had given their stories, been vulnerable, offered their voice as a taonga and they had been ignored.
There is power in student voice, and it isn’t a voice any teacher can give. We don’t give voices. We make space for them in our curricula and classrooms, or we don’t. Especially in times like these when our nation is burning, we should listen to the young people. We should center their voices through choice of their tasks, choice of what they want to study, and overall handing them some leadership opportunities. How else will they practice taking over the world (German, 2020, para.14).
In the context of our research, I asked each student to answer the question: What do you want teachers to know?
Their responses were so clear, simple and yet so often ignored in our busy days of timetables, and deadlines, of assessment tasks. Their responses also require kaiako to sit back and truly embrace ako: to learn alongside, to learn from our students, to set aside the need for control and truly engage with our ākonga with their voices at the centre.
So, what did my ākonga researchers want teachers to know? These are their words:
- [Teachers need to] actually act on the information that the students give them.
- We all have strong ideas and opinions. Be flexible, listen and have open ears.
- If we do a Google form / survey, let us know what happens to our answers.
- [Teachers need to] give us the time to speak. Let kids have time to talk to each other and you.
- Leave us to discuss without you. Be aware that we feel pressure to say what YOU want, not what WE want.
This seems simple, however how often are we deliberate about including opportunities to connect at this deeper level, building a culture of trust and openness, and protecting space and opportunities to truly listen and respond to student voice with respect for the gift they have given us?
I have the privilege each day of going to work and learning alongside brilliant and inspiring young people and my constant challenge is to ask: What choices will I make today to honour the taonga that is student voice?
German, L. (2020, August 11). Using Social Justice to Promote Student Voice in Middle School (Blog Post). Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/article/using-social-justice-promote-student-voice