One of the highlights for me as a participant in Dell’s recent Teacher Effectiveness and Next Generation Learning Think Tank here in Raleigh was watching Sixto Cancel — a Dell Youth Ambassador and junior at Virginia Commonwealth University — challenge North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory on the role that student voices should play in educational policy and purchasing decisions.

What you’re describing might be great,” Cancel said after McCrory finished arguing for a future a future where students in schools all over the world conducted experiments in virtual chemistry labs and learned from recognized experts posting content online for free, “In fact, I might want to check those virtual labs out.  But how do you KNOW that it will resonate with kids?  What are you doing to get student input on the choices that you are making?


Sixto’s argument was powerfully simple:  You can’t just assume that bringing technology into the classroom is the key to engaging kids.  Instead, you have to actually ask students for input before — AND for feedback after — making choices about how to spend technology dollars.

He’s right, isn’t he?  All too often, we imagine learning spaces for today’s students without ever letting students be a part of the imagination process. 

Instead, we make million dollar investments and push our schools in new directions based on nothing more than our one-sided assumptions about “today’s kids”.  Seeing technology in every backpack and back pocket, we believe that change depends on buying EVERYTHING that Promethean and Pearson are peddling. The hitch is that we are looking at “solutions” through OUR eyes instead of asking for THEIR input.

The result:  We spend tons of taxpayer cabbage without changing a thing about our schools.  Kids sleeping in — and dropping out of — classrooms outfitted with Interactive Whiteboards and 3D data projectors after taking a hundred virtual field trips and dissecting a thousand digital frogs ain’t exactly progress, y’all.

Listening to Cancel — who is an articulate spokesman with experience in front of all kinds of audiences — left me convinced that schools, districts and states need to work to develop Student Advisory Teams.

What would a Student Advisory Team look like?

I’m thinking about a group of 10-15 students who accurately represent the demographics of a community — kids from different grade levels who cut across all social, racial, economic categories — that would meet with decision-makers on a regular basis to give feedback about IMPORTANT policies and purchases.

I’m NOT talking about the go-getters you already have planning Spirit Week and the Homecoming Parade.  And I’m NOT talking about the student council that you meet with once in awhile to talk about the tardy policy, lunchroom seating plans or the dress code.  Let’s be honest: Turning Senior Night or the annual charity car wash over to kids isn’t REALLY an honest effort to tap into student voices.  Neither is gathering feedback from “student leaders” about whether or not the soda machines should be turned on during lunch hour.


Instead, I’m talking about a group of trusted voices — kids who spend serious time learning to evaluate and analyze and advocate — that principals and superintendents can turn to for honest feedback about the choices that they are making.

At the school level, maybe participation on the Student Advisory Team could take place during an elective class.  The team could be charged with gathering feedback from peers, testing out digital solutions that schools are considering and crafting positions and presentations that could be shared with all stakeholders.  A supervising teacher could monitor student progress as well as develop advocacy skills in students.

At the district and/or state level, Student Advisory Teams could meet for regularly scheduled work days during the school year — coming together in a central location with an adult sponsor that could facilitate structured conversations designed to surface student voice and gather meaningful feedback about just what today’s classrooms need to look like.  Members could serve for multiple years, developing comfort with one another and learning to argue passionately on behalf of their peers.

Whaddya’ think?  Is this something you can make happen in your school and/or district?

Better question: Can you afford not to?


Related Radical Reads:

How Engaged ARE Your Students?

Engagement isn’t Something You Do TO Students

Digital Immigrants Unite

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