August 01, 2007

How much do schools really value pupils' views?

Time for a story? When I was a school pupil I worked all six years of secondary school on the school magazine, the Pupils' View. The name of the magazine was the title, the mission, the raison d'être of the whole thing. It made life easy. And it made life difficult, too.

When I was editor we sold up to 700 copies of it four times a year at 25pence (50c) in a school with just over 1000 students. As Editor I faced my fair share of tense meetings with the Head Teacher, attempts, in vain, to stop us publishing certain stories which might not fit the PR the school would have liked.

My crowning moments were, at the age of 13, writing a story about the unhealthy options costing half the price of the healthy options in the school canteen - the chief of catering resigned from her post as a result. I also wrote a special edition outing what I saw as a 16 year old, as an abuse of power, when a visiting clergyman suggested that homosexuality was nothing but a disease that could be cured. That hit the national press.

In fairness, despite some stressful and probably unfair moments on both sides, the Head Teacher of the school let us publish and be damned. He's still there. He's a good bean.

What I left Dunoon Grammar School with aged 17 was a sense of what is right and what is wrong, and a faintly arrogant, maybe immature view that the student voice is the most important voice - bar none - in the school.

Lip Service
I just think that most schools, conferences on education, Education Authorities still pay lip service to student voice. Is this ungrounded? No. The vast majority of education authorities the world over still block and filter social media sites like Bebo and YouTube where students can post their views, without making any attempt to educate youngsters on how to express their views. Yet this is the main point of communication for today's teens and tweens. Pupil Councils with hand picked 'good students' held in musty rooms at school are not where the real democracy in today's schools should be taking place.

Yet the UK's Professional Association of Teachers, currently having their national conference, is thumping down the line of "all social networks - especially YouTube - should be banned". The call is coming from its Scottish leader, which makes me wonder if I'm doing my job correctly. It's the same group that called for wifi to be banned. You get the picture. All evil in the world is because of The Devil's Machines.

To say I'm disappointed would be a lie. I'm just amazed at the continued ignorance of large swathes of the profession who concurrently use their influential positions to give misinformed, half-baked analysis of the current situation. I don't see any desire or inclination to spend a little time trying to understand the positive pedagogical changes that these tools can bring.

How far do you go? How much do you care?
Which brings me to the kind of citizen art I would love to see adorning our schools but which, after a week of news like the stuff above, I think wouldn't make it to any school common area soon. Post-it notes displayed in 'To Do' fashion [above], with an open invitation to passers-by to leave their 'To Dos' [below]. It's the kind of thing which is unpredictable, unmonitorable, unchangeable (until it's too late). It's a risk, which is often the way people see my desire for insertion of more social media to organisations and the education system.

What would the kids in your school say? Is it publishable? Or would you be damned?

Update: Where does the line get drawn for engendering citizenship?


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Spot on Ewan! My heart sank when I heard about the PAT thing today.Don't despair, even if sometimes we get there despite colleagues not because of them, we'll still get there :-)
I love the idea of the post it notes too. I was involved in a Children's Voice workshop about effective lessons at group of primary schools.Some of the stuff that came out of it was pure gold, but some of it was hard to hear.

You have a good aim at the head of the nail my friend - the issue is not with the tools or platforms but with society themselves. Until people understand and do something to tackle the cause not the symptons then I fear continuing calls such as these from people who haven't got a clue but think they must be seen to 'act'...



I knew I liked you as soon as you criticised me! You were a trouble-maker in school, as you have surely guessed I was too.
Students do need voice, but at the same time, we need to equip them with a sure ethical foundation. Their unfiltered, uncensored comments should spring forth from that foundation. Just like you left school with a strong sense of right and wrong, students need to be empowered with that as well.
Many, dare I say ignorant (which btw means literally unknowing), adults believe students are only capable of rude, hurtful, pejorative comments in public venues. What they fail to see is that if students aren't given the tools, then we are failing them. It is not the other way around.
Truthfully, (isn't that the name of the game, so to speak?) my admin would not be happy with comments that were not based strongly upon the sure foundation of our Christian ethics. We are, after all, a private Christian school. I wonder what the public school view is?
At the same time, I mustadd, "...if you're not willing to lose your job, you're not going to be able to do your job" (Lehman, 2007) I walk very close every day. Poor admin....

And you should see his former heidie's white hair now! ;-)

This got a lot of coverage on 5 Live and it was great to here the majority of texters and emailers were of the opinion that it is not the applications which are tools of the devil but that people just don't use them sensibly. AND it should not be merely up to teachers to educate students on how to use these media but parents. Parents now more than ever should talk to their children about these matters. Should they look at the contents of their child's phone..perhaps???

Also Ewan there is no need to be surprised at the amount of teachers believing that web 2.0 is devilish, most of them probably don't even know how to open email. How can these people teach today's youngsters???

I see where you're coming from, Mrs Durff. I always use ignorant in the sense for which it was intended, and use it that way now. Unfortunately, there will be some ignorant souls who misunderstand ignorant and think I'm merely being rude. :-(

Great post, Ewan. Just a few points though:

1.I believe that things are changing fir the better. I base this on the fact that I am getting more invitations to speak about Web 2.0 by organisations that one wouldn't have thought would want to know.

2. It is axiomatic that as things start to improve, the voices of the reactionaries become even louder and more raucous. The rantings of PAT therefore indicate that you, and others, are actually doing an excellent job.

Are student council's handpicked? Our secondary one is done by class election and most of those that want to get to serve over the years (benefit of a smaller school) - they are certainly very keen. Meetings are chaired and run by the Student Council and although the HT attends, I know she leaves them on their own to discuss things.
It was thanks to this years Student Council that I found myself with 33 S3 pupils in Paris before I'd had time to think about it - they wanted a trip that was just for S3.

Not sure I agree with all of this...Just because teenagers (including my own 15 year old son) use Bebo/You Tube etc for social networking does it necessarily follow that these are appropriate means for communication within school, at least as currently set up? Are youngsters not taught, daily, from a young age, how to express their views , but choose to use different and alternative conventions when chatting in cyberspace? It is all too easy for innocent /well intentioned posts, eg in YouTube, to be juxtapsoed with inappropriate materials. I can think of apparently innocent clips hijacked by unpleasant comments; do Schools not therfore have a duty and responsibility to filter these sites? I am also seriously concerned about the bullying, abuse, which I have to deal with on Bebo, for example. If we wish to integrate and exploit social networking for education (and I think in theory we do) is the burden of proof not on the IT companies, rather than the schools?

I agree absolutely, Jim, on your first point because I don't think youngsters are being taught how to use their online media effectively to give their view.

The juxtaposing of appropriate/inappropriate content is a problem throughout the web, including in Google search. My view has been that this is a reality of the web, as much as hearing swearing in a school is a reality, even if we wish it weren't. In both places there is a limit on what adults can enforce, unless we're always there.

If we want independent learners, however, and responsible citizens we need to teach children how to navigate and cope with this creep of inappropriate material, let *them* learn how to deal with it.

I think our duty of protection stretches further than what you suggest. Our duty of protection stretches beyond the school career and into the citizenship of every child. If you haven't learnt how to navigate the appropriate and inappropriate on the web how on earth can you declare yourself fit for 21st Century citizenship?

Is it time to remind everyone once again that not all social site users are young? As in .. some regulars are over 60? Pupils should be taught to graduate to the extremely civilised exchanges in which some of us indulge - no?

Frighteningly true, Ewan. I did an INSET at a school recently where iPods and mobile phones are banned because pupils were sending abusive comments to one another. My suggestion that perhaps encouraging kids to actually use these technologies to learn and in so doing, treat technology with respect, seemed an alien concept :-( And we hadn't even got to discussing MySpace!!!

That said, my son's former school has recently changed its name. Who came up with the new name? The School it's not all bad news...

Excellent post, Ewan and I've really appreciated the comments.

You know, it's too bad MySpace wasn't called OurSpace...

The amazing thing about having an Internet/Web/Web2.0 --whatever you want to call it-- is that it is allowing for public discourse, discussion, and involvement in monumental ways never before possible in the history of civilization.

Al Gore says it's what's going to fix that which ails Democracy. It is, after all, Democracy in action, isn't it? Giving voice to everyone?

The tools we have today are tools of communication. When a society calls for banning of a particular tool of communication --such as YouTube, for instance-- we are in danger of damaging our "collective ear" and will surely be less rich for it.

When Ewan was writing for the school magazine, I'm sure no one tried to stop his voice by using an alarmist argument that the magazine might inadvertently allow pornographic images to slip past its "firewall". Those were more difficult times, requiring a better crafted "argument" to "snuff out" student voice.

For us to focus on the tools as the problem, makes it very easy to avoid what's really going on... which could be that we really don't want to allow students off a very short leash.

Let's review:

A pen is just a pen.
A piece of paper is just piece of paper.
A blog is just a digital piece of paper.
A camera is just a picture taker.
A cell phone is just a voice box.

We're not really afraid of those things, are we?

But a word... a thought... an idea... Now you've got people shaking in their boots.

While the argument focuses on taking away the tools, the real issues of voice, freedom, democracy are pushed to the back of the bus... waiting... waiting... waiting...

Ah, Ewan, the timing of your post couldn't be better for me on a selfish level, and decidedly apt for our universal age on a collective level. Thanks on both fronts.

In accepting my new teaching post this year, I've also been asked (and gratefully accepted) to take over a not-so-successful/vibrant HS "lit mag" (that hasn't actually been published in 2 years). The school's admin felt it a great add-on to my English position in general (hey, a gold-mine of kiddos already writing in my midst) and also because of my passion and experiences related to emerging technologies (and all that 2.0 business). I agreed.

And best of all? They've said, "As long as you show us a tangible in-our-hands issue by spring, the opportunities for what you do beyond a traditional 'lit mag' are up for grabs. We can't wait to see what you create with the kids."

As you can imagine, there aren't many better opportunities to explore the emerging 2.0 world in school than with a 'lit mag' if it is seen in a new light.

That being said, a blank slate means a head full of questions...and uncertainties, if I am to be honest. It's one thing to trust gut-level that a 'lit mag' can become transformative via new technologies, marrying the traditional poetry-on-paper versions of classic note with the anything-is-possible in an evolving 2-way conversation of ideas, art, etc (in both print and digital spaces)...but it is another to know what to do first.

My gut (and DK's whisper -- he smiles) reminds me that asking the kids early on "what is possible" is key. And then playing shepherd and pied piper along the way to ensure both success and positive feedback from the community, of course.

So, all that set-up aside, I'd love to pick your brain at least once...if not in an on-going to how a young Ewan transported to today's world would have LOVED the invitation to re-brand a school's traditional 'lit mag' in order to not only showcase kids' ideas/creativity, but to also demonstrate on a larger level what is possible given such a platform and the emergence of so many 2.0 technologies at our finger tips.

Care to be my Mr. Miagi, friend?

Cheers to you for the post. And cheers to the young kid who turned the teachers' hair white back in the day!

Great post, Ewan! Protection, freedom of expression, democratic education... these are all difficult issues for schools.

Freedom of expression seemed a much easier issue to deal with when schools only had officially sanctioned and edited publications (despite the occasional rowdy writer). The rapid growth of the web has thrown administrators into a tail spin. They are often confused with how to manage students desire and demands for expression when out of school expression is completely open. It may be an issue of control, but many administrators feel a degree of responsibility for what students say.

This responsibility has legal ramifications if there is any possibility of physical or mental harm. In the US, legal suits rule decision making and government leadership. We may talk of freedom of expression, but we are constantly reminded that we are held accountable for our utterances. As Bob says, keeping students on a very short leash offers some comfort. Keeping all of us on a very short leash offers our governments comfort, too.

Jim's comment on a 21st century citizenship was on the spot. This really is a chance for a global democracy. But we've got to get used to loosening the reigns. This will require teaching netizenry and trust, something quite new in an education system based on a paradigm of "keep quiet and memorize this."

The school my boys attend prides itself on allowing student voice. And it does... to a degree.

Some kids come from schools and homes where they have learned appropriate techniques and tactics. Some do not and the whole concept is alien to them. No-one ever expected teenagers to be graceful and/or gracious - this is the colt stage of their lives and impulses sometimes get the better of their brains. This is normal.

The trouble comes when a child uses this new found voice to say unpleasant things using profane language. There seems to be no back-up mechanism and they try to revert to an authoritarian "because I say so" model that they claim to have rejected. You can imagine how confusing it is for the kids to get such mixed messages.

If the students are going to be given a voice, it must be more than just lip service, there must be hearts and minds buy-in from every member of staff and there must be a clear strategy for when things go wrong. Because they will. Often. Of that I can assure you.

Christian - I would have said no. They are asking for an issue in their hands. That can only mean a hard copy. That is not what needs to be happening in school papers right now. I'm trying to build momentum for a web-based student paper/magazine. We kinda fell apart over the summer. We are hopefully coming back strong this fall.
Karyn - I think it is imperative that we clearly divulge the rules of the game to all who play. So if we truly want students to be given voice, and it sounds like the group consensus to me, then we must teach the protocal as well. One of the fifth graders (now he's 7th!) always said, "...duh, durff!" That sums it up well.

great post!
re the democratisation of the web in education, have you see the site:
I guess this one will be banned too!
PS i see we shared one of the same starts in career (tho' you seemed to excel) - I was involved in the production of the school magazine too (a long time ago...)

Very timely topic... one not discussed enough. This issue is just so complex, mixing human nature with self expression, responsibility, accountability, privacy, wisdom, maturity, anonymity, ... There is certainly no reason to fear the pen and paper, digital or otherwise, the photograph, the idea... However, the wielder of those tools hold such power... to be creative, thoughtful, and intelligent, or, to be evil, mean, ignorant and deceitful. I think this is a great moment in history to address the social issues that drive these new tools. And, caution should not be frowned upon. A letter can get passed around a classroom or even a few. A post and image can be viewed by whole communities the instant they are published. I like the often cited quotation, "with great power comes great responsibility". We must put more emphasis on responsibility, as these new tools really empower the user/author - an exciting thing, for sure. Most students rise to the challenge, I think. The few that don't can be held accountable. The problem... once damage is done it is often irreversible. I concur with Christian... this is a difficult shift in thinking and schooling for many. Not everyone sees and understands the learning potential in the equation. We fear what we don't understand. However, caution is often prudent. I end with this quotation by Gary Ryan Blair. I think it sums all of this up:

"Creative risk taking is essential to success in any goal where the stakes are high. Thoughtless risks are destructive, of course, but perhaps even more wasteful is thoughtless caution which prompts inaction and promotes failure to seize opportunity."

Great discussion, Ewan.
See also:

Brilliant post!
You say your headmaster is still there. The question is, would he still be there if the media publicity had hit the school now. Maybe the media/ education relationship has changed a lot since then.
I totally agree with the fact that young people need to be taught how to express their opinions in an appropriate manner. There are so many tools available to them, it must be confusing, especially at an age when real personal opinions are so hard to form. Is it their opinion? Is it peer pressure?
Yes to bebo and youtube. Isn't that all about democracy? I do think that any abuse should be dealt with by removing membership rights-it is a question of principle if nothing else.
Yes student voice is important, but what do we want it for? You just put your finger on it...

Hi Ewan - great post - my experience with primary pupils tells me that they can be "taught" to use appropriate language when giving their views across a variety of contexts, even giving feedback to teachers on their lessons - have supported colleagues in other schools setting up blogs recently and two of them were quite interesting - one was for a pupil elected school council who wanted the blog as a means of canvassing pupil opinion and the other was for a pupil mediation group who wanted the blog so that pupils in difficulty could contact them "anonomously" to seek support.

Following this discussiom about social networking sites, I see that the exam board Edexcel have set up at MySpace page for online results:

this post really got my attention of out the various post I have read in this blog.

I agree that the issue on homosexuality has and still claiming a lot of attention and I guess this controversy will never cease especially for a catholic country like Philippines (where I came from).

I came from a public school (gradeschool to college.)

I was also part of my high school paper (Mirror) and college school organ (U.P. Collegian) and I have always kept the same column name: "LISTEN TO WHAT THE STUDENTS ARE NOT ALLOW TO SAY." School administrators find my articles really subversive but heyYyyY, I am just exercising my freedom of expression.

Its really important to hear the pupils has to say. SO that communication is open on both parties.

I mentioned to my Principal the Digital Media Summit, dropping in that we should learn how to use media more fully to increase learner involvement. You may know that the LSC requires all FE colleges to have a 'learner involvement strategy'.
The response: 'reviewing customer strategy aka ‘learner voice’' perhaps sums it all up. Learners voives don't matter, because we don't have 'learners' any more, nor do we have citizens - we just have customers. Their voice only matters as a strategy to appear 'customer responsive'. We certainly don't want voices heard that may rock social structures.

Hi Ewan,

Couldn't agree more, we have a very real danger now where we still have the 'popular student councils' SNAG groups, enterprise initiatives etc. If anyone said to me a democratic process has taken place to elect a pupil council I can guarantee it is still done on popularity and there is not a hint of an assessment for equality and diversity impact. I was at an participation conference in Aviemore where schools across Scotland were presenting their approaches to pupil participation, it looked great for the high fliers, it even looked great for kids who were at risk of disengaging who were targeted to participate in various mechanisms. But that whole swathe in the middle, kids who don't necessarily hit 'certain' buttons were completely missed out.

A great post Ewan. I wonder could the same issues be said of Parent Councils themselves?

Took quite some time to read through this post. It's long but very interesting. I never really got into many activities in high school and stuck to mainly just classes and then leaving lol. Although I sort of wish now I had spent some time possibly trying things out. I think schools don't care enough though and my high school was nothing special or anything to jump for and join teams on.

Ok, perhaps I am typical Dutch and a bit to black/white but when I read comments on my blog ( ) I miss one big clue from schools towards there "pupils". I rather label them clients, without clients (pupils) no schools!

When schools would focus more on the client and associates, education would really go to another (higher) level.

2 points to add to the discussion which readers of this topic may find useful:

Firstly, Learning and Teaching Scotland has commissioned some research into Pupil Participation and are currently reviewing draft report which will be published on LTS online service research section when finalized. Anyone interested in moe detail about the aims and objectives of this piece of research can contact [email protected] for more information.

Secondly, I would like to draw attention to an article that was featured in The Times (Tuesday) in the news section on page 21. The article is about Eros Vlahos performing at the Edinburgh Festival. It will be based around his experiences of school, parents and growing up - and it promises that it is all fresh material as he is still just 12 years of age.
Wonder how many academics and educators will attend the show to hear this particular learners voice.

I've been trying to promote the idea that a school district can set up a blog to collect comments and ideas on school improvement from students, teachers, parents, principals and anyone. So far I've not found a district that thought it was a good idea. Have a look at the suggestion at

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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