Teaching and Learning Principle: How do we activate the student voice?

PRIMEd Principal
November 2014


It’s Time to Honor our Student’s Voice Interview Questions  


The Shifting Lens of Mathematics Observation
In mathematics classrooms all over North America, teachers and leaders are engaged in an alarming number of mathematics education reform initiatives.  Teacher teams and curriculum offices are busy unpacking new standards, working to make sense of evolving assessment systems, grappling with the mechanics of teacher evaluation, and norming expectations for exemplary teaching and learning.

One interesting side effect of the reform effort is the shift in focus for clinical mathematics observation.  Observing administrators are focusing more and more on the actions of student in the classroom rather than the actions of teachers.  In post-observation conferences, principals are assuming a coaching stance and comparing student evidence to the intended actions outlines in the lesson plan.  National frameworks support these shifts, valuing students as equal partners in day-to-day learning.   In her popular framework for instructional improvement, Charlotte Danielson reserves “Distinguished” practice for teachers who are able to create a culture that empowers students as equal learning partners.  (Danielson, 2013)  In the mathematics classroom, the Common Core’s Standards for Mathematical Practices (CCSS, 2010) define a set of desired student mathematical learning behaviors.   Administrators capture evidence of students engaged in these practices as a measure of lesson effectiveness.  With an unprecedented focus on student actions, the question becomes, “What might students have to say about reform efforts effecting the mathematics classroom?”  In this blog, I want to share ideas designed to help you empower your students as a catalyst for improving mathematics teaching and learning.

Strategies for Implementation: Activating the Student Voice

I think we would all agree that it would be a gross understatement to refer to students as merely “valued members of our mathematics community”.  And yet, I have found that students are treated more as “customers” rather than valued members.  Over the past three years, the Howard County Public School System Secondary Math Office has been obsessed with the learning from the “student voice.”   We began by asking ourselves, “What might we learn from our students if we asked focused questions AND listened carefully to their responses?”  Those two questions lead to a series of events that transformed the actions of our team.

Each year, we work with schools to conduct student interviews.  I’d like to describe the processes we used to conduct the interview, share student feedback, and summarize lesson learned.  It is my goal to compel you and your team to replicate these processes to gather new perspectives on the mathematics classroom experience.

Last year, we partnered with a local high school and identified 10 students from each grade level.  The students represented all mathematics teachers and the full range of math courses offered at the school.  We wanted to hear from students for whom the system was working well and we wanted to hear from students for whom the system was failing.  Each math office team member partnered with a school administrator and we conducted the interviews in pairs.  The math team member asked the questions while the school administrator collected data.  The following questions were posed to groups of 10 students during a 50-minute period:

  • Describe your elementary, middle, and high school mathematics experience.  What were some of the highlights of those experiences?  What were some of the frustrations?
  • Describe a time when you enjoyed learning something new.  (in any classroom)  How did you feel during that experience?  Describe a time when you felt the same way in a math classroom.
  • What is one piece of advice you would offer to improve the quality of your mathematics classroom experience?

As you can imagine, we collected an amazing set of data that reflected a wide range of experiences, opinions, and emotions.  At the end of the day, the interview team gathered to analyze the data set.  We selected the following four statements as data that represented the math team’s “brand.”

  • “It is more important to figure out how to please the teacher than it is to learn the math.”  (validated by 18 of 40 students)
  • “My teachers are doing the best they can.  I mean, we have 6 kids in this group who have IEPs…she’s cares a lot but she can’t accommodate all of our needs.  Can she?”
  • “I have two different math course this year.  In one class, my teacher really does everything she can to try to figure out how I learn best.  She is very different than any teacher I have had in math.  My other teacher could care less about how I learn.   She is more typical.”
  • “If I can’t tell a teacher cares about me in the first two weeks, I’m pretty much going to fail for the year.”

In addition to these four quotes, we also learned, almost immediately, that students feel that school is a game and, if you learn to play certain parts of the game well, you are likely to succeed.  Those who were struggling in school also knew that school was a game.  Many of those students reported that they were frustrated by this revelation and chose to disengage rather that conform, as one student put it,  “to the sham of public education.”

After summarizing the data, the administrative team agreed to work to improve the hope, well-being, and engagement of the mathematics students.  They shared the data with the math team and worked collaboratively to develop goals for focused improvement.   This team, like others engaged in transition to Common Core, also needed support with comprehending standards, developing common assessments, and balancing conceptual understanding for procedural fluency.  And yet, the whole team decided that those efforts would not result in improvement if the student classroom experience failed to improve.   For our team, it was a powerful illustration of how the student’s voice served to initiate a substantive change in practice.

Learning from Students

As our team continued to engage students in conversations, we began to diversify our set of questions to satisfy our expanding curiosity about the student experience.  The level of sophistication and awareness of student responses resulted in “an awakening “for our team.  We each thought that we had listened to students throughout our careers.  However, we soon began to characterize our student interactions in one of two ways; “Talking TO Students” OR “Talking WITH Students.”  When you talk WITH students, you pose questions with expectations that the responses will teach you something about the learning process.  You talk WITH students to learn how to better serve them.  And, as you talk WITH students, you begin to regard them as experts in out mathematics community.

Our team is working to involve students in every aspect of our operation.  Here is a quick list of things we learned…

  • Students have a real interest in being part of the curriculum and resource development teams.
  • Student panels are the best activity to launch new teacher orientation workshops.
  • Students add substance as members of policy committees.
  • Students are effective agents of change.

In Summary

I challenge you to take a break myriad of reform initiatives in your school or district.  The perfect remedy for initiative fatigue is a dose of reality offered by the people who matter most.  If you are unsure of how to engage your math team in effective improvement efforts, just ask your students.

Guest Blogger

Bill Barnes is the Secondary Mathematics Coordinator for the Howard County Public School System in Howard County, Maryland.  He currently represents the mathematics teachers and leaders in the Eastern Region 2 as a NCSM Regional Director.  Bill is passionate about issues of equity in mathematics education and has developed a new passion for talking with students.  Share your ideas and successes with empowering students as catalyst of change with Bill on Twitter @billjbarnes.


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