Training teachers in such a way that they are able and willing to organize their teaching accordingly is therefore not a choice but an obligation.
Attention for pupil participation in education is slowly growing, but does need a boost, especially in teacher education. Not only because it is an obligation to young people, but also because education itself will profit.
Recently I spoke to a teacher trainer about my project ‘Students as co-researchers’, a project that aims to actively involve students in decisions about their own education (Smit, 2013; Smit, Plomp, & Ponte, 2010 (PDF)). A blank stare was what I got in response. I noticed it first came across as something completely new, something that had not previously crossed this person’s mind as a topic relevant for teachers or for teacher training. The response was even somewhat reluctant. That was really strange to me. I explained that students were still not being seriously listened to on matters that concern them, not by their teacher, nor their school, nor the researchers who come to study them. For me that was a really sad observation. The content and organization of education is determined by the teachers, the influence of students in decision-making is usually limited to the installation of a student council that is ceremonial rather than having a real role in decision-making, and in research students are just seen as a data source and not as partners. This is remarkable, since there are several good reasons to strive for student participation in education and research and even a legal ground. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states explicitly that children not only have a right to good education, but also that ‘States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.’ (UNICEF, 1989, Art. 12). Only listening to students is not sufficient. Taking their opinions and ideas seriously, letting these opinions be actually part of decision-making and creating an environment in which pupils are able to make their voices heard have all become an obligation. This applies equally to everyone working in the Dutch education system, because the Netherlands ratified this Convention in 1995 and is therefore bound by it. Teachers are no exception.
Apart from this legal obligation and mission, there are several other reasons for involving students in education and for setting up that education in a different, perhaps even radically different, way (see e.g. De Winter, 2012; Fielding & Moss, 2011; Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007):
- Pedagogische motives (the desire for better teacher-student relationships and for increased student motivation and participation);
- Innovative motives (a more informed basis for educational development and for changes and innovations in education; better fit with the needs, capacities and perspectives of students);
- Social motives (a concern for democratic education and education for citizenship).
There are, therefore, both compelling and worthwhile reasons for student participation in education. However, in most cases it is not happening at all, and if it does, not structurally, or only in a spurious form – as pseudo-participation.
If enabling students to have a real voice is now being asked of teachers and is even a legal obligation but is not based on their natural attitudes and skills, then it must certainly be included in teacher training. That will not happen without a struggle, because not even all teacher educators have an idea of what student participation entails, let alone know how they should prepare their student teachers for it.
What should be done?
How can this issue be tackled? It certainly cannot be achieved all at once. It is a process that proceeds from developing a positive attitude and willingness on the part of individual teachers and trainers, through action in educational practice, to building a participatory culture in the school and then gradually building up levels of participation. Adults may have cold feet and fear losing power and control. In most cases, this fear is unjustified. To allay fears it might be better to speak and think in terms of gains in the space to act and to decide as well as in students’ responsibilities rather than in terms of loss of power to the teachers.
High time for real action
Time is really pressing though. As long ago as 2001, Shier outlined a path along which a participatory process in schools could be achieved: from level 1, listening to students, to level 5, shared power and responsibility for decision-making (Shier, 2001). Further postponement and delay have started to be unacceptable. Apologies and explanations no longer suffice. Almost 20 years have now elapsed since the commitment to implement the UNICEF Convention was entered into. It is high time now to attend to this in teacher training as well.
As a ‘grown-up idealist’ – in terms of Susan Neiman’s book Moral Clarity (2008) – I assume of course that the moral of this story will find a clear echo and support in the teacher training institutes in the Netherlands:
Within a few years there should be no teacher training institute in the Netherlands without student participation in the curriculum. That’s the task we have to set ourselves.