Pupil participation is not a favour to students, it is their right  7

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.

Pupil participation at Museum for Communication

Student voice

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.


Ben Smit

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Hi Fresco,

Terrific that you have found our blog so quickly after the start-up. And thanks for informing us about your participatory practice. Great example of involving students in real research. Of course, there is more to be said and done on student participation, but this shows clearly that it is not necessarily complicated to jointly work with students on projects. And to my experience, that can be done with pupils or students from Kindergarten to university level.

Best, Ben

This is also very uncommon in my country. As far as I know, many universities are using Moodles (somehow similar to Google Docs) to involve leaners into various activities comprising of research components. However, it can be also a process of retrieving data. I am not quite sure that they have an equal voice. What I say is at universities, very rare at highschools or lower levels.
Best, Tran

Hi Ben,

Was just wondering: any news from this field? New publications?
I am thinking about this a lot in my lesson design, but could use some more theoretical background and good practice.

See you!


Hi Fresco,

There is a recent book (in Dutch) about students as co-researchers: Participatie in het onderwijs: Onderzoek met en door leerlingen. Eds: Gijs Verbeek en Petra Ponte, published by Boom, 2014.

Furthermore, next week, November 20, you may attend a symposium on Student voice in Rotterdam. All attendants will receive a copy of the book. Our project on students as co-researchers will be in the programme as a workshop.
See the website for more information: http://nivoz.nl/home/symposium-stem-van-de-leerling/

Best, Ben

Hi Ben!

Great post! I couldn’t agree more. I am lecturer of Manchu Studies at Leiden University, and trying my best to blur the distance between the teacher and the student. For example, I use Google Docs to work on literary translations, simultaneously, with the goal of publishing it together. This way my students become part of an actual product.

Then, I was very happy to find this blog! I will follow it closely. Yours, Fresco

Hi Ben,
I totally agree with your interesting post. Thank you for that. Do you know examples of good practices of teacher training institues with student participation?

Hi Karel,
Great that you support the idea that teacher training programs should pay attention to enabling pupil/student participation. At this time, I do not know of any institute doing that – at least not in The Netherlands. Like you, I would be interested to hear of teacher training institutes who have incorporated student participation in the curriculum.
However, I do know of several teachers and teacher trainers who are enthusiastic supporters. Some interesting projects have been done and some are still going on. To my knowledge, they are mostly school-level projects (in partnerships with universities) and/or based on work of individual teachers.

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