Are All Voices Equal?

“Voice and Choice” “Equity” “Student Voice” These are words that dominate the educational change conversation today. They are important ideas but like so many words, they can lose their meaning and specificity as they permeate the lexicon. 

The short answer to the question “Are all voices equal?”  is “No”.

The better answer is “It’s complicated”. 

Without going down too many rabbit holes I’d want to explore a few elements. First the student/ child to teacher/adult relationship and more broadly the idea of expertise.

The Question of Student Voice

We certainly are doing well to provide students with more say, more choice and more power to own their own learning. For too long, they have been relative pawns in education where adults made all the decisions about when what, where and how they learned.  We’ve now entered a more enlightened time where things are beginning to shift. In some places, this shift is well underway and in other places, much work is left to be done but there are few places where this isn’t a conversation. 

But providing increased say and power to students shouldn’t negate the knowledge, wisdom and dare I say, the authority of adults who provide the structure and foundation of education. I believe that adults and those with experience ought to be given greater say and voice when it comes to education and probably most things related to working with children. Education, like parenting, is not a democracy.  Children lack the maturity, experience, and knowledge to make all the decisions in their educational careers.  Children are certainly equal to adults in terms of rights and opportunities. They are not equal in terms of their decision-making skills. 

When it comes to students I’m fine with hearing what students want from their education. However, they don’t know what they don’t know. It’s why I object to a full-on personalized learning experience if that’s being interpreted as students make all the decisions. That’s just a bad idea. Should students voices matter in how their schooling looks? Certainly. Students can provide us with insights we might be missing. We should be asking them for input into decisions that impact themselves and education more broadly. Should their ideas matter the same as the adults? I don’t think so. Again, if you’re struggling with this statement, think of yourself as a parent. If you let your children make all the decisions about their lives, you’d likely have some pretty selfish and poorly adjusted kids. Our role isn’t simply to provide them with whatever they need but also to guide and direct them into what it means to develop into healthy, happy and productive humans. If we truly care for children, we’ll offer them our wisdom and lead them as an act of love. 

Not Every Voice Counts the Same

All voices can be heard but not all voices should be given equal value. Many educators speak of the frustrations when leaders cower to overly vocal parents and media when the comment about things like “discovery math” or lack of homework and other areas that they do not have the knowledge to speak of intelligently. Consider your own development and growth. If you believe you are a lifelong learner and a growth mindset then presumably, 10 years ago, you knew less than you do today and thus others were likely in a better position to make decisions that impacted you.  Acknowledging that some folks do know more than you do is a sign of maturity. 

Expertise matters. I’d much rather have the support of 10 people who know about my topic than 100 people who don’t. But #socialmedia promotes the fiction that all opinions should have equal value. And increasingly that belief system is influencing all our public debates.— Andrew Campbell 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 (@acampbell99) September 9, 2018

I’m grateful for the advent of the web and social media by providing me with a voice. I’ve been able to publish many ideas over that last 12 years that previously would have only lived in my head. Through that publishing, I’ve been able to think through some things and had the benefit of others to add their thoughts as well. However, as much as this has democratized knowledge, it has also diluted the importance of expertise. The barriers of the previous publishing world lacked the ability to include all voices but it did help identify expertise. As adults and educators, I think we have to work harder to identify the smart people and allow their ideas to be heard over the din of social media.  Expertise is not found in followers but on the quality and evidence of ideas that have proven the test of time. 

I also understand that many marginalized groups have not had their voices heard. This is where the power of the web has helped bring those voices into more conversations. This is a good thing. We need to find the new experts in these groups.

In the end, we need to have more reverence and value for wisdom, experience, and knowledge even as we invite other voices into important conversations. We need to listen to children and the voices of those that haven’t always been heard. But all voices are not equal.