Tags: Student Voice | Teaching and Learning

Lois Canessa describes how she actively involved students in setting up a school council

This pilot is part of a three-year action research project, LSSCARP (the London Secondary School Council Action Research Project) which has been exploring how school councils can improve schools. As part of making school councils more effective, some of the schools involved in the project have been focusing on areas such as teaching and learning. Informal interviews with teachers and students in project schools revealed a common misconception: some teachers did not believe their students felt responsibility for, or interested in, their education. Conversely, students felt that teachers were not interested in listening to their experiences of teaching and learning. I wanted to see how school councils could facilitate discussions about teaching and learning. At Preston Manor High School, Wembley, I aimed to involve students in a research and observation programme similar to the one I had been reading about.1 I wanted students to have more active engagement in, and ownership of, the process. Instead of seeing them as passive recipients of ‘education’ I believed there would be benefits from actively involving them in discussions about the processes. I met with some teachers to discuss how they felt about students observing them. It became clear that teachers would perceive observations as less threatening if the students were collecting the data. I hoped the data collection exercises would be a starting point for students and teachers to have regular discussions about aspects of what happened in class. As a result, both parties would learn that the other was interested in hearing their views and perceptions. A small group of pupils formed a teaching and learning sub-council. They received training on how to conduct their research as well as debriefing skills. Unfailingly, students make accurate judgements about what makes a good teacher.2 They can also distinguish between teachers they like but who are ineffective, as well as activities during class that they enjoyed but did not teach them anything or a repetitive task that did not stimulate them but had helped them learn.

The pilot

The pilot began with students receiving training, and with staff being invited to participate in a six-week programme of lesson observations. Ground rules were agreed upon, which covered issues such as confidentiality and how the pupils would conduct themselves. The observation-types were many and varied. These included: the students counting the number of positive and negative comments made to individuals; the students drawing onto a scale map of the classroom, the teacher’s movements around the room during a lesson; the students gathering data about the way the teachers were using questions in class – counting the number of open and closed questions as well as measuring wait times; recording how much time the teacher was spending with girls as opposed to boys; recording the types of activities a teacher might engage in during a lesson and how long was spent on each task. Following each observation the teacher and student observer held a debriefing session where the data was discussed. The data belonged to the teacher and s/he could decide how or whether to action it further. This could include presenting the findings to the class and involving them in a discussion.


Findings from the observations were enlightening. One teacher found out that a pupil in their class had been ‘off-task’ for 38 minutes of a 55-minute period. Another found out that her class thought she liked the pupils sitting on the other side of the room more – when in fact she was favouring a position next to a warm radiator. All those involved agreed the exercise had been useful, initially in improving relationships in class and latterly in improving specific aspects of teaching. Staff particularly noted that the observations had been more ‘authentic’. One reason for this was that having a student as an observer meant that the teacher and class had behaved more naturally than would have been the case with an adult observer. It was also felt that the six-week duration, the number and regularity of observations meant that the teachers were behaving ‘in-the-real’. The temptation in previous observations had been for teachers to prepare specially for observation lessons and this was neither possible nor sustainable over a six-week block. More importantly, once teachers were used to communicating with pupils on this level, reflective discussions about teaching and learning became a regular feature of classroom life. Preston Manor then went on to share their experiences by inviting all the secondary schools in their borough to come to a conference at which pupils involved in the projects ran workshops. Delegates received information about how to run their own sub-councils. If teachers are to have accurate and informative feedback about elements of their teaching from those who are meant to be learning, they must start communicating more often with students. The students are, after all, the teachers’ subjects, their participants, and all too often, their victims. I agree with Kirby that our students are the most underused resource in schools with huge potential for improving the practice of the profession.

Lois Canessa is project manager at School Councils UK

References 1 Fielding, M and Bragg, S (2003) Students as Researchers: Making a Difference, Pearson Publishing. 2 Ibid, p7.

3 Kirby, P (1999) Involving Young Researchers, York Publishing Services.

This article first appeared in Learning and Teaching Update – Jun 2007

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