Amplifying Student Voice: The Key to Improving Wellbeing
By Ian Fagan and Julian Fagan
We used to believe that the good student is the quiet and conscientious student. In a classroom of 20 students, it is not hard to see why this was once encouraged. Constant chatter is disruptive, and teachers are under pressure to run a lesson for students that are eager to learn. However, in an effort to stamp out disruptive noise, an unintended and confusing message can be sent to students about when is the right time to speak up. When students lose their voice, teachers lose an opportunity to get to know them and have meaningful conversations with them. As a result, it becomes significantly more challenging to identify students that need additional support.
The reality is, open and honest communication is hard for everyone, but for a student in a school environment (or on a Zoom lesson with multiple users), it can be particularly intimidating. Many young people fear that they will make fools of themselves, that others will judge them, that they will waste people’s time with their issues or that they might ask a silly question. Despite the numerous efforts of positive encouragement to speak up, there remains a distinct silence when it comes to students communicating their emotions, letting teachers know they didn’t quite understand, or opening up about their fears, vulnerabilities, accomplishments, hopes, and dreams.
How different a school community might look if all students just told it how it was. If given the opportunity, teachers should leap at the chance to get to know their students on a personal level. So, the question is, how do we start this dialogue in school communities?
Social media may hold a key piece to the Student Voice puzzle
Social media has taught us a valuable lesson that can provide insight into how school communities can achieve this. For all the debate around the utility of social media, it has undeniably shown us that if given the right platform, students will engage with self-expression. The challenge then becomes tapping into these same feelings that social media taps into and using them to start a different conversation – one where the aim is not to broadcast but to listen.
There is much research into the impacts of social media on the human psyche. It taps into human traits that can, at times, be harmful; amplifying narcissism, heightening anxiety, enhancing our ability to spread damaging messages and normalizing, even promoting self-harm and suicide (https://www.cmaj.ca/content/192/6/E136). However, it has also demonstrated young people’s willingness to share personal stories and their deep desire to be heard.
For a long time, we thought the opposite to be true; we now know young people are not unwilling to voice their emotions.. We must provide outlets within the school to make self-expression simple and engaging in a similar way to social media. Achieving this will enable us to overcome one of the most fundamental challenges we face in managing student wellbeing: getting students to talk about it.
Is social media the right place to have this conversation?
Social platforms are, by their very nature, exceptionally powerful broadcasting tools that have proven to be immensely engaging for our youth. However, when these conversations take place on such platforms, they have also proven to be potentially dangerous places to share our personal stories, primarily due to a loud and highly active minority group of users that seem determined to bully and ridicule others. It’s important we shift the conversation onto a more productive and safe outlet—a listening tool, rather than a broadcasting tool.
To do this, schools are implementing online regular check-ins that, like social media, encourage self-expression. These are shorter form surveys that become the listening tool for school communities; helping students voice their wellbeing regularly and empowering teachers and leaders with up to date information on how their students are going.
Asking the right questions to unlock Student Voice
If you’re an educational leader that has decided to introduce a regular online check-in, question design will be critical to amplifying student voice. Asking the right questions can be tricky. There are many different question types, each with its own benefits. When it comes to amplifying voice, open-ended questions will provide students with the greatest opportunity to express themselves. Here are 25 open-ended questions you might ask your students when you check-in with them.
1. Is there anything your teacher doesn’t know about you that you would like them to know?
2. If you could be any historical figure, who would it be and why?
3. Describe a quality you admire in your best friend.
4. What are you grateful to your parents (or friends) for?
5. Who is your idol and why?
6. What is your biggest challenge right now and how can I help?
7. If you were the Principal, what would you change about the school?
8. If you were the Principal, what would you have done differently during <insert important event>? e.g.what would you have done differently during COVID-19?
9. What lesson have you learned that you would like to share with others?
10. What is one quality that you like about yourself?
11. When was the last time you felt really frustrated and what triggered it?
12. How do you feel about making new friends?
13. When was the last time you felt really anxious and why? Tip:for younger students (13 and below) consider using the word ‘worried’ instead of anxious.
14. Do you feel the world is a fair place? Why or why not?
15. How do you cope with failure?
16. What don’t you like about school?
17. What, if anything, concerns you about your future?
18. What is one thing you wish you were better at?
19. How do you feel about your life outside school?
20. Why do you go to school?
21. What haven’t you tried yet that you would like to try?
22. Do you feel it is easier, the same or tougher growing up in today’s world? Why?
23. What is one thing you regret?
24. How do you feel about what you’re learning at school?
25. What is something that you have changed about yourself this year?
(One more question for students on social media)
26. Do you feel social media has made us more connected or more disconnected? Why?
Question design is one component to making the regular check-in work. For more detailed guidance on using the regular check-in to amplify student voice, we encourage you to download our whitepaper on ‘making the regular check-in work’.
About the authors
Julian Fagan learned through personal reflection that academic success meant very little if students were unable to overcome the battle with themselves. In response to this, Julian, together with his twin brother Ian, founded wellbeing software company Skodel, which is driven by a mission to give every student a voice that is heard and acted on. It is now being used by schools across the globe to check-in with students every week.
Ian Fagan is a proven entrepreneur in the education industry. He founded his first business, HSC Study Buddy, straight out of high school in 2010. Ian then turned his attention to student mental health, given the increasing prevalence of youth wellbeing challenges as well as his own personal experience of mental illness. Together with his twin brother Julian, he launched the youth wellbeing software company, Skodel, which provides teachers and school professionals with up-to-date information on student wellbeing that can inform action for at-risk students.
Follow Skodel on Twitter @Skodelwellbeing