I love what Peter Senge observed about schools, innovation, and student voices in a 2001 interview with Dennis Sparks. Peter observed what some educators and parents know, but MANY either ignore or simply haven’t considered: Students are smart, creative, and filled with good ideas for improving schools. It’s important for adults to not only make time to listen to students, but foster safe cultures in which idea sharing is both encouraged and valued. Peter noted ten years ago:

Now, we tend to see the parents and political constituencies as the customers in education. After all, they pay the bill. Yet, there is more to a customer than someone who pays the bill. The customer is the person we serve. The customer is the person who sees firsthand the quality that is being achieved. The customer is our key partner in judging what needs to be improved. So, while there is no direct one-to-one relationship between the features of a business and those of a school, I believe in many ways the kids are the closest we have in education to an actual customer.

But we say, “They’re just kids. What do they know?” Some of the most exciting stories in Schools That Learn are about elementary and secondary students in dialogue circles. There, kids talk with one another about what concerns them, what they want to create, their problems and aspirations. Depending on the kids’ age, they talk about different subjects. The only ground rule in these dialogue circles is that there are no adults, except perhaps one or two facilitators. Eventually and invariably, kids want teachers and administrators — and often parents — to join them. Then the ground rule is that the adults must be quiet, at least for the first hour or so. Otherwise, they just take over. When the dialogue is over and the adults have a few minutes to themselves to reflect, they always say the same thing: “I can’t believe how articulate these kids are. I can’t believe how concerned they are about the ‘big issues’ in the school.” The only real surprise here is that the adults are surprised. They are surprised because they do so little to create opportunities for themselves to really listen to kids as if kids had something to say about how the school as a system is functioning.

One of the reasons this is so unusual is that the problem-solving orientation in education is so deep that the whole system is focused on fixing kids. The system is designed around conformity, and every kid knows it. In the process of getting kids to conform to the rules, we also basically discount them as human beings who might have something valuable to say about the content or processes of their education.

One of the best ways to surface mental models that are impediments is to ask kids to talk about their experiences. But we must ask them in a way that they feel they are really safe to talk. After students have been in school awhile, they know darn well one of the things you never do is tell the teacher the truth about how you really feel about things. So getting the voice of the student out in the open takes some effort.

ICC Meetingphoto © 2008 Michael Oh | more info (via: Wylio)

These observations from Peter are vital to remember as we consider how we can and should transform our 19th and 20th century schools into learning hubs of the 21st century. I’m also thinking about this after listening to last week’s Seedlings webcast with Shelly Moody, the 2011 Maine Teacher of the Year. Bob Sprankle talked in the program about how important it is that we help educators and students in our schools “share their stories.” I’m thinking about this in the context of Storychasers. (More on this line of thinking below.)

In addition to observing the importance of listening to student voices and perspectives, Peter Senge also talked about the powerful role played by parents as MAINTAINERS of the status quo in our schools. If we want to change schools, which is an overtly political act given the political nature of schools, we need to address parent perceptions about learning and “what school should look like.” Peter noted in 2001:

To push the analogy, parents are like investors who not only want the right output (“educated kids”), they want educators to achieve it in the right way. Plus they vote. When they are fearful about schools not delivering, parents will support whatever political agenda rises to the fore as the way to get schools into line. Business is a much less politicized institution. Standardized testing is a case in point. Separate from the merits of standardized tests (many European countries have had them for years) the tendency to see them as a panacea is a political phenomenon. It’s critical, then, that we support the innovators who are already out there by involving a meaningful cross section of the community. If there is not community support for any particular innovation in schools, I doubt that it can be sustainable. This means parents, grandparents, local business people — a broad cross section of those living in a community — must be engaged in order to address the forces that preserve the status quo.

I’m thinking Storychasers should be more intentional about encouraging not only the sharing of oral history interviews in our Celebrate Oklahoma Voices, Celebrate Kansas Voices, and Celebrate Texas Voices projects, but also should equip, empower and encourage both students and educators to “share stories of transformative learning” on the global stage which can help shape local parent perceptions about school. I’m considering changing the title and focus of a workshop I’m scheduled to share in Oklahoma City on April 15th (but don’t have any registrations for yet) from iOS apps to something like “Sharing Stories of Transformative Learning.” This would involve using flash-based (Flip) cameras or iPhones / iPads / iPod Touches with videography capabilities to efficiently record and share short videos about transformative learning. This is similar to the goals of the Elev8ed project and learning community which Steve Hargadon is spearheading. I’m not sure if this workshop is something I’d offer independently or through Storychasers. The idea is strong, however, and the need for this type of digital storytelling wedded to advocacy for transformative learning in our schools is just going to keep growing in the months ahead. If you’re interested in hosting a workshop with type of focus for your school or organization, please let me know.

Hat tip to Cody Loucks for sharing the link to this interview with Peter Senge in his post for The Master Teacher, “Articles about learning, educational change and leadership.”

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One Response to Kids are the real customers in schools: We need to LISTEN to them!

  1. Dan Jones says:

    I am always looking for great ways to incorporate technology into my classroom. We are currently building websites and using Skype in the Classroom. My students are creating video book reports that truly inspire others to read the book. Feel free to check us out at http://www.ideasforteachers.org. I am definitely going to be following this blog. Thanks for all the inspiration you are providing.

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