Power and Student Voice

This week’s guest post is from Gayatri Mehta, MYP and DP Economics and Theory of Knowledge teacher from Pathways School Noida, India. 

This article seeks to explore the dynamic, rapidly changing discourse of what really constitutes authentic student voice.  Mitra’s (2006) pyramid of student voice places ‘being heard’ at the lowest rung of the ladder for students . This is therefore the most basic expectation, followed by ‘collaborating with adults’ and ending with ‘building capacity for leadership’ at the highest rung. 

In order to ‘hear students,’ ‘collaborate’ with them and ‘build their capacity for leadership,’ teachers need to metamorphose and shed their archaic strategies. The need of the hour is to identify and hone skills which will enable students to bridge the time -space continuum between employment and education ecosystems .

Multiple power relations influence this discourse- the most important of which is the power relation between the teacher and the student. As Fielding puts it ‘ there are no spaces , physical or metaphorical , where teachers and students meet each other as equals, as genuine partners in the shared undertaking of making meaning of their work together’ (Fielding, 2004 as quoted in Robertson,2015). 

The importance given to student voice in educational institutions, however, reflects and stems from a huge cultural shift that places student voice and choice at the core of an institution’s structure and by doing so, coerces teachers to acknowledge and indeed actively maintain a student’s position of power. 

An understanding of this complex relationship can be further enriched by citing  Michel Foucault, the godfather of politicizing power. In Foucault’s 1983 lectures on ‘Discourse and Truth’, he refers to the concept of ‘Parrhesia’. This concept is rooted in the work of the ancient Greek dramatist Euripides (484-407 BC)  (Kitto and Taplin,2019) and oddly enough, resonates in current, 21st-century conversations around student voice in a classroom (Robertson,2015)

Parrhesia can be defined in terms of the following  essential features : (Peters,2003)

Frankness i.e. the willingness to voice one’s opinion coherently and unambiguously; truth, the ancient Greeks felt that knowing and accurately conveying the truth requires certain moral qualities. If the speaker does not possess these qualities, then he is not really a parrhesiastic since what he is saying is not really the whole ‘truth’. The third feature of a parrhesiastic is risk-taking. Someone is said to use parrhesia or be a parrhesiastic only if there is a risk involved in speaking his mind. Speaking one’s mind is synonymous with criticizing, in this context and is ‘dangerous‘ because we are assuming that the speaker is always inferior to the listener. Therefore, as per the ancient Greeks- a teacher or a parent correcting a child is not a parrhesiastic but a citizen standing up against the majority of his countrymen, a philosopher criticizing a tyrannical leader or a student criticizing his teacher is using Parrhesia.  The last strand in this relationship is that both the speaker and the listener bear a certain  ‘moral duty’. The speaker does not utter his criticism and place himself in a vulnerable position because he is forced to do so. He does it because he feels that it is his moral duty to convey the truth in order to improve his or his peer’s situation (Peters,2003)

The core of these features is the power balance in the relationship between the speaker (teacher )and the audience (students). Foucault used Jocasta’s dialogue in the Greek Play -The Phoenician Women’, to illustrate that if someone in a position of power prevents someone from freely expressing their views, then he weakens his own authority and gives the erstwhile ‘inferior’ party a sense of power. He places himself in a position of ‘dishonor’ and frustration. (Foucault , 1983 as quoted in Robertson, 2015)

‘The parrhesiastic contract’, therefore,  elucidates a moral obligation on the part of authority figures to hear and act upon a  ‘weaker’  party’s honest critiques. This is of course, under the assumption that the less powerful have indeed been honest. There are glaring issues at stake here. A student’s voice and most certainly, the choice  is defined by complex personal motivations and may, in effect, consist of ‘emotive ramblings’ rather than constructive criticism (Robertson 2015). However, in today’s democratic world, it is only fair that a student’s first brush with authority should be imbued with democratic ideals.

A combination of the ideals of the parrhesiastic contract and student voice, in theory, can enable educators to facilitate a learning partnership with their students. Heffernan in her 2012 Ted Talk articulated this need best when she suggested that students should be ‘thinking partners’ and not ‘echo chambers’. A learning partnership consists of the following essential features:

A shift in focus from ‘person’ to problem (Robertson,2015): students will feel a heightened sense of self-worth when their critiques/problems are ‘heard’ and acted upon by adults. They will then be successfully perched on the first rung of Mitra’s (2006) pyramid. 

We need to give space and time for learning to happen. Learning is an individual process because there is no sure shot formula that works for everyone! It requires explorations and meanderings into erstwhile unexplored territories by the students, facilitated by adults. If students are able to choose how and what to learn in these unexplored territories, they will be able to move from the first rung in Mitra’s pyramid to the second,- i.e. they will be able to ‘collaborate with adults’ and work on rectifying the critiques they so ably identified and voiced. 

Lastly, students can only reach the highest rung in Mitra’s pyramid i.e. they will only be able to build their ‘capacity for leadership’  if they are allowed to lead alongside adults! Only students who are truthful, courageous, risk-takers and possess a sense of their moral responsibility will be able to adhere to the ‘The parrhesiastic contract’ as visualized by Foucault and the ancient Greeks. They would have then successfully built their capacity for leadership and in doing so, imbibed the skills needed for jobs of the future. 

Fielding,M.(2004).’ Transformative approaches to student voice; theoretical underpinnings, recalcitrant realities’. British Educational Research Journal, 30(2), 295- 311

Foucault, M.(1999). ‘Discourse and truth: the problematization of parrhesia (six lectures given by Michel Foucault at the University of Berkley,October-November 1983’ (ed. J.Pearson 1985),compiled from tape recordings and re-edited in 1999.Online: https://foucault.info/parrhesia/foucault.DT1.wordParrhesia.en/ 

Hannus, S., & Simola, H. (2010). The Effects of Power Mechanisms in Education: Bringing Foucault and Bourdieu Together. Power and Education, 2(1), 1–17. doi:10.2304/power.2010.2.1.1 

KITTO, H., & TAPLIN, O. (2019). Euripides | Greek dramatist. Retrieved 6 December 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Euripides

Mitra, D. (2006).’Increasing student voice and moving towards youth leadership’. The Prevention Researcher, 13(1),7-10

Peters,M. (2003),’Truth Telling as an educational practice of the self;Foucault, parrhesia and the ethics of subjectivity’.Oxford Review of Education,29(2),23-207

Robertson, G. , (2015).Student voice at the ‘heart of learning’. Research In Teacher Education, 5(1),27-32. DOI: 10.15123/PUB.4324

Featured Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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