Student Voice, Student Agency

Student Voice, Student Agency

There is a view among some parents that the main value of regular parent-teacher conferences is for there to be a bilateral exchange of information about the performance of the focus of the conference: the student. Some see this conference as a chance to find out from the teacher what is really going on, how their child is really performing. In an ultra-competitive setting like Hong Kong, there is likely to be an element of anxiety among some parents about their child’s academic performance and their ‘ranking’ in comparison to other students. Teachers also feel some degree of anxiety, not wanting to disappoint parents who may have unrealistically high expectations about their child’s academic abilities. The student is not seen as a necessary participant in this exchange.

If the published studies about disaffected students are any guide, one of the important elements missing in this transaction is student voice and what we might call ‘learner agency’. This view asserts that school students may feel that their own expectations and dreams are disconnected from the expectations of their parents and society at large and that they lack real power to have any direct influence over their education. They have their own hopes and dreams, but these seem to be unobtainable or unacceptable in the harsh world of adult realities. They feel powerless and directionless.

In seeking to find the all-important middle ground between parent performance anxiety and student disillusionment over misplaced expectation, we need to reduce the distance between what students and parents want from education, to strike a balance between expectations and outcomes. This is only possible through a tripartite negotiation that gives students a voice in the conversation. 

This week, we dedicated a considerable amount of school time to tri-conferences, where students sit with their teachers and parents to discuss their own learning, in their own words. Ideally, our students should feel safe and empowered to share their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses, their aspirations and disappointments.  Similarly, the adults in these conversations should take the time to listen carefully and attentively to what their children are saying and perhaps what they are not saying.

We should not lose sight of the fact that as our children mature, so too do their dreams and expectations. What they hope to become evolves and grows with age and experience. Parents should be a part of this dynamic process, shaping aspirations with wise advice, while listening actively, and supporting emotionally. We must accept that our children are not mere extensions of ourselves; they cannot vicariously fulfil our dreams – they must follow their own.

Ultimately, our children will only truly engage in building their own future when we give them agency. And student agency only develops when their future is something our children build themselves; it is not something that is done to them. This process starts when we welcome our children into the conversation with the adults in the room.

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