Deliberate (Mis)Representations: A Case Study of Teacher Influence on Student Authenticity and Voice in Study Abroad Assessment

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 3                            IJSV                           April, 2018

Deliberate (Mis)Representations: A Case Study of Teacher Influence on Student Authenticity and Voice in Study Abroad Assessment

Kayla M. Johnson,  Pennsylvania State University


Citation: Johnson, K.M. (2018). Deliberate (Mis)Representations: A case study of teacher influence on student authenticity and voice in study abroad assessment. International Journal of Student Voice, 3(4).

Abstract: This article examines teacher influence on the authenticity of students’ representations of their learning in a study abroad context. Through presenting a case study of a research project aimed at uncovering what and how students learn in study abroad programs, this article suggests that the representations of learning that students shared with their professors in assignments misrepresented their experiences abroad and the learning that resulted from those experiences. Using an innovative ethnographic technique-Photo-Cued Interviewing (PCI)-students shared with me that they did not feel able to authentically express what they learned during their experience in assignments monitored by their teachers and others, such as public blogs and class presentations. The paper concludes with practical recommendations for educators and educational institutions regarding ways to more democratically facilitate open dialogue through which understanding student learning may be more possible.
Keywords:student voice, study abroad, teacher influence, photo-based research, assessment, student learning

“How is someone going to know how my experience truly was unless you get my honest opinion and point of view on it?” – Danielle


A Case of Deliberate Misrepresentation

One month after returning home from her study abroad program in Sweden, Danielle and I discussed her experience over a few of her photos. As she talked about a photo of Gothenburg’s southern archipelagoes (Danielle, Photo 1, shown below), she shared that this brief excursion, which was an impromptu outing separate from the course itinerary, was more impactful for her learning than, for example, their visits to companies like IKEA and Volvo. I remembered that Danielle had talked at length about these company visits during her in-country presentation, which was delivered in front of classmates, her professors, and Swedish faculty members. The presentation was meant to highlight what she had learned throughout the program, but this learning moment was absent. When I mentioned this discrepancy to Danielle, she explained that her presentation reflected what she was supposed to say, not what really happened. There were some things, Danielle explained, that she decided to leave out.

Figure 1s

Figure 1—Danielle, Photo #1: View from Gothenburg Archipelagoes

Tensions between Teacher Influence and Student Authenticity

Danielle’s comment exposes the central tension explored in this paper—how teachers influence student voice and authenticity in assessment. As I interviewed Danielle’s 14 classmates in this case study, each student shared with me that, on some level, the reflective assignments they completed throughout their course did not authentically represent their experiences or learning. Teacher influence on authenticity and voice was identified as the main catalyst for the students’ deliberate misrepresentations of their experiences. While this paper is part of a larger study on student learning abroad, the students’ discussions about their teachers’ influence on the content of their assignments begged a new question: In what ways can teacher influence impact student authenticity and voice in assessment efforts?

Issues of teacher power and influence on student authenticity and voice are not new in educational research (e.g., Katz, 1992; Scott et al, 2006), and are not unique to study abroad contexts. For example, teacher power can influence the authenticity of the work students produce (Smith, 2000; Bower, 2003; Reinsvold & Cochran, 2012), as research shows that students often fabricate assignments to please their teachers (Casey & Hemenway, 2001). This power imbalance can become problematic when teachers attempt to understand student experiences through reflection tasks, particularly when students are trying to interpret and act upon what they think teachers might want to hear.

Using reflections to understand student learning is a current trend in research on learning in study abroad contexts (e.g., Lindsey, 2005; Dietz et al, 2017; Goetz & Holliday, 2017), but the field is relatively under-researched. Teacher-researchers, often the study abroad course instructors, solicit student reflections in order to understand what students learn and how learning occurs. For example, the student-participants in this case study were assigned three reflective assessment tasks: daily blog posts, in-country presentations, and post-program video presentations (see Appendix A). However, the students said that what they shared with their instructors in these assignments inaccurately represented their experiences abroad.

In ways explored in this paper, the authenticity and voice of these students were negatively impacted by teacher influence, which resulted in incomplete and inaccurate depictions of their experiences, and thus, their learning. Using this study abroad program as a case study (see Johnson, 2017 for more details), this paper examines the influence that teachers can have on student authenticity and voice in educational contexts, highlighting how teachers influence how students talk about their experiences, and problematizing the impact this has on student learning assessment. While this paper is not meant to be generalized to all study abroad programs, educational contexts, teachers, or assessment efforts, it serves as a cautionary tale of student assessment efforts gone awry. It provides insights into how educators can be more mindful of their influence on students’ authenticity and voice, and why this is important for understanding student learning.


Understanding Student Learning in Study Abroad

Student learning assessment in study abroad is a burgeoning field that has gained considerable attention in recent years (Vande Berg, Paige, & Lou, 2012), but is still under researched. While accountability standards have become a more central focus (The Forum on Education Abroad, 2015), some critics argue that study abroad programs facilitate very little student learning gains (e.g., Charbonneau, 2013; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Marklein, 2004). Field leaders have called for scholar-practitioners to respond to these pressures by challenging untested claims and avoiding assumptions about the benefits of education abroad (Ogden, 2017).

Recent efforts have demonstrated that studying abroad can lead to: gains in intercultural competence and cross-cultural development (Salisbury et al, 2013; Carrillo, 2014; Heinzmann et al, 2015); social-emotional learning (Johnson, 2017; DeGraaf et al, 2013; Bathke & Kim, 2016); and foreign language acquisition (Kinginger, 2017). Studying abroad is also positively correlated with higher GPAs and critical thinking, and greater postsecondary persistence and student engagement (NSSE, 2007; Kuh, 2008; Kuh et al, 2010). Such outcomes, however, are contingent upon several factors including program duration, program location, and the level of cultural immersion (Anderson & Lawton, 2011; Donnelly-Smith, 2009; Kinginger, 2013). This study emphasizes another influential factor: the conditions under which student assessment is conducted. Current research on student learning in study abroad has not problematized how learning outcomes are assessed, and this paper, in part, seeks to address this gap by highlighting how teachers may influence student authenticity and voice in certain kinds of assessment efforts.

Situating Student Voice in Learning Assessment

Although existing research on student learning in study abroad has not examined the influence of the method of data collection, there seems to be a growing awareness of how different methods can elicit different types of understanding. While study abroad assessment efforts have traditionally been conducted quantitatively, qualitative studies have become popular in recent years (e.g., Lee & Green, 2016; Caldwell & Purtzer, 2015; Vatalaro et al, 2015). This shift is important, as qualitative research has great potential for mitigating power imbalances between the researcher and the researched (Denzin & Lincoln, 2018). When conducted democratically with younger populations, like students, qualitative assessment research has the potential for opening up spaces for students to exercise their voice and agency (Gonzalez et al, 2017), allowing researchers to better understand students’ experiences from students’ perspectives.

While investigating the student perspective is just budding in study abroad research, the broader student voice field has deeper roots. For example, Mitra’s (2006) student voice framework refers to the ways in which students are given opportunities to participate in decision-making processes in school settings. This conception of student voice work occurs in three phases: students being heard, students collaborating with adults, and building students’ capacity for leadership. My conceptualization of student voice in this paper relates most closely to Mitra’s (2006) first phase—being heard. While I recognize the breadth of student voice scholarship, I have selected Mitra’s framework because of its foundations in listening to students; research shows that students appreciate when their voices are heard and that their perspectives are valued (Mitra, 2003; Oldfather, 1995). Adults are then tasked with providing spaces for students to share their voices safely and comfortably, and with awareness of their interpretative biases, to ensure students are heard accurately (Levitan, 2018). This case study highlights what can happen when these spaces are not seen as safe and comfortable and explores how this impacts what students say and, thus how they can be heard.

Conceptual Framework: Problems with Power and Positionality in Education

While this paper employs a grounded theory analytical approach (Corbin & Strauss, 2015), it is loosely informed by literature on power and positionality in education. This paper also assumes a constructivist perspective, which acknowledges the representational aspects of reality—that realities are constructed, contextual, and subjective (Crapanzano, 1999). From a constructivist perspective, what students say and do does not authentically reflect “reality” in an objective sense; rather, their representations are just one version of a reality. Without acknowledging the representational aspect of students’ realities and what influences those representations, educators cannot come to valid conclusions about student learning or make responsible curricular recommendations based on students’ assignments.

One influence over students’ representations of realities is power. Issues of power and representation are not new in educational ethnography (Katz, 1992), or in classrooms (Bianchi, 1997; Scott et al, 2006; Shepardson & Britsch, 2006). Critical theorists (Levinson, 2011; Apple, 1995) argue that power relations between the researcher and the researched inhibit informants from sharing their most authentic selves, instead prompting informants to act in ways—or offer representations of reality—that will please the researcher. In educational settings, perceived teacher power and students’ desire to please the teacher can prohibit teachers from accessing certain representations of realities (Bower, 2003). For example, when students know a teacher is going to read what they write, it may influence the content of their writing (Smith, 2000). In addition, teachers may choose to reshape, edit, or ignore student responses if they represent realities that go against “acceptable” or “desired” points of view (Lemke, 1990; Reinsvold & Cochran, 2012). For students, this power imbalance leads to less intrinsic motivation to complete tasks in ways that accurately and authentically represent the self; completing assignments then becomes a “balancing act” (Cleary, 1996) in which students produce something between what they want to say and what they think the teacher wants to hear. What results then is often student self-censorship, which can lessen the impact of the cognitive contribution they are able to make regarding their own learning (Roberts & Nason, 2011).

This is particularly problematic when considering reflective tasks, such as in this study. Reflection involves four phases: the experience itself, the description of the experience, the analysis of the experience, and taking intelligent action (Dewey, 1933; Rodgers, 2006). However, when the description phase becomes distorted—in this case, heavily influenced by the teacher—the analysis and action phases become compromised. In other words, if students do not authentically represent what and how they learned, then the analysis and conclusions the teacher and students can draw become inaccurate (Spaulding, 1995). Students also lose motivation to reflect when the designated format for a reflective task, which is dependent upon the audience, often their teacher, is uncomfortable for them (Cleary, 1996). Students’ sense of pride, ownership, and engagement with the topic diminishes as the reflection becomes less representative of themselves and their thoughts (Casey & Hemenway, 2001).

Therefore, examining teacher influence on student authenticity and voice is critical, particularly as understanding the experiences of students is important for understanding their learning. Teachers must be cognizant of how they may be influencing their students and the work they produce and should reflexively examine this influence as they assess and learn from student work. It is imperative to understand how students perceive and define their situations before teachers and researchers can make sense of their reflections on them (Delamont, 1976).

Research Methods

Part of a larger study on student learning in short-term study abroad programs (Johnson, 2017), this paper examines teacher influence on student authenticity and voice in learning assessment efforts. The case study I present utilizes an original ethnographically (Spradley, 1980) and phenomenologically (Van Manen, 1990) inspired assessment strategy—Photo-Cued Interviewing (Johnson, 2017)—to examine the experiences students have abroad and what they learn from those experiences. I compare these student accounts with the reflective tasks they completed for their course professors to develop a deeper understanding of how their representations of reality change under the influence of their teachers. I come to this study with a constructivist lens and use the following interpretive methods.


This case study details the experiences of fifteen university students who were participating in a 10-day faculty-led study abroad program in Sweden. They all attended the same large public university in the U.S. Eleven students were female, four were male, they were all between the ages of 19 and 30 (most were 20-22), and they were predominantly white. My connection with this program was the result of my work in the university international office, where I worked on initiatives relating to faculty-led study abroad courses. I contacted professors of three different programs as part of my study site selection. I ultimately selected this program because of the professors’ positive reputation among my colleagues.


As a participant-observer (Spradley, 1980), I followed the fifteen students during their program. My role as an ethnographic researcher was, as Adler and Adler (1994) argue it should be, between detached and non-participatory (Gold, 1958) and “going native” (Malinowski, 1922). I functioned as an insider-outsider to gain emic (within the student culture) and etic (outside the student culture) perspectives (Spradley, 1980) of the students’ experiences. I participated in program activities with the students, held informal conversations with them, and observed their engagement with the program activities, the host country, and each other. I recorded extensive fieldnotes (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011), creating a regular and systematic record of my observations.

Photo-Cued Interviewing

Photo-Cued Interviewing (PCI; Johnson, 2017) capitalizes on this generation’s ubiquitous use of photography as a means of expression, meaning making, and communication (Levine & Dean, 2012)—to understand their experiences in a non-invasive way that is rich with context, rigorous in methodology, but also speaks the language of students (Gibson et al, 2013).  PCI as a method facilitates dialogue around students’ photos, which serve as visual representations of their learning or meaning making. Like Tobin et al.’s (1989) video-cued ethnography approach, the photos are not viewed as data, but as methods for eliciting data.

One month after the program, I conducted individual PCI interviews (N=9). Each student selected three photos from their trip that represented something meaningful or significant about their experience. Using a semi-structured interview protocol (Spradley, 1979), I asked students to reflect upon their experiences—using their own photos as prompts—to understand what they found meaningful, what they learned, and how/when/where that learning occurred. I also conducted two PCI focus groups with students (N=3, N=4). Each student selected one of his/her pictures to discuss with others, allowing them to reflect together, offer opposing viewpoints, and co-create knowledge.

Most of the PCI conversations with these students were free-flowing and animated. However, during one focus group outside of a local restaurant, one of the professors walked up and joined us unexpectedly. The students’ animated discussion was abruptly derailed by their professor’s presence. Even after walking away, the professor’s presence lingered as the students struggled to regain traction on the topics they had been so animated about just moments before (interview notes, 6/26/16). When I asked the students about what had just happened, they said that they were nervous that the professor had overheard our conversation.

This anecdote, in part, justifies my PCI approach, which allowed the students to freely express the meaning of their experiences in a non-judgmental (i.e., non-assessed, instructor-free) environment. This approach produced insights into informants’ subjective experiences beyond what and how they learned, particularly how these experiences were misrepresented, falsified, or absent from their other forms of reflection, like class assignments. Interviews and focus groups lasted 85-145 minutes.

Ethical Considerations

Because this research involves human subjects and photographs, several ethical considerations were made. At the professors’ request, I obtained consent from all students enrolled in the course. Students were informed verbally and in writing that they would be asked to participate in interviews, provide pictures, and that I would travel with them throughout their program. Students were informed that their photos would be shared in presentations and publications, and that they should refrain from submitting photos showing their faces if they did not wish to be identified. While nearly all participants submitted at least one photo showing their face, I have elected to blur their faces in this article to provide enhanced confidentiality, in case their decision to reveal their identity changes in the future. I have also blurred the faces of bystanders who appear in the students’ photos. Students were given one week to consider their decision to consent, and every student submitted a signed consent form before any data was collected.


Interviews and focus groups were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim, and my field notes were typed. Data were uploaded into NVivo qualitative data software. I employed a grounded theory analytical approach, loosely informed by my literature review and conceptual framework (Corbin & Strauss, 2015). When necessary, I conducted member-checks with informants to ensure validity and to minimize the influence of researcher bias (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).


The following findings highlight how students’ authenticity and voices were influenced by their teachers. Both indirectly and directly, teacher influence had profound (and largely adverse) impacts on students’ authenticity and voice in their reflective assignments: “[The assignments] were very fake. It wasn’t an accurate story of what happened.” Students generally described their reflections as “censored” and “guarded.” I explore three emergent themes that contributed to the students’ deliberate misrepresentations: wanting to earn a good grade, adhering to restrictive assignment instructions and narrow conceptions of learning, and responding to institutional pressures.

Wanting to Earn a Good Grade

The most prominent explanation of teacher influence on their reflections centered on the students’ desire to earn a good grade on their assignments. While not a new finding (Smith, 2000; Casey & Hemenway, 2001), our conversations revealed the lengths to which students went to produce “A-worthy” work, and that their desire to earn a good grade from their professors caused students to omit information about their learning experiences.

Several students feared that the content of their reflections would negatively impact their grade for the course. Danielle’s three photos were all from Gothenburg, the group’s last stop in Sweden (Danielle, Photo #1, #2, & #3, shown below). They each depicted experiences that were not facilitated by the professors or included in the course itinerary—they were incidentallearning experiences (Marsick & Watkins, 2001). However, these experiences, which she deemed her most significant, were not mentioned in any of her three reflective assignments. When asked to explain, she said:

I had to really sugar coat everything and put some fluff into it and make it an A presentation. It was a struggle sometimes to put it together because there were other things that I wanted to say but I knew it probably wouldn’t go over well with my grade.

Figure 1s

Figure 1—Danielle, Photo #1: View from Gothenburg Archipelagoes

Figure 2

Figure 2—Danielle, Photo #2: Bikes on Gothenburg Archipelago Islands

Figure 3s

Figure 3—Danielle, Photo #3: Anchor on Display in Gothenburg Harbor

Because she was being graded, Danielle felt indirectly pressured to only discuss activities that were directly related to the course. So, Danielle significantly altered how she presented her learning experiences in ways that would better please the professors, saying that she learned from course lectures, instead of, for example, on a boat tour.

Dana explained that as she wrote her blog posts each evening, the experiences depicted in her writing reflected more of her desire to earn a high grade than the meaningful learning that she was experiencing. Talking about her photo of a lake (Dana, Photo #1, shown below), she said:

I was like, “Sweden is like this,” and even when I was saying it I was like this is wrong. But, and this is going to sound bad, but it’s what they wanted to hear. I just said what they wanted to hear basically because I’m trying to get a good grade.

Figure 4

Figure 4—Dana, Photo #1: View of Lake in Jönköping

Dana explained that, for example, while she wrote about how Swedish employment practices should be implemented in the U.S. (which, to her, was the “lesson to be learned” from the course), she actually believed that differences between the U.S. and Swedish contexts, like size, would make such implementation difficult. However, Dana felt that making such a statement, even a critical and insightful one like this, might earn her a lower grade.

The pressure felt by Danielle, Dana, and other students to please their professors in order to earn a good grade on their assignments limited their authenticity and voice. It also significantly impacted the reflection, and thus learning (Van Manen, 1990), that these types of assignments were likely meant to facilitate.

Navigating Value Differences around “Learning”

A number of students noted that the professors’ implicit focus on learning related to the course objectives limited the kinds of experiences they shared in their reflective assignments. The perceived pressure to stick to what students described as “restrictive” instructions caused some students to omit certain meaningful experiences from their writing. For example, as Emily discussed her photo from an impromptu hike in Jönköping (Emily, Photo #1, shown below), she said:

They’re giving you an assignment and then give you a word limit and THEN are like, “Oh, don’t mention this.” Like, you want to me to write about what I did today—how am I not supposed to mention that? And then you don’t want to lie about it, you don’t want to twist it, so you just leave it out.

Figure 5s

Figure 5—Emily, Photo #1: View from Hill During Hike in Jönköping

The “this” that Emily refers to were all of the incidental experiences that contributed to her learning, such as her mishaps traveling to Sweden for the program (Emily, Photo #2, shown below). Because the professors were limiting the word count and content of the blogs, Emily and others had to leave other things—important, meaningful things—out of their reflections.

Figure 6

Figure 6—Emily, Photo #2: Train Station in Copenhagen, Denmark

Danielle also shared that the professors’ seemingly narrow conceptualization of learning limited what she felt able to write about. The blog posts were “to be taken seriously,” but Danielle explained that her most meaningful learning experiences were silly (like her canal boat tour; Kate, Photo #1, shown below—as discussed in focus groups) and fun (like the archipelagoes). These did not seem “serious” enough to be included, no matter how meaningful they were for her learning:

It sort of didn’t capture—it seemed like we had to suppress a lot of stuff and [the blogs were] kind of fake. I really couldn’t be totally genuine and honest about my experiences. I had to shelter all the viewers from what was really going on.

Figure 7

Figure 7—Kate, Photo #1: Canal in Gothenburg

Danielle provided other examples of activities that seemed to prompt learning for her and her classmates, but that might not be considered “serious” (i.e., academic): visiting an amusement park (Kari, Photo #1, shown below—as discussed in focus groups), dancing with Swedish students at a nightclub, the hike mentioned by Emily, etc. However, because Danielle had to “suppress” these experiences, she felt that her reflections were not authentic representations of her learning.

Figure 8

Figure 8—Kari, Photo #1: Students at Gothenburg Amusement Park

Responding to Institutional Pressures

A final way in which teachers influenced the students’ authenticity and voices occurred in response to institutional pressures—specifically from the university administration and academia more broadly. External links to the students’ blog posts and presentations were shared with university administrators and students’ parents, which signaled to some students that these assignments were to “make the program look good.” As Brandon shared a photo of a public tram (Brandon, Photo #1, shown below), he, like many of his classmates, talked about how travel itself was the catalyst for his most meaningful learning: “It’s about getting lost and finding yourself in a foreign country.” However, he believed that such lessons would not “make the program look [as] good” as if he were to write about planned course activities.

Figure 9

Figure 9—Brandon, Photo #1: Tram in Gothenburg

More directly, students suggested that the professors sometimes edited students’ blogs, which students submitted to them each night, before posting them online. For example, Marcy’s account of traveling to Sweden on her own was deleted from her blog before was posted to the class website: “They edited them. If there was something bad, they would take it out.”  Marcy explained that she believed the professors did not want parents or administrators to read about how students had to travel alone and talk to “strangers” in order to find their way. Even though Marcy’s blog post talked about how she, someone who suffers from severe social anxiety, was empowered by the journey, she felt that the professors feared that her story could spark negative thoughts about their ability to keep the students safe.

While Rachel’s blogs were not edited by the professors, she commented on the “redact[ing]” of her classmates’ reflections:

That wasn’t fair. The blogs were supposed to be about what we did—what we’ve taken from this.  So when they’re redacting things that they don’t want other people to know, it’s like, well isn’t this part of the trip? What I’m supposed to use to reflect on?

It seemed clear that the students believed that the professors were under intense pressure to “perform,” and that these pressures negatively influenced the ways in which the students were able to reflect. While some students, like Marcy, expressed frustration toward the professors themselves, Emily spoke about the professors’ influence in very understanding, and even empathetic terms. Emily purposefully changed the content of her own blogs to show respect for the professors and the pressures they were under:

In the presentations, I’m in front of a bunch of adults who feel like they’ve given me an experience that I can really take something back to my country and apply to my life and my future career. [The professor] wanted them recorded, so for [them], that was [their] take home from the trip and everything [they] had worked for. They want to see how much they helped you and influenced you. It’s a respect thing for me. Because you don’t want to embarrass the people who brought you. You don’t want to embarrass [the university].

To Emily, the professors deserved presentations that highlighted the influence that they had on the students’ learning. Emily chose not to include learning outcomes or learning moments that had not been directly facilitated by the professors. She felt that not highlighting what she had learned academically could “embarrass” the university, noting how teachers are often pressured to show what their students learned that directly connects with the course. As Emily astutely noted, if her professors could not demonstrate that students met the academic objectives of the program, then they likely would not be permitted to run the program again in the future. Emily did not want to be the reason why.


It is worth reiterating that when I approached the professors about conducting a study on learning outcomes with their students, they expressed concern that I might negatively influence the students’ behavior throughout the program. They stated that the program was “[the students’] experience,” and that the students should be able to “get what they want out of it.” Their worries were valid and well-received, which is why I took extra steps to ensure that students understood the purpose of the study and their right to refuse participation. The professors’ request acknowledges their recognition of power relations in the classroom, which is why these findings were so surprising to me.

Although from a single case study, the findings presented here provide a narrative that speaks to how teacher influence can adversely affect student authenticity and voice. While literature points out that power imbalances often influence people in ways that they are not even aware (e.g., Markus & Bjorn-Andersen, 1987), this study presents a case in which students recognized and were responding to teacher influences by deliberately misrepresenting their experiences.

“How is someone going to know how my experience truly was unless you get my honest opinion and point of view on it?” Danielle’s question from the beginning of this paper highlights the importance of understanding how student authenticity and voice can be influenced by teachers; if students do not feel free to discuss their learning experiences, how can we as educators and researchers come to know what or how they learned? The reflective assignments devised, facilitated, and monitored by the professors, while undoubtedly pedagogically sound and well-intentioned, were unable to capture authentic representations (Crapanzano, 1999) of their students’ experiences abroad. As Danielle states above, her resulting “edited” and “censored” reflections led to inaccurate and incomplete understandings about her experiences, which leads us as educators to incorrect conclusions about her learning outcomes.

First, many students felt incapable of sharing accurate and complete accounts of their learning experiences lest they not earn a good grade on the assignments. Danielle and Dana both expressed that they carefully curated the content of their assignments to make their work “A-worthy.” This finding supports previous research on “pleasing the professor” (Bower, 2003; Smith, 2000; Cleary, 1996), and underscores how this type of teacher influence in the form of assigning grades can limit what students share and thus, how they can be heard (Mitra, 2006).

Second, students expressed that the professors’ narrow conceptions of what constitutes “learning” differed from the kinds of learning they felt was most important and limited what they felt able to write about. This is an important tension to be explored. On the one hand, the assignments were likely crafted with the goal of understanding what students learned in relation to the course objectives, which is expected in academia. Assessing students’ achievement in relation to course objectives is necessary for evaluating the efficacy of a course. On the other hand, students expressed that the non-academic growth—personal, social-emotional—they experienced abroad was much more impactful than their academic learning. Thus, while the assignments may have accurately captured student academic learning to some extent, they seemingly failed to capture: a) important student social-emotional learning, and b) authentic descriptions of how students learned these lessons. What resulted were mechanical, formulaic (Casey & Hemenway, 2001), and sometimes fabricated representations of how X course activity contributed to Y learning outcome, a form of self-censorship that limits what both educators and students can come to know about student learning (Roberts & Nason, 2011).

This finding highlights some important and underexplored tensions in assessment and academia more broadly: What constitutes “learning”?; Should academic and non-academic forms of learning have equal value in education?; and, How can learning be assessed more holistically? These are areas for future research. It is not my intention to argue that professors should not place restrictions on what students should write about—professors need to assess academic learning, and do not have time to investigate everything students learn. However, it is important to recognize that the value commonly placed on academic learning may not be matched by the students’ values, particularly when their “other” learning experiences seem more salient and impactful.

Finally, perceived institutional and external pressures on the professors influenced the authenticity and voice of the students. Pressures to demonstrate efficacy and impact are increasingly prevalent in academia (Cowan, 2013), and these pressures can have adverse effects as teachers are tasked with demonstrating student achievement in their courses. These findings, like Marcy’s example, support previous research on how and why teachers may reshape the content of student work in response to such pressures (Lemke, 1990; Reinsvold & Cochran, 2012). Institutional pressures also influence students to show their learning in ways that the academy values. Students like Emily felt the need to alter the content of their reflective assignments so they would not “embarrass” anyone.

This final theme—responding to institutional pressures—likely relates to the first two. Because educators are pressured to demonstrate that their courses lead to student learning, they likely craft assignments to elicit student responses around course concepts, and because the guidelines of these assignments are restrictive, students may feel pressured to only write about things that will earn them good grades. These institutional pressures may be contributing to the stifling of student authenticity and voice, which limits what educators can come to know about student learning. This study suggests that students may have much more to share about their learning, especially incidental (Marsick & Watkins, 2001) and social-emotional learning, but that some assessment methods are not well-suited to capture those experiences, and that some considerations of what “counts” as important learning can limit student expression.

There is an important caveat to address in this paper. Some students were angry; they expressed deep frustration that they were silenced, suppressed, and censored. However, much of this frustration likely stems from the fact that academia is inherently hierarchical. Administrators have power over professors. Professors have power over students. For example, professors must place some limits on student writing, lest they have to read lengthy responses that may not demonstrate the kinds of learning they are attempting to facilitate and assess. This can seem limiting to students who recognize that their learning stretched beyond the course objectives, but it is important to recognize that, in these assessment contexts, not all “silences” are bad. In fact, they can be necessary for understanding specific kinds of learning. Future research should explore ways to balance this tension between anticipated and incidental learning and how to give students spaces to share other types of learning.

Implications for Study Abroad

Though relevant for other contexts, these findings have strong implications for study abroad programming. First, if students feel unable to share the breadth of their experiences and the learning that results from them, then professors and researchers can only capture limited understandings about learning outcomes. This is particularly troubling for the study abroad field, as programs are often criticized for facilitating limited learning gains (see e.g., Charbonneau, 2013; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Marklein, 2004). Second, the context of study abroad programming, in which students are inherently experiencing new cultural contexts, provides unique opportunities for facilitating student learning beyond academic content. Future assessment efforts should give due attention to such social-emotional and incidental learning in these contexts.  Finally, authentically understanding what and how students learn is important from a curriculum and program design perspective. If students feel the need to lie to educators about what and how they learn, then the resulting misunderstandings will inhibit the kinds of data-driven decision making that educators can make. Mitigating such disconnects is important.

Positionality in Student Voice Work

While not necessarily a limitation of this research, positionality plays an important and potentially limiting role in student voice research (Mitra & Gross, 2009). Much of what I was able to come to know about the students’ experiences here related to my positionality. I was the (relatively) “powerless” ethnographer. Students explained that their openness with me, as opposed to their professors, partly resulted from my lack of power over them. I was not “assessing” them (even though I was informally assessing them in my larger study; Johnson, 2017). So, I was invited to join them during their free time. They added me to their “secret” group chat where they discussed things they did not want the professors to know (things that, as I discovered during the interviews and focus groups, often resulted in significant learning). Of course, educators must assess their students in one form or another, so obtaining this particular positionality can be elusive for educators. However, acknowledging positionality and cultivating more relational (Greene, 2001) environments may be a way for educators to counteract students’ tendencies to close them off from more authentic accounts of their experiences and learning.

 “Authenticity” of Student Voice

The PCI method, while allowing for more subjective conversations surrounding students’ experiences, still may not capture authentic representations of student learning. As a constructivist researcher, I do not believe that the representations of reality that students shared with me were the full “Truth”—although the students and I do see them as more authentic representations than those shared with the professors. True representations of reality cannot be accessed, and may not even exist (Crapanzano, 1999).

To illustrate this limitation, I return to Marcy. When Marcy’s interview began, she stated, “I think I sent you the wrong photo.” It was a panorama of Gothenburg (Marcy, Photo #1, shown below). The photo Marcy intended to send was the same photo, but with a wider view that included her classmate Rachel “scarfing down a candy bar” in the corner (Marcy, Photo #2, shown below).

Figure 10

Figure 10—Marcy, Photo #1: Edited Panorama of Gothenburg

Figure 11

Figure 11—Marcy, Photo #2: Unedited Panorama of Gothenburg

Marcy explained that when people go abroad they “curate what [they] think is beautiful;” the experiences they talk about and reflect upon are the good things, often the edited things, and these reflections often do not depict an authentic “reality.” Rachel eating the candy bar was a perfect metaphor for Marcy’s trip—ridiculous, messy, “derpy”—but that metaphor was not one that she, or the professors (as she perceived), wanted as a representation of her experience. Instead, the “curated” panorama was chosen because it was more beautiful, even if less authentic.

The students’ photos and stories are themselves representations. While I did not specifically request original, unedited photos, I was struck when several students submitted photos that were filtered and edited. Angela sent me her images, but then later emailed “fixed” ones, noting how the improved lighting made it look better (Angela, Photo #1, shown below). Brandon altered his photo of a quaint street lined with shops and old cars in Stockholm’s Old City using Instagram’s vintage filter, adding that it made it seem more like he was stepping back in time: “That’s the one I posted [online]” (Brandon, Photo #2, shown below).

Figure 12

Figure 12—Angela, Photo #1: Atop a Mountain

Figure 13

Figure 13—Brandon, Photo #2: Street in Stockholm’s Old Town

The students’ comments and edited photos highlight the breadth of external influences, beyond teacher influence, on their authenticity and voice in representing their experiences. This limitation of accessing “truly authentic” representations certainly impacts how researchers can understand student experiences and what they are able to report about them. However, acknowledging that there are representations of reality that I may not have accessed is an important step in attempting to understand student learning. Researchers should constantly cast a critical eye over the data they gather and acknowledge that the representations of reality they were presented with may not be the most authentic representations available (Crapanzano, 1999).

Are Authentic Representations Best?

Much of the learning described by students resulted from activities and experiences that fell outside of the program’s planned itinerary and curriculum. Students gleaned important life lessons from these incidental (Marsick & Watkins, 2001) experiences, and they strongly lamented their inability to share and reflect on them in their assignments. However, it should also be noted that some of these incidental learning moments involved somewhat illicit activities and behaviors, such as drinking and clubbing. It makes sense that students did not feel comfortable talking about these experiences in their assignments or with professors. I mention these types of experiences, not to highlight the debauchery for which study abroad is sometimes criticized, but because these students were eager to talk with me about how these experiences meant something. From learning self-control to empowerment to responsibility to cross-cultural skills, many students walked away from these experiences having learned something meaningful. While educators should not encourage students to participate in such activities, they should acknowledge that students sometimes do engage in these activities, and that important learning can occur when they do. However, in order for that learning to occur, students need to be given spaces to talk about these experiences and to reflect upon them (Dewey, 1933; Van Manen, 1990). Finding a balance between validating and valorizing such experiences is a skill that educators would do well to practice.


It is easy to see that educators impact the lives of their students. But, these impacts may occur in ways that educators may not realize or intend, and they may not be positive. Teachers must, therefore, practice greater reflexivity that examines how they influence their students’ authenticity and voice, particularly as they attempt to assess what and how students learn. Educators must work to understand how students perceive and define their situation—i.e., the power dynamics between the teacher and the student—before they can make sense of their reflections on it (Delamont, 1976). Teachers should ask themselves: What processes have helped produce these representations of student experiences? How have I influenced this representation? Are there other possible representations that are not being shared? And, how can these other representations be better accessed?

Minimizing negative teacher influence on student authenticity and voice is not an easy task. However, teachers would do well to understand the influences they may have on their students and to develop strategies for enhancing and empowering, not stifling or suppressing, student authenticity and voice. Establishing more open dialogue between teachers and students can help. For example, teachers can acknowledge and value other kinds of learning to encourage students to more freely share their experiences. This can be facilitated through informal reflective discussions, which mitigates the institutional pressure to demonstrate learning by leaving course assignments to focus more on course content while still providing students an outlet to share other experiences.

While this paper focuses on the influence of teachers on students, educational institutions should consider the influence that their policies and practices can have on teachers and students as well. Assessment cultures and increasing accountability measures, while intended to have positive impacts on student learning, can also put negative pressure on teachers, which can in turn negatively affect students. The professors in this case study were, in many ways, reacting to this pressure, wanting to impress the administrators and parents who had access to the students’ assignments. They were in no way “bad” professors; they were professors who seemed to be under immense pressure to perform.

This study also implies that educators and researchers may need a greater focus on authenticity when examining learning. The students in this study explicitly stated that what they shared with their professors about their experiences was largely inauthentic:fake, sugar-coated, incomplete, redacted, edited,bullshit,etc. Many of the stories they told in their assignments—read by professors, administrators, and parents—purposefully did not provide authentic accounts of their experiences. This inauthenticity obscured a large portion of what students learned during this program from these audiences. Understanding how to mitigate such an effect in educational settings is important for being able to capture more authentic representations of student learning.

It is not my attempt in this paper to demonize teachers for stifling student voices. Rather, my broader goal is to highlight how student learning is likely occurring in ways that current research often does not see, and that rethinking teacher influence to empower student authenticity and voice can help illuminate, and even facilitate, student learning. Since all experiences are pre-reflective (Van Manen, 1990), students need to be given spaces to reflect on these experiences so that meaningful learning can transpire. Students seem to be learning quite a bit abroad, but they need to be able to talk about it.

The issues highlighted in this paper are not unique to study abroad contexts. Ultimately, educators writ large should think carefully about how to productively work on power imbalances in and outside of the classroom. Working to turn power dynamics on their head and equitably wielding the influence educators inherently hold can elicit more authentic representations of student experiences, and demonstrate to students that they are committed to providing spaces that best facilitate their learning. Reflection can be “practiced, assessed, and perfected” (Rodgers, 2002), but it can also be suppressed, censored, and fabricated, and until educators acknowledge this and demonstrate their desire to hear and understand the whole of student experiences, assessment efforts based on reflective tasks may be misrepresentative of what students learn. Students have much to share, and they want to “be heard” (Mitra, 2006), but educators must give them spaces to speak freely, and they must be ready to really listen.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways might teachers minimize their “negative influence” in reflective assignments to increase student authenticity and voice?
  2. How can educators work to balance student-teacher power dynamics?
  3. How might students share their thoughts on authenticity and voice, and how can educators provide spaces for this kind of feedback?
  4. (How) can “authentic” representations of experiences be facilitated?
  5. The PCI Method is novel, and still being developed. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses to using PCI as an interpretive assessment method in education?


Author Biography

Kayla Johnson is an Affiliate Scholar with the Center for the Study of Higher Education and an Instructor of Higher Education at Penn State University. Her research focuses on student learning and development, culturally responsive curriculum design, assessment and evaluation, and photo-based research methods.


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(Taken from course syllabus)

Daily In-Country Blog Posts: “Blogs are meant to enhance learning and allow students to voice their opinion on a topic. These are typically one-page responses to a question posed to the class or a reflection on learnings or experiences. They are more experiential, but should be taken seriously. Blogs should be completed online daily while in country.”

In-Country Presentations: Later during the visit, you will be asked to give a second 6-8 minute PowerPoint presentation to the host university faculty and students. You will work on this presentation while in-country and will work in a group with one or two other students. The presentation should be a reflection of your time in Sweden, what you learned about [Human Resource Management], comparison to the USA, and your personal experiences. The grade allocated will be for the pair/team as a whole.

Post-Program Video Wrap-Up Presentations: Students will submit a final video summary of their experiences via ANGEL by two weeks after the trip to Sweden ends. The summary should be 7-10 minutes in length and should reflect on topics such as comparison of initial expectations to actual experiences, main concepts learned and evidence of that learning, thoughts and feelings on own cultural identity, thoughts and feelings on Sweden cultural identity, comparison of the two HRM systems, thoughts on HRM policies, and plans to incorporate this experience into future endeavors. Summaries should include audio and video using VoiceThread or YouTube. In addition, for this embedded study abroadprogram, students should also submit in the drop box slides based on the format of their oral video.




How Do High School Students Create Knowledge About Improving and Changing Their School? A Student Voice Co-Inquiry Using Digital Technologies

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 3           IJSV           April, 2018

How Do High School Students Create Knowledge About Improving and Changing Their School? A Student Voice Co-Inquiry Using Digital Technologies

Jane Hunter, University of Technology Sydney, Australia
Linda O’Brien, Granville Boys High School


Citation: Hunter, J., & O’Brien, L. (2018).How do high school students create knowledge about improving and changing their school? A student voice co-inquiry using digital technologies. International Journal of Student Voice, 3(3).

Abstract: A growing body of work in the field of student voice research now involves students as co-collaborators. Small-scale inquiries increasingly provide opportunities to incorporate digital technologies into participative research with young people. This article presents the findings of an inquiry that seized on ideas of “students as knowledge creators” and “democratic fellowship” to explore the question: What makes a good school? Twelve students representing different age groups in a comprehensive high school in Australia were coached in “knowledge creation” in a workshop led by an academic partner. This co-inquiry was designed to maximize student involvement and engagement in research processes using software applications. The design included developing skills in survey construction and focus group facilitation among a larger group of peers. Results demonstrated not only a readiness to use these skills but also enthusiasm to investigate what their peers believed would make their school a better place. Emerging themes included students’ wanting more responsibility for their own learning, improvements in the school’s physical environment, and the use of more technology in classroom learning. This small-scale inquiry was part of a comprehensive investigation that focused on improving the school’s strategy of positive behaviors through consultations with staff and community stakeholders. Further research that harnesses digital technologies to the skills of “students as knowledge creators” and collaborators is recommended.

Keywords: Student Voice, Digital Technology, Student Agency, STEM

Participation of young people in decision making in schools is not new (Fielding, 2011; Flutter & Rudduck, 2004; Groundwater-Smith 2015; Mayes & Groundwater-Smith, 2013; Mitra, 2003; Simmons, Graham, & Thomas, 2015). Representative student bodies or school councils and youth parliaments have historically provided avenues for consultation and a forum for students’ ideas. However, digital technology is increasingly being used to capture and disseminate experiences of school as part of broader student consultation processes (Savin-Baden & Tombs, 2017). In a study conducted by Facer (2011) in the United Kingdom the question arose: While most children had a computer at home, what could personal digital technology usage mean for the future of schooling, and what opportunities might it provide for students to become “more technically vocal” in their education contexts (p. 128)?

Access to digital technology, software applications, and interactive tools in classrooms and in homes are features of contemporary life in many parts of the world (Evers & Kneyber, 2016; Hunter, 2015; Savin-Baden & Tombs, 2017). The term digital technology in this article refers “to tools created by human knowledge to combine resources to produce desired products, solve problems, fulfil needs or satisfy wants” (Hunter, 2015, p. 22). Education jurisdictions use data generated by digital technology to make pronouncements on how well or otherwise schools are performing (OECD, 2016). Less often, teachers and school leaders use data collected from student collaborators to find out how they like to learn, give feedback on their state of wellbeing, or learn what it is like to be a learner in the classroom of the school they attend (Birkett, 2001; Clark, 2010; Redecker, 2014). However, as argued by Selwyn (2014), the promise of more democratic, fairer roles for digital technologies has not been realized. He expresses unease with “the gulf that persists between the rhetoric of how digital technologies could be used in education and the realities of how digital technologies are actually used in education” (p. vii).

Across the globe effective technology integration in learning in schools is uneven (Evers & Kneyber, 2016; Hunter, 2015; OECD, 2016; Ward & Parr, 2011). For wholesale change in students’ use of digital technologies to be reflected in improved learning outcomes, more research and ongoing resourcing with significant investment in schools and teachers by governments are needed (Hunter, 2015; Ito et al., 2013; Sellar, 2015). Change in schools is notoriously slow, and the demands of a digital age are considerable given the rate of technological obsolescence as one platform, device, or application is superseded by another (Fullan & Langworthy, 2014). One way to effect positive action for the role of digital technology in schools is to involve young people. Digital technology can support what matters to them. However, few studies to date document how digital technology is used in student voice research and how it might be used differently to enhance the democratization of schools (Boss, 2012; Davis & Hill, 2006; Fielding, 2011; Groundwater-Smith, 2015; Manca & Grion, 2017; Seale, 2009).

A study at a primary school in Australia involved students using their digital skills to show leadership by assisting teachers to use technology more effectively in their classrooms (Gibbes, 2014). Other approaches empowering young people to use digital technology in project and inquiry-based learning were also useful when they focused on real-world issues, thereby developing a sense of autonomy and agency in students (Boss & Krauss, 2014; Duke, Halvorsen, & Strachan, 2016; Hunter, 2015; Larmer, Mergendoller, & Boss, 2015).

The study that this article details—how mobilizing the collective intelligence of young people for co-inquiry using digital technology—allowed a larger group of students to have their voices heard on how to improve their school. Within this context, the article examines how the students created knowledge about improving and changing their schoolusing technologyand collaboration skills enacted in a process of consultation with peers.

The warrant for the research was underpinned by two research questions:

  1. How might schools improve through preparing a group of students to act as knowledge creators to better understand “what makes a good school”?
  2. Can digital technologies play a role in giving students a voice in knowledge creation in small-scale inquiry?

Background Literature

Scholarship on student voice research and its focus on the purpose of education to involve all school participants and to educate students into democratic citizens is widely documented (for example, Groundwater-Smith, 2015; Manca & Grion, 2017; Seale, 2009; Simmons et al., 2015). This body of literature includes scholarship that argues for the validity of student voice as a strategy for school reform (Cook-Sather, 2006; Fielding, 2001, 2011). Rudduck and Flutter (2004) implore teachers in schools to “take seriously what students tell us about their experience of being a learner in school—about what gets in the way of their learning and what helps them to learn” (p. 15). Moreover, Groundwater-Smith and Mockler (2009) advocate for the notion that “teachers and schools as knowledge creation sites provide rich territory for the possibilities of student researchers to co-inquire and deeply know about their education venues” (p. 23).

Within schools where students co-inquire, partnership patterns between adults and young people demonstrate that school staff often take leading roles (Mayes & Groundwater-Smith, 2013). And, when such moments for leadership are extended to students for co-research or inquiry, they can create new knowledge that makes a difference to life at school (Fielding, 2011; Rudduck & Flutter, 2004). Such activities remind us of how power relations are differentiated in such arrangements and that their influence on the conduct of school-based inquiry must not be underestimated. However, as Groundwater-Smith and Mockler (2009) write, when students become researchers “they will have greater agency—even so, we must concede it is difficult for them to imagine something different from that in which they are already incorporated” (p. 91). Finding ways to facilitate student agency is central to effective collaboration.

When students are knowledge creators at education sites, as Fielding (2011) applauds, “it intensifies and increases the egalitarian thrust of the co-enquiry approach … the voice of the students comes to the fore in a leadership or initiating, not just a responsive role” (p. 71). His term “knowledge creator” refers to “students who take a lead partnership role with active staff support” (p. 71). Fielding (2004) claims that social settings and identity shapes the ways both teachers and students view the world. Similarly, language and images are saturated with values. Despite these limitations, student voice remains important when seeking to personalize learning and make it more meaningful for students. At the time, Fielding (2004) also asked important questions about using student voice research “to re-describe and reconfigure students more securely into the fabric of the status quo” (p. 302)—a timely possibility that still requires action.

In a study conducted by Bland and Atweh (2007), students were identified as particularly powerful “insiders” because of the knowledge they provided about the various conditions in schools that affected them. These researchers also recognized that significant problems arise when students’ voices are heard, particularly “the need for [them] to find new places in the power dynamics of the school” (p. 340). However, not all consultation with students is liberatory practice where student voice enables positive change and democratization (Manca, & Grion, 2017; Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007).

When using digital technology in student voice research studies conducted in Coalition Schools in Sydney, Australia, Groundwater-Smith and Mockler (2009) noted that visual metaphors and photography were effective for presenting and capturing ideas of school. In particular, they reported that digitally generated graphics are useful in discussions with young people as a means to draw out views and observations. In more recent studies capturing student voice in co-inquiry, tools like videoconferencing are useful for academic partners who want to lead and engage students in school-based research (Hunter & Mitchell, 2011; Savin-Baden & Tombs, 2017). However, the use of digital technology by students in schools, especially video material and images to engage in learning, is not new (Hunter, 2015; Kearney & Schuck, 2006; Pink, 2012). What it offers is enhanced participatory opportunities for student voice in education research (Beetham & Sharpe, 2013; Czerniawski & Kidd, 2011; Gosper, Malfoy, & McKenzie, 2013).

Useful here is Fielding’s (2011) typology, which he calls “patterns of partnership” or forms of interaction between adults and students at school that included “how adults listen to and learn with students in school” (p. 74). In particular, his fourth pattern, the “instrumental dimension,” acknowledges “students as knowledge creators” (p. 74). The study in this article examines how a group of students chosen by school staff engaged in processes of knowledge-creation around the question of “what makes a good school.” The group of students involved in the process of co-inquiry believed many of their everyday experiences at school could be improved (Groundwater-Smith & Needham, 2011). Moreover, these students embraced the idea of working with a “trustworthy outsider,” in this case an academic partner (AP) who was known to school leadership, teachers, and students, and from whom they could learn some data gathering skills using digital technology to forge their own understandings (Hunter & Mitchell, 2011).

Context and Participants

The School

Situated in the southwest region of a large city in New South Wales, Australia, Gregson High School (GHS) is a boys’ comprehensive secondary school comprising junior (Grades 7-10/12-16 year-olds) and senior high school enrollments (Grades 11-12/17-18 year-olds), of which 90% come from backgrounds other than English—mainly Arabic-speaking and Pacific Islander communities. GHS has a thriving music, dance, and arts program.It is important to note thatin Australia, the term comprehensive refers to a public high school that does not select its intake on the basis of academic achievement. In 2012 the school joined an education partnership program for low socioeconomic status schools within its state-run jurisdiction. A video of a student-run canteen at the school (the school has a philosophy of consulting young people) that serves as a community meeting point “went viral” on YouTube.


This small-scale inquiry was built on earlier work of Groundwater-Smith and Needham (2011), which involved academic partners and groups of students as co-researchers and used the notion of “listening to the voices of students in our schools” (Groundwater-Smith & Downes, 1999, p. 7). Starting points for this investigation were questions posed from the previous study, where prior student consultation had canvassed issues such as good teachers, learning, safety, and homework. The particular timing of this inquiry meant the executive staff selected the group of student “knowledge creators” (N=12) to work with the AP (the first author of this article). This study limitation is discussed later in the article.

The 12 students chosen from the junior high school years (Grades 7-10/12-16 year-olds) became known as the Student Knowledge Creators Team (SKCT). A purposive sample was selected according to criteria determined by the staff and students from the earlier study (Groundwater-Smith & Needham, 2011); criteria included perceived commitment to the school, study, and reliability (this limitation will also be discussed in a latter section of the article as it is important to assess what it means when selection processes are governed by teachers).

Design and Method

Study Design

Research is available on how school students use digital technology to conduct small-scale inquiries involving peers in education contexts (Czerniawski & Kidd, 2011; Mayes & Groundwater-Smith, 2013). The “mosaic” process developed by Clark and Moss (2001) is one approach to participative research with young people (p. 7). Artifacts produced by this method are not necessarily ends in themselves, rather “they provide prompts for conversations which, in turn, lead to reflection, interpretation and further discussion about potential changes” (Groundwater-Smith, 2015, p. 68). The “mosaic” process adopted in this study is illustrated through design components in the workshop such as the gathering of artifacts using digital technology and the responses from peers in the SKCT-led focus groups. Here, they used digitally captured images of key people and places in the school that were synonymous with their beliefs about ‘what makes a good school’; the photographs provoked discussion in the workshop prior to data collection in the SKCT-led focus groups.

The research design had three stages. The first stage was a three-hour SKCT workshop conducted by the AP. This session comprised transmission and experimentation with simple research and data-gathering skills, including use of digital images, brainstorming and data collection, question construction, focus group protocols and developing question routes, confidentiality in research, and data analysis using dominant themes (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The AP drew on suitable research training principles developed for pre-service teachers in university coursework. The workshop had seven components:

  1. A brief introduction to how education researchers conduct research in schools, including discussion on “What is a knowledge creator?” and short YouTube videos featuring students as researchers.[1]
  2. An ice-breaker activity using images from the Internet to consider the question: “What makes a good school?”
  3. A product-making component using various software applications (for example, Chatterpix, PicCollage, and VoiceRecord) to capture ideas of what makes a good school.
  4. Demonstration and discussion of the focus group as a modeled technique, the process of making questioning strategies explicit, and ethical issues in data collection together with how to set up a Google form with questions.
  5. A speed debating session (comprising one- to two-minute rotating debates) on how to effectively collect data from students in focus groups.
  6. Simple data analysis techniques using an Excel
  7. Preparation and construction of an agreed question route using the Padletapplication to gather ideas and refining a list of focus group questions.
It should be noted that no formal evaluation of the workshop was conducted, and this too is a study limitation. However, a short debriefing session was held. The SKCT were asked to write down their reflections on the experience of both the workshop and the collection of data from peers. Students’ technology skills were not measured before and after the study concluded. The research was approved by the school principal as part of a much wider program of school improvement. All relevant ethical permissions were provided and agreed to by staff, students, and parents. The school and students have pseudonyms; no parents were involved in data reported here.


As a qualitative study, the second stage of the co-inquiry involved the SKCT-led focus groups with 88 peers (approximately a 25% of the total junior high school population).Eleven focus groups (amounting to a total time of six hours) were conducted over one day in the school library. Each focus group compromised seven to eight students and three members of the SKCT; one asked questions, one kept time, and another recorded responses.

Technology access and slow Internet speed in the library prevented access to the Google forms that were created in the workshop, so responses were recorded by the SKCT using pen and paper. The AP was on hand but remained outside the rooms in the library where the focus groups took place. Throughout the study the AP kept extensive field memos and observations of the SKCT in action.

The third stage involved analysis of focus group data by two members of the SKCT with support from the AP. It used an iterative, grounded theory approach (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Strauss & Corbin, 1990) and frequent responses were recorded in an Excel spreadsheet that were collated into themes and converted to percentages. This stage involved two students from the SKCT. Fewer responses were noted in focus groups later in the day, possibly a reflection of minor disruptions from students. Even so, there were a number of lengthy responses spread across the total data set.

Triangulation of the data collected was achieved through analysis of field notes/memos and from observations made over the research period. Data were member checked by two members of the SKCT.


Results from this small-scale inquiry are presented in two sections. The first section responds to the question of “What makes a good school?” and how a group of students acting as knowledge creators gathered data on what might improve their school. The second section relates to the role of digital technology, and how basic technology and research skills learned in a workshop supported members of a SKCT to have their voices heard. Verbatim comments from the data are embedded in the presentation of findings, below.

In Section 1 the inductive findings emerged from frequently occurring themes that are grouped into five sub-headings for reader ease: improving the experience of school and “making it good”; classroom pedagogy and digital technology; feeling safe at school; respect for cultural differences; and safe, respectful learners.

Section 1

Improving the experience of school and “making it good. Strong themes of what defined a good school emerged; ideas were dominated by references to the school’s physical environment. Deemed essential were “a clean school,” “tidy school grounds,” access to “adequate water fountains,” and “nice furniture” in classrooms. Improvements in academic experience could come through “more school excursions,” “greater access to Wi-Fi,” “digital technology,” and “sporting equipment.” Also charted were requests for “better Internet connections,” “greater access to laptops,” and “interactive whiteboards” in all classrooms. Less important were the operational functions, for instance, “a good canteen.” References to the school canteen were recurring, however, and themes identified that a majority of students wanted better food available for purchase. This was followed by concerns that “repairs to the school playground” and “upgrades to heaters and fans in classrooms” should become priorities.

Another repeated theme was how changing the social nature of this boys’ school might be affected by “the enrollment of girls,” some students believed such ideas could have positive impacts. The merits or otherwise of wearing school uniform was also popular; alternatives revolved around being able to wear a “t-shirt,” or a “polo shirt” and “track pants.” Other less common responses included “painting the basketball court,” “fixing broken concrete” around the school, “laying artificial grass for bin soccer,” repairing the “toilet doors,” and “installing air conditioning in more classrooms.”

Classroom pedagogy and digital technology. A significant theme from the data analysis was the perception of engagement and that learning at the school “was not fun.” The majority praised their teachers and believed their relationships were productive; one student gave a lengthy response and had specific expectations: “We want teachers to take firmer control in the classroom as kids disrupt the flow of the lesson, they swear and we can’t get our work done.”

Frequent requests were made for “more interactivity” in lessons, for example: “More practical and hands-on lessons and extra school excursions—I really want that.” Students’ access to digital technology was a common complaint across school subjects, with more than half of the responses citing “faster Internet” and the “unblocking of websites like YouTube” as significant issues.

Feeling safe at school. Approximately 50% of responses concerned feeling “safe at school.” This was followed up with practical solutions for “greater in-school security.” Specific mention was made of the installation of “metal detectors” and “security cameras.” These responses need to be seen in context and the timing of the study, which was taking place during a period of heightened media attention on the school.

Respect for cultural differences. Another recurring theme was for “students to show greater respect for each other’s cultures.” Solutions were offered to address these concerns, for example, “guest speakers to share various cultural practices on a more regular basis to the school community.”

Safe respectful learners. Dominant themes of “freedom,” “multicultural,” “brotherhood,” and “friendly” were associated with “Safe Respectful Learners” on the school’s banner. While more than 66% of students felt the words needed to be replaced, none suggested any alternatives in their responses.

Section 2

The main focus was about understanding the role of digital technology and how it supported or hindered students having their voices heard.

The role of digital technology. Digital technology supported student voice primarily through participation and the learning of basic research techniques in the workshop. Field summaries recorded numerous positive and negative observations both during the workshop and on the focus group day in the library (For example, “We really like finding out what other students think.” Others noted: “Using the voice-recording applications shown in the workshop would have been better in the library because it did not rely on the Internet and writing down every written response when it was more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was hard.”)

Having their voices heard. Unsolicited comments to the AP from two members of the SKCT shows how they recognized the importance of creating a public space for their voices: “Can we do this again soon, our teachers are listening” (email from Imran), and “It was great finding out how to do education research and make our school better” (email from Trent). The SCKT articulated the usefulness of collecting data as evidence—they were disappointed they could not access the Google forms as having to use pen and paper to carry out the task was: “Onerous.” Technology is not always reliable.

Each response from the SKCT in the reflective exercise at the end of the data collection day expressed positive experiences about the workshop and the use of technology more generally at school; this was evident in findings in Section 1. Typical comments were: “Being able to use technology in the workshop was a bonus” (Khan, Year 7); “Displaying visual images of our ideas using various software applications like PicCollage and Chatterpix meant we could express what important to us” (Michael, Year 8), and “If someone records what is said on an iPad then it has more impact than our Student Representative Council”(Will, Year 9).


Powerful suggestions for improving school were made in the study. Predominantly the recommendations involved the upgrading of play areas, whether school uniform should be worn, feeling safer at school, and the quality of canteen food. Some of these areas of concern reflect fundamental needs of human beings that Maslow (1943) identified quite some time ago. As well, there were requests for more practical, hands-on lessons and greater interactivity in classrooms. Such ideas fit with what is understood about how young people like to learn (Hunter, 2015, 2017; Facer, 2011; Fullan & Langworthy, 2014).

The findings align with what is reported in education literature on the importance of digital technology in the lives of young people (Groundwater-Smith, 2017; Robinson & Aronica, 2015). Such evidence is particularly significant for these students at GHS, which has a long history of involvement in regular and genuine participation of young people in its operations (Hunter, 2011; Groundwater-Smith & Needham, 2011; Groundwater-Smith, 2015). The school has limited resources, and the economic backgrounds of many of the students’ means that purchasing their own digital devices is not realistic. The provision of digital technology by schools is critical because the ‘digital divide’ means poor communities fall behind in their ability to give high school students equitable access (Jackson et al., 2008; OECD, 2016; Ward & Parr, 2011).

Skills development in rudimentary research processes in the workshop using digital technology was effective. Various visual software applications were useful for the creative representations of “what makes a school.” Group processes fostered collaborative endeavor, and brainstorming ideas for the question route using a form application for the focus groups gave voice to the student ideas and concerns. Efficiencies were noted in the completion of the planned workshop activities when students gathered digital images autonomously, and then created a product to share with others. The SKCT presented and explained their digital artifact to the whole group, which notably gave a sense of ownership and responsibility. With hindsight, it would have been useful to gain some in-depth understanding of the students’ digital skills prior to the workshop and then to ask for some self-assessment of those skills at the conclusion of the study.

Findings of this study align with Fielding’s (2011) notion of “students as knowledge creators” and fulfill what he describes as “the desire for education to provide real action for democratic fellowship” (p. 65). The real action came through the collective voice of students’ ideas for addressing the physical, social, and financial resources impacting on their current experience of school. Their voices came to the fore as a leadership opportunity that was not just about recording ideas/views of peers. A sense of agency emerged in spite of some of the study’s limitations.

Time constraints impinged on the study, and the selection of the participants was not democratic in that they were chosen according to a set of teacher-determined criteria. With hindsight, this action was more about expediency. Involving all members of the SKCT team in the analysis phase would have been valuable. Although positive, final reflections of the SKCT could have been interrogated more, particularly since it was a study designed to understand what mattered to them and the use of technology in fostering student voice. Should the study be repeated a key component would involve negotiating the criteria and selection of the SKCT. Such processes could be improved through, for example, distribution of a simple of expression of interest (EOI) where students select who conducts the exercise. A timely reminder from Fielding (2011) is relevant: “What was learned has the potential to deepen relationships and gradually inform and extend the understandings that emerge” (p. 72).


In this study, a team of “knowledge creators” in a high school setting engaged with digital technology in a small-scale inquiry that included learning skills and processes needed to build research techniques to gather data from their peers about improving school. Each member of the SKCT understood what they were required to do and used newly acquired research skills with enthusiasm and ethical care in conducting focus groups with peers.

The study provides evidence of what a group of students believe “makes a good school.” In answering various questions that mattered to them they shed light on what they wanted changed or upgraded. Such democratic processes serve and continue to serve as catalysts for planning further improvements to their school. Outcomes of the research are significant because, after experiencing undue media attention for several reasons, the school itself determined the design of the study in consultation with the academic partner, the school executive, staff, students, and parents.

Findings of this study were followed up by the school executive promptly and were presented by the SKCT to staff and parents at a special meeting. This “knowledge creation” work continues to inform the operation of the school; indeed, there has already been action on several outcomes and more are planned. When given the opportunity to voice publicly “what makes a good school” high school students can take a leading role. Raising awareness of issues such as the learning environment, physical spaces both inside and outside buildings, quality of food in the canteen, and the desire for more engagement in classroom learning through better access to digital technology are very powerful for young people.

Drawn toward digital technology as a motivational force in learning and daily activity, adolescents require frequent opportunities to use it effectively and with agency as informed digital citizens (Evers & Kneber, 2016; Hunter, 2015).At high school, students are not often given opportunities to participate equally in decisions that affect them (Groundwater-Smith & Mockler, 2016). Digital technology and its implications for pedagogy in student learning and gaining simple research techniques are important life skills for all students, and using it to demonstrate and practice leadership is a logical next step. The inclusion of digital technology in future student voice research activity in high schools also provides real opportunities for other modes of documentation and artifact collection, including filmmaking, animation, and podcasting. For students who attend less well-funded schools were resources are scant, access to and acquiring proficiency in digital technology are critical (Hunter, 2017).

This study demonstrates that while digital technology has value in developing the skills of student researchers, its applicability in formal workshop settings within schools needs further study. The introduction of digital media groups in schools whose sole focus is student voice research led by a committed teacher presents a real possibility for education for “democratic fellowship” (Fielding, 2011, p. 73). At GHS student voice now forms a key tenet of the school’s ongoing operation. The limited number of digital technologies explored here represents just a few of the many tools and applications available for participatory research methods involving adolescents. With time, more high school teachers, leaders, and education systems—including academics in pre-service teacher education more broadly—can use it to empower, motivate, and enhance deeper consultations involving young people.

Discussion questions

  1. How have students in schools you know or have worked with used digital technologies to have their voices heard in small-scale studies?
  2. What are the most effective co-inquiries with young people you have participated in and what was it that made them effective?
  3. If challenges arose in the research how were they addressed both by the students and teachers/school leaders?
  4. Is mobilizing the voices of young peoplein school decision making even more important in 2018 than it has been in the past? Discuss.


Author Biographies

Jane Hunteris a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Jane’s main research interests include educational technology with a focus on pedagogy, teacher professional learning, and STEM/STEAM curriculum. Her practitioner-based research developed a new conceptual framework for technology integration known as High Possibility Classrooms; it is being used in a number of elementary, middle, and high schools in Australia.

Linda O’Brienis an Australian high school principal who is committed to social justice. The Australian Financial Reviewand Westpac Bank named her as one of the 2014 Top 100 Women of Influence. She recently completed her doctoral studies at Western Sydney University, Australia, on the topic of how education leadership builds social cohesion in a school.


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Strengthening Student Voice Work through “Linking Across the Lines”: A Story in Snapshots

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

       Volume 3                IJSV                  April, 2018

What can a conception of power do? Theories and images of power in student voice work

Alison Cook-Sather, Bryn Mawr College
Helen Beattie, UP for Learning


Citation: Cook-Sather, A. & Beattie, H. (2018). Strengthening Student Voice Work through “Linking Across the Lines”: A Story in Snapshots. International Journal of Student Voice, 3 (2).

Abstract: In this article we use the organizing idea of “linking across the lines” to capture the goal and process of our work together. We are referring to lines that typically not only separate tertiary and secondary educational contexts and the roles of teacher and student but also impose hierarchical relationships upon both. Striving to link and equalize these traditional separations and hierarchies rather than accepting them, our voices as a university-based teacher-scholar and a school-based practitioner-consultant sometimes speak together and sometimes take turns telling the story of the consultations, collaborations, and professional growth through which we have endeavored to strengthen student voice work both within and beyond our own, respective contexts. We begin with some background on each of us and how we connected. Then, to capture the overall feeling of this story as well as individual moments within it, we present a series of snapshots under these headings: Finding the Links; Strengthening the Links; Linking Research and Practice through Collaboration; Forging Communities through Linking across the Lines; and Sustaining the Links. Interspersed between the snapshots are co-authored reflections in which we analyze how each snapshot captures a step in our story of striving to link across the lines. Integrated as both background and foreground in the snapshots and the reflections are glimpses of the larger story of student voice work as it has unfolded over time and in various countries. These glimpses feature some of the well-known pioneers in the history of student voice as well as emerging leaders. We hope our particular story will inspire others who work in different contexts and at different levels of the educational system to link across the lines that divide us and to strive toward more “radical collegiality” (Fielding, 1999) between teachers, students, and others in the realms of educational research and practice.
Keywords:Student Voice; Collaboration Across Contexts; Youth-Adult Partnership


Introduction: Our Backgrounds and How the Story Began

It was Helen who initiated the conversation that began this story of our linking across the lines. A school psychologist and educational consultant in Vermont, she had founded an organization in 2008 called “Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together (YATST).” The goal of the organization was to increase student engagement in learning and student voice in decision making by creating a partnership between students, faculty, and the community to increase relevance, relationships, rigor, and shared responsibility in Vermont schools. In 2010, Helen was working on a program that had developed in response to a finding in one school that there was a marked discrepancy between teachers’ perception that they “checked in regularly with students about their learning and adapted accordingly” (90%) and student perceptions of the same (33%). To address this discrepancy, teachers implemented a written (survey monkey) mid-semester feedback system to ensure that at least once during the semester, all students had an opportunity to give their teacher written feedback about how the class was going. They would also partake in (or witness) a follow-up discussion with the teacher about the survey findings and steps to be taken to adapt accordingly. Students also assessed their own role as learners, and set individual goals, reinforcing that learning is a partnership.

This approach was spreading to other schools in the state for which Helen served as a consultant, and teachers had questions about how to process and act on the student feedback. Helen contacted Alison, whom she had met several months before and who had been facilitating a student-teacher partnership program in the context of her teacher education program at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges in Pennsylvania since 1995. Through this program, called Teaching and Learning Together, secondary students positioned as pedagogical consultants partnered with prospective secondary teachers and engaged in semester-long dialogues with them prior to the college students’ semester of student teaching (Cook-Sather, 2002a, 2002b; 2006; 2009a; Cook-Sather & Curl, 2016). In addition, since 2006 Alison had been facilitating a student-faculty partnership program called Students as Learners and Teachers (SaLT), which was modeled on Teaching and Learning Together, as part of the educational development offerings for faculty at the same colleges (Cook-Sather, 2008, 2014b, 2016). An integral part of the latter program is a mid-semester feedback process through which student partners not enrolled in the courses under study gather and help interpret feedback from students who are enrolled in faculty members’ courses (Cook-Sather, 2009b). Acknowledging that the contexts and programs within which Alison works are different from the secondary schools in which her teacher collaborators were gathering student feedback, Helen wondered nevertheless if Alison had any materials or advice that she could share related to giving quality feedback (to prep the student body) or helping teachers respond to discrepant feedback.

The story began, then, with a linking across the line drawn between different levels of schooling. Here is some of Helen’s background that led her to want to link across this line. A practitioner in the field, situated in the arena of middle and secondary education, Helen is the founder and Executive Director of UPfor Learning (Unleashing the Power of Partnership for Learning). Her seemingly eclectic professional and academic life course has woven itself into the creation of this organization, and it reflects a life-long passion for elevating the voices of those who feel disempowered and voiceless, either in the health or education realms (Dzur, 2014a, 2014b). Prior to this founding, Helen spent her first decade in the professional world focusing on health education and management. This phase was launched at the American Cancer Society when she was the Massachusetts Director of Service and Rehabilitation, and then Coordinator of the Cancer Information Service of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. During this time, she pursued her Masters in Public Health from Boston University. Her subsequent position as the Internal Medicine Residency Education and Evaluation Coordinator at the U. Mass Medical Center afforded her the opportunity to simultaneously pursue her Doctorate in Education. This professional phase culminated in her move to Vermont and role as the Director of Northern Counties Health Centers, five rural community-based health centers in the Northeast Kingdom.

At this juncture, Helen retrained as a licensed School Psychologist and Educational Consultant, returning to her first love in college as a child psychology major. After a brief period of time doing psychological evaluations, she has specialized in strategies to engage youth in school change efforts in order to shape their learning and build their leadership capacity as change agents. Her goal is to decrease referrals to school psychologists by empowering youth and helping educators better meet the needs of all learners, ensuring that the wisdom and potential of each and every child is fully mobilized. Helen has written multiple place-based and action research curricula that have been implemented statewide and replicated nationally, facilitated numerous student leadership and faculty development retreats, and taught a variety of Master’s level courses on school redesign, experiential education strategies and the elevation of young people as change agents. She is an ardent advocate for reshaping the conception of the role of students in learning and change, and she is committed to incorporating research-based practices into program development, as well as serving as a learning laboratory to further this nascent field of research.

Alison’s background also led her to want to link across this line. In the mid-1980s she earned a Master’s degree at Stanford University, and then for five years she taught English at the secondary level in both public and private schools in California. She completed her doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania and, in 1994, assumed the directorship of the teacher preparation program at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. That year, she and a secondary-teacher colleague began a collaboration to address a key problem they saw: that students’ voices were missing from college-based programs of secondary-teacher preparation. Together they designed Teaching and Learning Together. The goals of this project were to interrupt the standard distribution of power in education in various ways. First, it disrupted the hierarchy according to which theorists and researchers generate pedagogical knowledge and pass it down to teachers, who labor under perpetual pressure to implement every new or recycled reform, with students simply waiting on the receiving end of this transfer. Second, it brought into direct dialogue those preparing to teach with those who are taught, thereby altering the power dynamics that usually inform that teacher/student relationship. Finally, it brought into conversation high school students separated by the tracking systems, both acknowledged and implicit, that designate their schedules and in large measure determine their destinies (Cook-Sather, 2002a).

Alison ran the Bryn Mawr/Haverford College teacher certification program and this partnership project within it for eleven years. Then, starting in 2006, with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, she shifted her focus to supporting student voice and student-teacher partnerships in the context of educational development for college faculty through SaLT. Building on the partnership model at the core of Teaching and Learning Together, SaLT also aims to disrupt the hierarchy according to which faculty have and deliver knowledge and students receive it. By positioning undergraduate students in partnerships through which they can draw on their experiences and expertise as students with a diversity of identities to inform conversations about and practices of teaching and learning, this program opens up dialogue between professors and students, affording each new angles on what happens and what could happen in higher education classrooms. The SaLT model—semester-long, one-on-one, pedagogical partnerships between students and faculty focused on pedagogical practices and curricular design and redesign—has been emulated at colleges and universities across the United States and around the world. It has become a particularly important model for affirming the identities and insights of underrepresented students in the role of pedagogical partner (Cook-Sather, 2018; Cook-Sather, 2015; Cook-Sather & Agu, 2013; Cook-Sather et el., forthcoming; de Bie et al., under review).

As background information suggests, our story also began with a focus on how to link across the line typically drawn between students and teachers at both secondary and tertiary levels—the line that separates those who do the teaching from those who do the learning. The premises of respect, reciprocity, and shared responsibility (Cook-Sather, Bovill, & Felten, 2014) between teachers and students in teaching and learning that underpin YATST, Teaching and Learning Together, and SaLT constituted and called for further links across that line between teaching and learning. We wondered what additional approaches we could generate together that would foster “a much more open partnership between teachers and students”—that would support teachers in embracing “‘a communal venturing forth’” and “a commitment to the mutuality of joint exploration” (Fielding, 2007, p. 324). These radical goals for more reciprocal pedagogical relationships between students and teachers, articulated here by the pioneer of student voice, the late Jean Rudduck, and honored and argued for by one of the longest standing and most eloquent proponents of student voice, Michael Fielding, were ones that we embraced and were finding ways to enact, but we hoped that, by working together, we could go further.

The dialogue that followed that first conversation and the story of the consultations, collaborations, and professional growth through which we have strengthened student voice work are the subject of this article. We offer snapshots from the years’ long unfolding of our story, much of which took form in the context of summer student voice seminars supported by Jean Rudduck’s legacy at the University of Cambridge. Interspersed between the snapshots are co-authored reflections in which we analyze how each snapshot in our story captures a step in our ongoing effort to link across the lines. Integrated as both background and foreground in the snapshots and also as part of the reflections are glimpses of the larger story of student voice work as it has unfolded over time and in various countries. These glimpses feature some of the well-known pioneers in the history of student voice as well as emerging leaders. We hope that our story can offer others, who labor in different geographical locations, institutional types, and professional roles, inspiration and strategies for linking across whatever lines separate you, for strengthening student voice work in your realms of policy making, research, and practice, and for striving toward more “radical collegiality” (Fielding, 1999) between teachers, students, and others in education.

Snapshot One: Finding the Links

HelenI felt a sense of isolation as the co-founder of YATST, with a vision to shift an entrenched student-teacher paradigm that positions the teacher as expert and student as largely passive recipient of learning. Alison’s 2002 publication, “Authorizing Students’ Perspectives: Toward Trust, Dialogue, and Change in Education,” was the first article I read that captured the essence of my nascent vision and mission and provided a theoretical framework that would have profound implications for the evolution of the organization. The work was suddenly elevated to a larger research-based effort and validated as a meaningful endeavor. I frequently returned to the article, and this quote in particular: “The twin challenges of authorizing student perspectives are (a) changing the structures in our minds that have rendered us disinclined to elicit and attend to students’ voices and (b) changing the structures in educational relationships and institutions that have supported and been supported by this disinclination” (p. 4). In essence, Alison’s door into academia “authorized,” informed, and inspired my work.

Alison became a steadfast mentor and guide, ever responsive to my emails and phone calls as I ventured into unchartered territory. Our relationship diminished my sense of isolation and doubt when faced with skeptics. It provided a credible path for the organization’s development that was defensible because of its research base. Importantly, Alison renewed my confidence that this work mattered when addressing the inevitable challenges, and seeded my conviction to contribute to research in this field.

Alison: The work Helen was doing and the questions she posed both inspired me and prompted me to revisit and reflect on my own efforts. As someone who had worked primarily in isolation on my campus to create and sustain first Teaching and Learning Together and subsequently SaLT, I was inspired by Helen’s energy and ingenuity: seeking and securing grant funding through The Nellie Mae Education Foundation, expanding both her partnership network and her vision, and so much more. As she asked for guidance on how to support faculty in soliciting and responding to student feedback, I revisited my approach and thought about how it might translate to her context. I offered the following suggestions to share with the teachers:

  • Re-present the data gathered to the students. It’s important to tell them ahead of time that their feedback will be shared with others, anonymously, of course, but nevertheless. When they see the range of responses of their peers, they gain insight into the diversity in the classroom, where they fit into a bigger picture, and the challenge their teacher faces in trying to be responsive to student feedback.
  • Identify some feedback you are willing to act upon and explain why it makes sense to you, pedagogically, to make the changes the students suggest. Important here is the pedagogical rationale: a reasoned explanation that highlights how the changes will improve student learning.
  • Identify some feedback you are not willing to act upon and explain why it does not make sense, pedagogically, to make the changes the students suggest. It is essential to do this in a non-defensive way—to offer a reasoned, but not defensive, explanation.
  • Ask/invite students to think with you about how to address the discrepancies in the feedback (e.g., half the students hate something, half love the same thing; you move too fast, you move too slowly; etc.).

Articulating these aspects of the feedback process that I had developed in partnership with student consultants in SaLT, I gained some distance on them and was able to refine the language I use in the handbook I have developed for students and faculty who work in partnership at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, articulating more clearly both the feedback processes and the reasons for them.

Helen: Alison’s suggestions were integrated into our “Student-Teacher Mid-Semester Feedback” module and became central to coaching the YATST teams as they confronted student-teacher feedback implementation challenges. The pragmatic advice was well received. It was also helpful to be able to reassure teachers who felt threatened by this new process that it was in fact being integrated into teacher preparation and faculty development programs as a powerful tool for continuous improvement on a national level. Once again, being able to validate the work both in terms of its national reach and research contexts elevated the credibility of our efforts, positively impacting teacher buy-in.


Helen’s search for partners and for theoretical grounding in student voice work and Alison’s revisiting and revising of how to support teachers in soliciting and responding to student feedback were strands in a larger story unfolding around the commitment to student voice. Since the 1990s scholars and critics in Australia, Canada, England, and the United States had been developing arguments for what Rudduck and Flutter (2000), writing in England, called “carving a new order of experience” through which we would view schools from students’ perspectives and invite them to be active participants in shaping their educational experiences. Writing in Australia, Danaher (1994) had asserted: “Instead of treating school students as voices crying in the wilderness, we would be far better served if we asked the voices’ owners what they think and listened actively to the answers” (quoted in Youens & Hall, 2004). In Canada, changes in policy and practice were being driven by Fullan’s (1991) question, “What would happen if we treated the student as someone whose opinion mattered?” (1991, p. 170), and by Levin’s (1994) argument that the most promising reform strategies involved treating students as capable persons, capitalizing on their knowledge and interests, and involving them in determining goals and learning methods began to shape government policies as well as school practice (see also Levin, 2000). And in the United States, Kozol (1992) asserted that “the voices of children…have been missing from the whole discussion” of education and educational reform (p. 5), and Weis and Fine (1993) invited “the voices of children and adolescents who have been expelled from the centers of their schools and the centers of our culture [to] speak” (p. 2). Our particular conversation across the lines of levels of school and roles of teachers and students was informed by and in turn informed this widening conversation and unfolding story. Finding and affirming one another’s efforts and situating them within this larger story gave us perspective, provided us with support, and were both personally and professionally energizing.

Snapshot Two: Strengthening the Links

Alison: In 2010 I visited the University of Cambridge to launch Learning from the Student’s Perspective: A Sourcebook for Effective Teaching, which had been published the previous year. While I was there, Julia Flutter suggested that I consider looking into spending a longer time at the university as a visiting scholar, which I did. With the support of John Gray and funds from Jean Rudduck’s legacy, I became the Jean Rudduck Visiting Scholar, an appointment that lasted from 2010-2015. Julia’s vision and John’s generosity in helping to conceptualize and institutionalize this role made it possible for me to build on Jean’s legacy in the very institution where she had pioneered so much student voice work. This was deeply meaningful to me both personally and professionally, and the weeks I spent in Cambridge each summer remain vivid chapters in my own student voice story.

In the role of Jean Rudduck Visiting Scholar and in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Cambridge, including Julia, John, Helen Demetriou, Bethan Morgan, and Lena Bahou, I designed and led a series of five summer seminars. These seminars ran from 2011 through 2015 and brought together teachers, scholars, policy makers, and students from around the world to reflect on and plan for further student voice work. As I was planning the first summer seminar, I sent Helen this message: “Inspired by your fabulous work with YATST, I write to invite you to participate in ‘Student Voice: Past Efforts, Current Trends, and Future Possibilities,’ a one-day seminar to be held on 1 July 2011 at the University of Cambridge.” I wanted Helen to share her amazing work with others and also have the opportunity to be in dialogue with others undertaking—or aspiring to undertake—similar efforts.

At that first seminar, I gave a keynote called “Linking Across the Lines” in which I argued for a number of different kinds of such linking. One was linking differently positioned players across different educational settings to support their individual efforts and to gain insights into cross-cutting issues, as Helen and I had done. Another was linking efforts in the primary and secondary realms to efforts at the tertiary level, which often remain separate and distinct. Yet another was linking those who grouped their efforts under the umbrella of student voice work, more typical in K-12 contexts, with those who situate their efforts in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, which span the disciplines in higher education.

The design of the seminar aimed to include exposure to the history and evolving practices of student voice, opportunities for participants to share their projects, insights, and questions, and time to plan what everyone wanted more or less of the following year. Michael Fielding, of the Institute of Education, University of London, UK, spoke on partnerships between young people and adults as a form of “radical collegiality” and as a form of “inter-generational learning.” Jean Courtney and Andrew Pawluch spoke about their work on the SpeakUp program through the Ontario Student Voice initiative, instigated by the Ministry of Education in Ontario, Canada. And Alison Peacock, Head of The Wroxham School and National Leader of the Cambridge Primary Review Network, presented a video of her primary students and let them speak for themselves about the ways in which Alison and her colleagues have created “a listening school.” Participants from Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, Italy, The Netherlands, Scotland, Spain, the United States, and Wales had time to share their stories and imagine new chapters.

Helen: A significant aspect of Alison’s mentorship was an invitation to the Cambridge gathering. The impact of this exposure to Jean Rudduck’s work and leaders in this field on an international level both informed and inspired the development of my efforts. This influence was far more than a well-designed seminar that has immediate impact but soon fades. My participation in the seminar and the network that has evolved subsequent to my three trips to take part in the seminar series has been a primary catalyst for my work and contributor to the integrity and impact of our efforts.

At the seminars, I was exposed to a world of research that I had barely glimpsed, as a generally overwhelmed field-based practitioner and solo staff for the first five years of the development of my organization. Student voice in my realm was often tokenized and little understood as a key aspect of school change. Few shared my passion. Attending my first seminar felt like I had landed in an oasis! It validated much of what I believed but could not adequately defend, and expanded my understanding of the varied “doors” into this work. It was the antidote to my sense of isolation and being an “outlier.” It fueled my commitment to this work and informed much of my organization’s design.

Alison: It was challenging to design a seminar that facilitated dialogue among policy makers, scholars, students, and practitioners working in primary, secondary, and tertiary contexts. People used different language for related practices, experienced different institutional, local, and national supports and constraints, and were responsible for different processes and outcomes in their home institutions. The relief and gratitude Helen and others expressed at having a forum within which they did not have to defend student voice work energized me and pushed me to find ways to facilitate linking across the lines. Helen’s energy fed mine, and although I had become somewhat accustomed to laboring in solitude in my programs at Bryn Mawr and Haverford, I felt the same relief Helen did in knowing that, even if we used different language and worked in different contexts, we were working together in a shared space and toward similar goals.

The field-based challenges Helen faced prompted to me to revisit, yet again, both the theories I generated and the practices in which I was engaged at the tertiary level, both for how they might translate to other levels and for how they might be improved by the insights Helen’s work generated. It also inspired me to bring into dialogue leaders in the British context, such as Fielding (2004, 2011), Neary (2010), and Bragg (2001, 2007), with leaders in other contexts including Scotland (Bovill, 2013), Italy (Grion, 2017; Grion & Cook-Sather, 2013), the Netherlands (Bron & Veugellers, 2014), and the United States (Felten, 2013; Mitra, 2001, 2004, 2007), among others. These leaders benefited from the dialogue, informed the research of people like Helen whose work is primarily in practice, and enjoyed opportunities to extend their own research.


Helen’s experience of meeting people and discovering theoretical frameworks and Alison’s experience of wrestling with how to bring together scholars, practitioners, policy makers, and students from different arenas illustrate both the power and the challenges of linking across the lines. How might Mike Neary’swork on students as producers at University of Lincoln and Peter Felten’s arguments for the necessity of productive disruption in higher education in the United States inform one another? What insights into assessment at all levels might every one gain from Laura Lundy’s (2012) work on children’s rights at Queen’s University, Belfast, in Northern Ireland, Roseanna Bourke’s (2010) work on young learners’ self-assessment at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, and Roger Holdsworth’s (2007) decades’ long work as editor and publisher of Connect through the Youth Research Centre, University of Melbourne, Australia? And what were the best ways to ensure that we heard students’ own voices as much as we could during these seminars? These were some of the questions we addressed in subsequent seminars. As we all celebrated the underlying commitments we had in common and worked to forge connections across our differences, already established understandings were reinforced and new insights emerged. All of these constituted strengthenings of the links across the lines and moved us from conversations to collaborative research projects and co-authored publications.

Snapshot Three: Linking Research and Practice through Collaboration

Helen: I was committed to utilizing research-based practices, but as noted, lacked significant exposure to the leaders in the field. I was a licensed school psychologist by training, but that training did little to help me when I took a different route into systems change. Most of our initiative models are based on a participatory action research. Michael Fielding’s and Sarah Bragg’s (2003) work was so helpful.

One particular outcome of my participation in the seminars, stemming from the first summer, has been my evolving relationship with Dr. Dana Mitra from Penn State University. We met at the first seminar and she took an interest in my work as an exemplar and learning laboratory of sorts. I hired Dana to conduct our 2012 year-end evaluation. Her doctoral student, Dr. Catharine Biddle, subsequently focused her doctoral research on my organization and has co-authored with Dana a number of papers based on her dissertation (e.g., Biddle, 2017; Biddle & Mitra, 2015). In fact, we all co-presented at the American Education Research Association conference two years ago. Dr. Biddle continues to evaluate a number of our individual initiatives and intends to continue to publish this research. And I am partnering with Dana Mitra relative to her Boston-based Foundation research fellowship (Students at the Center) to utilize UP for Learning and Vermont as her research learning laboratory re: personalized learning.

Alison: Engaging in conference presentations that feature the voices of researchers, practitioners, and students in venues such as the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association begins to change the culture and norms of such venues, or at least create liminal spaces within which people who do this work can gather. Helen mentioned above that doing student voice work, especially in the United States—one of only two countries not to ratify the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child—can be isolating. Learning how to link across the lines in the supportive context of the seminars equipped us all to return to our respective contexts with new ideas and new energy about how to sustain and expand this work. Formulating ways to present to a wider audience pushed us all to find language that would be accessible to people not already committed to and engaged in the work, and it afforded us opportunities to learn from them about what makes such efforts workable in their contexts.

Helen: In addition to my collaborations with Dr. Dana Mitra and Dr. Catharine Biddle, I made a number of other important professional connections at the seminars. Jean Courtney’s work in Toronto has been very influential on the development of my model (and to a far lesser degree, vice versa) (Courtney, 2014; SpeakUp). Jean has become a cherished colleague and friend—one of the few that understands deeply the trials and joys of attempting to impact public education. Ari Sussman, a NYC youth voice leader, also attended one of the seminars. We had precious time both within program sessions as well as in leisure time to share stories and inform each other’s practices. These relationships have been sustained. I also had the pleasure of dovetailing a trip to family in Sydney, Australia, with a site visit to Eve Mayes’ last session at a school she where she was conducting her doctoral research. Roger Holdsworth has published several stories about our work in his journal, Connect, and we have learned from his remarkable resources as well. I also now have ties to professor Emily Nelson in New Zealand, who has visited one of my programs when she was here recently. And of course, I treasure a continued relationship with Bethan Morgan at Cambridge University.


Helen’s examples of making both personal and professional connections and Alison’s focus on changing cultures and making spaces that support linking across the lines highlight how this is both interpersonal and institutional work. The structured and unstructured times during conferences allow friendships and projects to emerge, such as the project Valentina Grion and Alison (2013) developed to highlight student voice work as an emerging concept and set of practices in Italy. This project led in turn to a group of students and faculty at three universities in Italy producing a special issue of Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education. Our ongoing efforts to ensure that we heard student voices led to the creation of seminar sessions in which students became the teachers, and faculty, policy makers, and practitioners became the learners. Students from The Phoenix Education Trust in the UK and from The Association of Danish Pupils in Denmark shard their perspectives and led us through reflective activities, and student voices from Australia, Hong Kong, India, post-war Lebanon, New Zealand, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States were channeled through practitioner and scholar presentations. When the links across the lines are forged in person and in print, in lived spaces and in published texts, they both nurture while people are present to one another and sustain the people and the work when participants return to their respective contexts.

Snapshot Four: Forging Communities through Linking across the Lines

Alison: Finding a “community” in a professional setting and forging links with a variety of scholars and practitioners can inspire spreading word about student voice work beyond conference presentations. Helen’s article, “Amplifying Student Voice: The Missing Link in School Transformation,” published in Management Education, recounts the story of how Vermont is systematically amplifying student voice through school transformation efforts across a network of secondary schools (grades 9 through 12; ages 14 to 18) through the YATST organization, which provides training and support for students and educators (Beattie, 2012). Helen and two colleagues published an article in Educational Leadership, one of the most widely respected journals in the educational practitioner domain in the United States, called “The Case of the Missing ‘R’” (shared responsibility), in which they make a strong case for “getting students to real decision-making tables” (Beattie, Rich, & Evans, 2015, p. 67). The first of thesewas one of the references I included in “Student Voice in Teacher Development,” published in Oxford Bibliographies on Education (Cook-Sather, 2014a), and second serves as a frame for videos showcasing the work of UP for Learning ( In these ways, accounts of student voice work make their way into a variety of scholarly and school- and community-based venues.

Helen: The International Journal of Student Voice was an outgrowth of the summer seminars, conceived and developed through multiple conversations that took place in Cambridge. We discussed what form the journal should take, what it should be called, and who should assume responsibility for maintaining it. Dana Mitra followed up with Penn State University colleagues and was able to establish this new peer-reviewed journal to accelerate research dissemination in this field. Among the core commitments of the journal are to utilize language that is accessible to all stakeholder groups, to ensure access to new research and concepts across practice settings, and to reinforce linkages between stakeholder groups. In addition, a fairly active Facebook list serve, “Student Voice Research and Practice,” has also been sustained.


The term “community” evokes shared values and interests, shared living spaces, and a shared cultural and historical heritage. While we experienced a sense of community in the context of the Cambridge seminars, they lasted only a few days each year; for the most part, we do not live in the same spaces. However, building on our shared values and interests in supporting student voice, we have created virtual spaces—individual publications and a web-based journal—through which we continue to evoke our shared cultural and historical heritage. The culture we embrace is one “saturated both with the enthusiasms and aspirations of education as a communal practice and with democracy as an essentially educative engagementwith each other and the world around us” (Fielding, 1999, pp. 17-18). Our history can be traced from the 1990s to the present, led by pioneers such as Jean Rudduck and carried forward by all those in K-12 educational contexts, policy-making bodies, and institutions of higher education who embrace an ethic of reciprocity—a “process of balanced give-and-take not of commodities but rather of contributions: perspectives, insights, forms of participation” (Cook-Sather & Felten, 2017a, p. 181). These commitments keep student voices in dialogue with teacher and leader voices.

Snapshot Four: Sustaining the Links

Alison: When support for the Cambridge summer seminars came to an end and it was time for my role as the Jean Rudduck Visiting Scholar to end as well, we spent considerable time thinking about how to sustain the seminars. The participants in that final Cambridge seminar in 2015 brainstormed a range of ways to carry forward both the spirit of and the space for linking across the lines. Helen had drafted a proposal for hosting the conference in the state of Vermont, where she had already accomplished so much in terms of student voice and partnership. Participants in the final Cambridge seminar agreed that this would be a promising way forward.

Helen: Perhaps the greatest testimony to Jean Rudduck’s legacy is the continuation of the annual convening in the United States. Attending the Cambridge seminars allowed me to better understand our nascent field of research and fueled my conviction to foster research to further validate and inform our change efforts. There was simply no way that I was going to let such a rich learning context fade into the past, at the end of the series. It had meant too much to me, and to many others as well. It was time to “pay it forward,” with deep gratitude for all that my days in Cambridge brought to my professional life and my organization.

I therefore forged a new partnership with Dana Mitra (Penn State) and the University of Vermont to continue to bring researchers, practitioners, higher education folks and students together to host the first US based “International Seminar: Amplifying Student Voice and Partnership.” At our first three-day seminar in the summer of 2016 we had an impressive array of attendees (six countries, 15 colleges and universities spanning ten states, eight community-based organizations serving youth in four different states, and high schools—including both youth and adult representatives—from three states, and a number of Vermont Agency of Education policy leaders, including the Secretary of Education, also attended). Alison was able to attend this seminar and create an important bridge between her Cambridge Seminar series and this new chapter in its evolution. The ending reflections provided testimony of how much this time together meant to attendees. One wrote: “I leave with gratitude for feeling a part of a greater whole, comprised of passionate and committed people who believe deeply in youth, humanity, and the collective.”

Alison: When Helen took over leadership of the summer seminars, moving them to Vermont and further adapting them to the ever-evolving needs and interests of participants, I shifted roles. I contributed a keynote to the first seminar in Vermont that traced the roots of my work with student voice, which has grown both alongside and subsequent to Jean Rudduck’s work. The opportunity to step back and trace the history, and share it with current participants, gave me a chance to see how much we have accomplished. I also had the opportunity to engage as a participant in the seminar that summer, meeting with scholars, teachers, and students in various sessions, and linking up with people whose work I have read but whom I had not had the opportunity to meet.

Just as Helen forged links with people from different educational levels and contexts when she participated in the Cambridge seminars, I forged links with new colleagues and have sustained connections with them. As a result of meeting Colin Bryson, for instance, editor of Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal, I was invited to write an opinion piece for that journal (Cook-Sather & Felten, 2017b) and to offer the keynote address at his 2017 RAISE symposium (Cook-Sather, in press). These connections both extend my network and push me to expand my analyses of student voice work and student-faculty pedagogical partnership.

Helen: Like Alison, this work has had a significant impact on my professional standing and elevated our credibility in public education change efforts. My organization, renamed “Unleashing the Power of Partnership for Learning” or “UP for Learning,” was honored by the New England Secondary Schools Consortium as an exemplar in the state in the spring of 2016. We have partnered with the Agency of Education to place students (as partners with adults) in the forefront of educational change in Vermont in several recent initiatives (UP Winter Newsletter, pgs 6 & 9). We also have a strong partnership with the Vermont Department of Health who supports two of our four initiatives, seeing this work as integral to the health and well being of young people. We have replicated one of our initiatives (Getting to Y: Youth Bring Meaning to the Youth-Risk Behavior Survey) in New Mexico which is now sustained by the University of New Mexico, and are beginning to join national networks and expand our geographic reach across our initiatives. And we were nominated by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation as one of seven organizations in New England for a Youth Organizing award.[1]UP for Learning has passed a tipping point of credibility in the school change realm, augmented by a trend to support student-centered learning nationally.


One of the most powerful possibilities that emerges when we forge links across the lines is that we can change roles, and places, as the two of us did in relation to running and participating in the seminars that serve as the community for so many people who practice and study student voice work. Self affirmation and wider recognition flow from our finding, strengthening, and sustaining links across the lines. We gain greater confidence in our respective, individual efforts, and we feel reassured knowing that we are part of a much larger network of links. In the words of Margaret Wheatley, “There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”


The multiple ways we have found to link across lines have made us stronger and more energized. They have made us more able to communicate across differences of all kinds in our work because we have spent so much time finding language, translating commitments across contexts and relationships, and learning to navigate new areas by forging new links. We celebrate both the evolution of this particular linking across the lines and hope it serves as inspiration for others.

Discussion Questions

  • What interests in and insights into student voice can emerge when practitioners, scholars, and students link across lines of institutional type and level?
  • In what ways have you collaborated with practitioners and/or researchers across contexts and educational levels to support student voice?


Author Biographies

Alison Cook-Sather is Mary Katharine Woodworth Professor of Education at Bryn Mawr College and Director of the Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. Her research focuses on how differently positioned participants in education can work together toward deeper learning and on how various metaphors and the classical anthropological concept of liminality can be used to analyze how education is and might be conceptualized and practiced. Supported by grants from the Ford Foundation, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Dr. Cook-Sather has developed internationally recognized programs that position students as pedagogical consultants to prospective secondary teachers and to practicing college faculty members. She has published over 80 articles and book chapters and given as many keynote addresses, other invited presentations, and papers at refereed conferences in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and throughout the United States. She has published five books including Engaging Students as Partners in Learning & Teaching: A Guide for Faculty (co-authored with Catherine Bovill and Peter Felten, Jossey-Bass, 2014), Learning from the Student’s Perspective: A Sourcebook for Effective Teaching (Paradigm Publishers, 2009), and International Handbook of Student Experience in Elementary and Secondary School (co-edited with Dennis Thiessen, Springer Publishers, 2007). She is also founding editor of Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education and founding co-editor of International Journal for Students as Partners. From 2010-2015, she was the Jean Rudduck Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge in England.

Helen Beattie is the founder and Executive Director of UP for Learning (Unleashing the Power of Partnership for Learning). Her seemingly eclectic professional and academic life course has woven itself into the creation of UP for Learning. It reflects a life-long passion for elevating the voices of those who feel disempowered and voiceless, either in the health or education realms. Helen has written multiple place-based and action research curricula which have been implemented statewide and replicated nationally, and taught a variety of Master’s level courses on school redesign, experiential education strategies and the elevation of young people as change agents. She holds a Master’s in Public Health and Doctorate in Education. She is an ardent advocate for reshaping the conception of the role of students in learning and change and contributing to research in this domain.


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Developing Mutual Accountability between Teachers and Students through Participation in Cogenerative Dialogues

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 3                                 IJSV                                April, 2018

What can a conception of power do? Theories and images of power in student voice work

John Luciano Beltramo


Citation: Beltramo, J.L. (2018). Developing Mutual Accountability between Teachers and Students through Participation in Cogenerative Dialogues. International Journal of Student Voice, 3 (1).

Abstract: In this study, I explore cogenerative dialogues as potentially supportive spaces for the development of mutual accountability and reciprocal learning between teachers and students, even within contexts dominated by high-stakes accountability and its associated challenges. In cogenerative dialogues, teachers gather with small groups of their students outside of instructional time to discuss classroom teaching and environment and to construct plans by which to improve student learning and wellbeing. Through a design-based case study, I worked with two science teachers, Lorena and Ellen, from urban high schools to establish and enact weekly cogenerative dialogues with their students over a period of five months. The high schools which framed the backdrop of this study served almost exclusively low-income Latino communities and had recently adopted strict measures of high-stakes teacher accountability. Findings indicated that, within the contexts of cogenerative dialogues, Ellen and Lorean engaged with their respective students in cycles of reflection that promoted mutualaccountability—an instantiation of which stands in stark contrast to the high-stakes accountability impacting so many teachers and schools today. I found that this cycle of mutual accountability was marked by three particular stages: Responsibility, or the solicitation of various stakeholder perceptions of problematic areas of classroom teaching and environment; Responsiveness, or the co-construction among teacher and students of potential solutions to such problems; and Report-and-Review, or moments where members of the dialogues reflected on, and held one another to account for, their endeavors within the enacted solution. At the same time, however, pressures associated with high-stakes accountability systems operating throughout the two high schools constrained the extent to which these stages of mutual accountability could fully emerge within the cogenerative dialogues. Thus, I argue that cogenerative dialogues can serve as important albeit limited spaces where teachers and students can, to a degree, re-appropriate ‘accountability’ as a mutually supportive element of relationship and learning, even when surrounding environments promote neoliberal, high-stakes interpretations of this concept.

Keywords: Mutual accountability; cogenerative dialogues; teacher accountability


For many teachers throughout the United States, accountability has become a “bad word” (Ruben, 2011) and perhaps for good reason. In the prevailing model of accountability found among contemporary U.S. schools, teachers are rewarded or sanctioned by administrators based on classroom observations and students’ standardized test scores. This neoliberal, high-stakes system of accountability was originally instituted through federal and state legislation as a way to improve student learning by motivating teachers (Dworkin, 2005). Yet, in many circumstances, it has had the opposite effect. For example, studies have associated neoliberal, high-stakes accountability with teacher demoralization and deprofessionalization (Lavigne, 2013), constrained autonomy in teaching (Ruben, 2011), and alienated relationships between teachers and students (Kostogriz, 2012).

In response to these challenges mediated by high-stakes accountability, scholars have advocated for the instantiation and study of more localized, democratic forms of accountability that are oriented more toward learning and development than punishments and rewards (Morrell, 2017; Oakes & Rogers, 2006). The study here examines how cogenerative dialogues—a powerful example of student voice in schools—can help promote one such form of democratic accountability: mutual accountability between teachers and their students. This study found that cogenerative dialogues supported the conditions necessary to develop mutual accountability, but were also limited in substantial ways by the impact of high-stakes, neoliberal accountability systems pervading the sample schools. While the investigation took place in the U.S., its findings hold implications for educators in international settings who seek to establish more localized forms of accountability amidst neoliberal, high-stakes policy contexts.

High-stakes, Neoliberal Accountability Structures in Education

Accountability here is understood as an underlying element of all social interactions, wherein individuals are expected to provide a rationale behind, and evidence of, their normative actions (Giddens, 1984). While several forms of accountability operate within schooling systems, recent policy trends in the U.S. and other Western nations have espoused and supported a particularly prevalent model—high-stakes, neoliberal accountability (Dworkin, 2009; Kostogriz, 2012). Since the 1980s governmental departments in the U.S. and elsewhere have adopted approaches to surveil and evaluate schools and teachers by reducing complex, multidimensional components of performance to simple measurements (e.g., teacher evaluation rubrics) and by weighing those measurements against resource allocation to maximize efficiency (Ranson, 2003). Scholars such Kostogriz and Doecke (2011) characterize this approach as neoliberal accountability and stress that its aim is to identify and eliminate those teachers deemed incompetent and/or unwilling to meet desired expectations for instruction and its outcomes.

With the international spread of content standards in the 1990s, neoliberal accountability has taken on greater dimensions of standardization and high-stakes testing to levy rewards and sanctions for teachers and schools. States have adopted achievement tests based on subject-specific standards and issue these tests to students across grade-levels (Lavigne, 2013; Ryan, 2005). Increasingly, achievement scores on such tests determine teacher bonuses, contract renewal, or termination, as well as school closure, continuance, or reconstitution; thus, high-stakes accountability seeks to standardize content while intensifying consequences for student achievement or lack thereof.

Studies suggest that high-stakes and neoliberal approaches to accountability have led to a host of unintended consequences that challenge equitable student learning opportunities (Ranson, 2003).  For example, accountability reforms based on standardized tests effectively can narrow the classroom curriculum to those subjects appearing on such exams and redirects teachers’ attention only to those students at the cusp of passing (Lavigne, 2013). When this occurs, the complex mission of teaching (and schooling)—with its varied and rich goals for students—is objectified and reduced to helping students raise scores on a limited subset of academic skills (Ryan, 2005). Moreover, the emphasis on teacher surveillance characterizing neoliberal accountability arguably deprofessionalizes the field of teaching, consumes valuable teacher resources, and heightens anxiety among educators (Kostogriz, 2012). Perhaps most dangerously, coupling teacher accountability with achievement scores may alienate teachers from students, encouraging them to treat their students as a means toward higher evaluation scores and deterring them from spending tightly budgeted classroom time on the “affective labor” necessary in developing caring student relationships that supporting meaningful learning (Kostogriz, 2012).

Mutual Accountability and Sociocultural Learning Theory

As alternatives to neoliberal, high-stakes forms of accountability, scholars (e.g., Oakes & Rogers, 2006; Ranson, 2003; Ryan, 2005) have “advocat[ed] for…bottom-up accountability structure[s] where those who are most impacted by educational outcomes hold those in power accountable for producing and maintaining equitable access” (Morrell, 2017, p.460). One such “bottom-up” or democratic form of accountability gaining increased traction in the literature on education and social sciences more broadly is mutual accountability (Brown, 2007; Henderson, Whitaker, & Altman-Sauer, 2003; Merrifield, 1999).

Mutual accountability is understood here as a system of cooperation “grounded in shared values and visions and in relations of mutual trust and influence” (Brown, 2007, p.95). Where social interactions manifest mutual accountability, participating individuals engage in regular dialogue that aims at negotiating commonly shared “goals, identifications, and interests” (Brown, 2007, p.95). These dialogues of mutual accountability tend to occur within a cycle of three spiraling stages of interactions: responsiveness, responsibility, and report-and-review (Henderson et al., 2003). At the stage of responsiveness, stakeholders offer their diverse perspectives and develop intersubjectivity (i.e., common understandings) (Merrifield, 1999), identify and deliberate around shared problems, and eventually generate potential solutions (Brown, 2007). In responsibility, participants settle on a common plan of action, divide the labor of this plan, and create shared expectations around its goals or outcomes (Merrifield, 1999). Arriving at report-and-review, stakeholders then discuss and evaluate those actions and outcomes (as well as the relationships and resources inherent to them), and identify new challenges that may have resulted, thus marking a re-engagement in the cycle (Brown, 2007; Henderson et al., 2003). Translated specifically for schools, such mutual accountability would be illustrated by instances when students “hold teachers, for example, accountable for providing learning opportunities that meet their needs” and teachers “hold learners accountable for taking learning seriously and for making an effort to participate fully” (Merrifield, 1999, p.10).

Sociocultural theories posit that learning is an integral part of the process of mutual accountability. From this lens, individuals participate in communities that revolve around a shared practice—a collective endeavor that defines their individual actions (or enterprises) and social relations (or mutual engagements) (Lave & Wenger, 1991). In communities of practice, members negotiate these enterprises and engagements—their participation in the group—with one another, and then hold each other accountable for meeting related expectations (Wenger, 1998). Group members also negotiate, construct, and utilize shared repertoires, which represent the values, tools, and speech they hold in common. By holding one another to their enterprises, engagements, and repertoires, members are able to identify instances when related expectations are unmet due to tensions, contradictions, or discontinuities that emerge within the group’s practice. When the conditions are supportive, these moments of conflict can serve as areas for growth and learning, particularly when group members hold one another accountable for development so that the collective practice may operate more smoothly.

Individuals’ proximity to their shared practice and a diversity of perspectives also matter for mutual accountability and the learning it supports (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). In communities of practice, a diversity of perspectives within a community is needed to identify when tensions emerge in a practice, and thereby highlight new areas for members to grow and learn (Wenger, 1998). In communities of teachers, diversity may exist, but it often lacks the perspective of other parties involved in the practice of teaching who could identify contradictions less visible to teachers and thus identify new opportunities for learning.

Review of Literature on Student Consultation and Cogenerative Dialogues

Scholars have argued that student voices can provide such generative, peripheral perspectives necessary to locating areas for growth in schools and classrooms (Cook-Sather, 2002; Mullis, 2011). For nearly two decades, researchers have explored what teachers can learn via student consultation, or “talking with pupils about things that matter to them in the classroom and school and that affect their learning” (Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007, p.7). Studies have found that, through student consultation, teachers have learned about student lives outside of school (Kane, Maw, & Chimwayange, 2006; Morgan, 2009), about student learning needs and preferences (Mitra, 2001; Mullis, 2011; Pedder & McIntyre, 2006), and how to construct more engaging, relevant lessons and curricula (Seiler, 2011). Research also suggests that when students are consulted about classroom instruction, they report greater engagement in school (Cook-Sather, 2002; Morgan, 2009; Pedder & McIntyre, 2006; Seiler, 2011), stronger relationships with teachers (Cook-Sather, 2006; Kane et al., 2006; Mullis, 2011; Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007), and more ownership over, as well as more reflection on, their own learning (Cook-Sather, 2002; Morgan, 2009; Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007).

The contexts in which student consultation—and other forms of student voice—are most impactful support several particular conditions: the spaces and facilitation necessary for students to express their perspectives, an audience to actively listen to these perspectives, and direct influence of such student voice on educational decisions (Lundy, 2007). In studies of indirect forms of student consultation—where researchers survey or interview groups of students about their experiences in school and then relay this information back to teachers and school leaders—students often report a lack of influence on school and/or classroom policies and view their participation as a singular instance of consultation that is too easily ignored (Elwood, 2013; Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007). Thus, this study examines a more direct, sustained form of student consultation often referred in the literature as cogenerative dialogues (Roth & Tobin, 2005).

In cogenerative dialogues, a teacher meets with a representative focus group of her students on a weekly basis outside instructional time to generate and deliberate suggestions for improved opportunities—and a more responsive environment—for student learning (Tobin & Roth, 2006). These conversations typically center on such questions as: How have activities and the classroom environment supported and/or impeded student learning? What related improvements should be made to bolster student engagement and learning? (Emdin, 2007).  Research on cogenerative dialogues has identified several affordances for teacher learning. In particular, studies have suggested that cogenerative dialogues can help teachers to learn about and include within the curriculum interests of students (Beltramo, 2017a); to create more culturally responsive and inclusive classroom environments (Emdin, 2007), and to build and exchange social capital with their students (Beers, 2009). Within this literature, studies have hinted that cogenerative dialogues might also contribute to a sense of mutual accountability. For example, several investigations found that participating students often develop collective responsibility for their class work (Bayne, 2009; Beers, 2009; Martin & Scantlebury, 2009). Roth and Tobin (2005) propose that cogenerative dialogues held mostly among coteachers can represent an alternative to teacher evaluation. However, extant research has yet to fully explore how or if such dialogues might help mutual accountability develop between a teacher and students in a classroom. Thus, this study asks: In what ways and to what extent can mutual accountability emerge among teachers and students who engage in cogenerative dialogues?


To explore this question, I employed a multicase investigation to study the “quintain” (Stake, 2006)—or focal phenomenon—of accountability manifestations emerging within and across two cases of cogenerative dialogues. In multicase studies, versus comparative case studies, more attention is focused on common properties across cases so as to present a clearer portrait of the quintain (Stake, 2006).

Framing the Cases

After receiving ethics approval for the study from my institutional review board, I recruited participants from Ambition (all names pseudonyms), an urban charter organization serving largely students from historically marginalized communities. In 2008 Ambition instituted a teacher evaluation system reflecting a neoliberal, high-stakes accountability approach, where the vast majority of a teacher’s composite annual evaluation mark was derived from a combination of two formal observations and her/his students’ achievement scores on state and/or benchmark standardized tests. Failure for a tenured teacher to meet the threshold mark for evaluation resulted in a probationary period, after which time the teacher would be required to demonstrate substantial improvement in student achievement and classroom observation scores, or risk the possibility of termination.

The two participating teachers selected for this study, Ellen and Lorena, offered special purchase for studying the types of accountability that could manifest in cogenerative dialogues. First, the participants’ veteran status ensured that they were beyond the induction period, when the Ambition’s evaluation policies focused more on providing novices with supports and less on holding them accountable for student achievement. Second, Ambition very recently adopted a standardized curriculum plan (known as a “pacing guide”), which anatomy/ physiology teachers were required to follow and which was reinforced by monthly benchmark exams tied to the pacing guide and a summative life-sciences test mandated by the state. Thus, Ambition anatomy teachers such as Ellen and Lorena had experience with both low-stakes accountability (i.e., evaluation tied primarily to observations) and high-stakes accountability (i.e., evaluation tied substantially to student test scores and standardized curriculum). Third, studying participants from two separate schools offered possible insights into how cogenerative dialogues (and their instantiations of accountability) might manifest in similar ways.

Each of the participants selected for the study was a veteran high school anatomy teacher, with more than ten experience years in the classroom (see Table 1 for more information). Ellen and Lorena were known and respected within their respective schools as teacher leaders, and each at some point had also served on curriculum committees for the district.


Table 1:  Teacher Participant Demographics, Experience, and School Information
Teacher Gender Race/ Ethnicity Teaching Experience School Latino Black FRL
Ellen Galván Female Latina 13 years Ambition East 97% 3% 97%
Lorena Silva Female Latina 11 years Ambition West 99% 1% 92%
Note: FRL stands for the percentage of students who qualify for Free/Reduced price lunch


This multicase study was nested within a design research framework (Design-based Research Collaborative (DBRC), 2003), meaning that at each site I collaborated with the participating teacher and her student focus group to enact, develop, and learn about the cogenerative dialogues as catalysts for teacher learning. The dialogues, which typically ran 25-75 minutes immediately following instructional hours, included the teacher and 4-6 of her students (see Table 2) from each site and were held each week for 16 weeks in the second semester.
Table 2: List of Student Participants at Each Site
Ambition East  (Ellen) Weeks 1 – 8: Alejandro, José, Lina, Patricia, & Vanessa
Weeks 9 – 15: Angel, Dylan, Lina, Maria, Melvin, Nelson, & Vanessa
Ambition West (Lorena) Weeks 1 – 16: Antonio, Carlos, Emmy, & Mateo

My methods of data collection closely followed procedures of previous design research and case studies into cogenerative dialogues (e.g., Bayne, 2009). To understand how accountability was manifest through the cogenerative dialogues themselves, I participated in, videotaped, and transcribed each dialogue. Additionally, I observed weekly blocks of Ellen and Lorena’s anatomy classes (as well as an entire week’s instruction at both the front and back end of the sixteen-week study) to note any changes in their teaching and/or classroom environments. To explore the teachers’ and students’ perspectives on any potential changes, with every participant I conducted (a) weekly informal ‘debriefs’ immediately following each dialogue, and (b) multiple formal interviews held at various points throughout the study.

My approach to data analysis consisted of three cycles of coding and memoing (Saldaña, 2013). I began by rereading each piece of data chronologically to get a sense of developments in participant actions and perceptions over the course of the study, and also to develop a set of provisional codes. I then organized these provisional codes into broad units, which contained related events or descriptions, and memoed around relationships that seemed to emerge within each unit. The final cycle of analysis consisted of pattern and axial coding, whereby I analyzed and compared the data within and across various related subcodes, focusing on the properties, dimensions, interactions, and consequences of phenomena captured in and across the subcodes and, when appropriate, creating matrices to compare and contrast the organized information.

One pattern emerging from the data—that the participating teachers frequently acted upon student suggestions in their classroom—necessitated an additional and separate analysis. To test the claim of teacher responsiveness, I located within the dialogue transcripts student recommendations for classroom changes. I then cross-referenced this list of student suggestions from each site against records of Ellen and Lorena’s classroom teaching and those occasions when each teacher made an instructional move that aligned with (and thus appeared to respond to) a student suggestion offered in an earlier dialogue.


I think it [the dialogue] was a great process. I mean, you had a great process with the teacher and students just talking about how it [a lesson] went and how it could go better. Then we go and see how our solutions go in the next class, and then talk about it in the next meeting. It’s just a great process. (Dylan, Ellen’s student)

Data indicated that over the course of the study, a strong sense of mutual accountability developed within the cogenerative dialogues among the participating teacher and students at each site. As Dylan (above) and other participants recognized, this mutual accountability seemed to manifest in an iterative process, or cycle, that closely reflected Henderson and colleagues’ (2003) stages of responsiveness, responsibility, and report-and-review. Running through and underlying this process was a major theme of relationship development among the participants at both schools. At the same time, however, in each stage noted above, members of the cogenerative dialogues encountered salient tensions that helped reveal some of the limitations of mutual accountability in its application to teachers and students situated within the current neoliberal, high-stakes policy context surrounding schools and districts like Ambition. In the subsections that follow, I detail how mutual accountability was supported (and at times constrained) within instances of responsiveness, responsibility, and report-and-review, as well as through a process of relationship development.


In the first stage of mutual accountability, Henderson and colleagues (2003) propose that stakeholders demonstrate responsiveness, by openly sharing perspectives, deliberating perceived challenges, and identifying common points of interest within these issues. Interactions in the setting of cogenerative dialogues at both sites of the study demonstrated this reciprocal responsiveness among participants, particularly as teachers (and students) sought out and listened to various perspectives around instruction; discussed the rationales and values of learning that grounded these opinions; and identified and grappled with problems that were perceived to have surfaced in the classroom.

A common thread among all dialogues across both sites was the elevated position that student perspectives seemed to hold within the dialogues (Emdin, 2007; Roth & Tobin, 2005). As illustrated in the following transcript, nearly each meeting began with the teacher or myself asking students to share their thoughts and feelings around previous anatomy lessons.

Author: So, I noticed that Monday and Wednesday last week, Ms. Galván started off with those mini-quizzes on Schoology. What do you think about those?

Patricia: I like them. I mean, they’re not that hard. I usually get nervous about tests but not those—

Lina: Yeah, it’s not like they’re worth a ton of points…

Vanessa: Plus, it’s good [to get quizzed] because then you see how you’re doing and how much you get or don’t get the new vocabulary.

Here, three students from Ellen’s dialogue voice their opinions about short quizzes that Ellen had used to begin her previous class periods, highlighting the quizzes’ low-stakes nature and benefits for self-assessment. In such dialogues, student perspectives often served as a springboard for much of the conversation that followed, as Lorena explained when discussing her interactions with students during a cogenerative dialogue:

It’s something you have to do here [in the dialogues]—get their perspective. What did they think? Is [my instruction] useful or not? … And it helps because the students’ll see certain things that are going on that you might not. It’s also helpful to figure out, are they learning it?

As Lorena noted, the students’ perspectives offered her and Ellen a variety of new insights, which not only helped these teachers see what students found engaging and valuable, but also understand how and the extent to which students learned from classroom interactions.

Students and teachers both acknowledged that much of this information could only be shared within, and thus may have been exclusive to, an open setting where discussion was fostered and expected. Lorena and Ellen expressed that within the dialogues, they felt not just an obligation but a “curiosity” to continually elicit and explore student perceptions of classroom life, in part because the students helped triangulate the teachers’ assessments of their own teaching’s efficacy. At times, listening to student perspectives encouraged the teachers to reorient their reflection toward student affective concerns and away from more rigid pedagogical structures, such as common strategies, as Ellen explains:

As teachers, we’re always busy thinking in lesson plans and strategies. But then we get in the dialogue, and students tell me the group strategy’s not working because some feel left out or uncomfortable, and then it’s like, “You’re right. I need to consider your emotions before I implement any strategy.”

For Ellen, interactions with her students during these dialogues helped re-center her pedagogical decisions around the affective learning needs of students, rather than privileging any particular teaching strategy that she was planning to enact.

At points within each cogenerative dialogue, Ellen and Lorena also felt compelled to share their own perspectives on teaching, especially when instructional matters were questioned by students. In these instances, the teachers took the opportunity to explain their thought processes and rationalize teaching decisions they made earlier in class. For example, late in the study, Ellen tasked her students with applying certain principles of the respiratory system to design an experiment that would measure carbon dioxide levels in exhalation. When students such as Maria and Angel perceived challenges with the design portion of this assignment, Ellen responded by highlighting the importance of struggle in learning and creative processes:

Maria: Yeah, experimental designs are confusing. My group needs a lot of help! [laughs]

Angel: We have no clue, either. Can’t you just show us one way to do it?

Ellen: See, maybe I need to make this clearer to your class. Instead of being told exactly what to do, we’re doing experimental design so you learn how to do something on your own and so you learn about a process. I know it can be frustrating, but remember, the reason I’m setting up the experimental design is to prepare you for what’s going to be expected of you in later grades, and in life too. 

In the exchange captured above, student questions prompted Ellen both to clarify and justify her goals for student learning within the project.

The exchanges of perspective around issues of classroom environment, teaching, and curriculum often created opportunities for the teachers and students to develop intersubjectivity about topics in those areas (Merrifield, 1999). As twelfth grader Emmy explains below, these dialogues helped the participating students and teacher at each site to understand not only what the other meant with regard to anatomy class, but also how they experienced and made meaning of it:

You’re both learning, the teacher and the student. The student is learning how the teacher is thinking while she’s doing the lesson plans and how she’s going to teach us. And then the teacher is learning what the student knows about it and what the student thought of it, like, if they liked it or didn’t like it, or what they could do better. 

A dimension of this intersubjectivity that emerged within the dialogues—one less emphasized in literature on, but nonetheless foundational to the development of, mutual accountability—was the perspective-taking that seemed to occur among members. In their final interviews and focus groups with me, the majority of students made reference to the idea that they could now see aspects of the classroom from the viewpoint of their teacher, or as Carlos explained it, “I can see how she views us now.” This led students like Antonio (below) to demonstrate empathy for their teacher and to critically reflect on their own participation as their teacher might:

Now I know how Ms. Silva feels when we’re messing around, like when we’re talking or we’re packing up and she’s trying to teach something. Now every time she says, “Don’t pack up yet,” or “Listen up,” I just listen to her because I know how it feels… It’s not right. So, I guess I try to understand her point of view more. I seen her perspective more.  

While the perspective exchanges facilitated mutual understanding among the dialogue participants at both sites, such discussions were not without conflict or tension. Rather, and perhaps most importantly, the exchanges of perspective fostered by the cogenerative dialogues at each school invariably led to the identification of teaching problems. Such issues included the unintended consequences of instructional moves, challenges to student learning, and/or hindrances to the teacher’s efforts at creating supportive learning opportunities. In many of these occasions, students pointed to particular class activities that led to confusions or misunderstandings about particular anatomy content, similar to the discussion of Ellen’s design experiments captured above. In other cases, student comments (like those below) underscored more enduring problems in the classroom, particularly around student engagement and participation, both themes of the dialogues at each site:

Carlos: I’m tired of school and the reason why is because I see the same routine every day. I’m just bored and tired of it. I would like something new.

Lorena: Can you tell me a little bit more on routine?

Carlos: Everything the same every day, nothing new. Like, we do the same activities…

It’s, like, warm up, then PowerPoint notes, then classwork with worksheets, then exit slip…Then class ends and then go to the next and do it again…Because, Miss, I don’t know—I need something more to keep me going.

As seen in this excerpt of a dialogue transcript from Lorena’s site, tensions identified by one or more students were not always immediately recognized by other dialogue members. Instead, negotiations between diverging parties often ensued, with opposing sides citing evidence to persuade the other or bring their perspectives into greater alignment.

Such identification and negotiation of problematic classroom areas were frequently initiated by teachers as well. In some of these instances, Ellen and Lorena would acknowledge that expectations for student participation were not being met by their students, even those participating in the cogenerative dialogues. At other times, however, without prompting from the students, the teachers would present what they saw as a challenge to their instructional practice and then seek student insight and feedback on this issue.

Underlying this discussion of responsiveness is the assumption that views being expressed during dialogues are the full and authentic perceptions of each participant (Emdin & Lehner, 2006; Roth & Tobin, 2005). The students in Lorena’s dialogues claimed to be honest and forthright, even in their discussions of tensions in Lorena’s teaching; however, Ellen at times was less convinced that the feedback she received accurately portrayed students’ perceptions:

I feel like with the discipline environment of the classroom, like with me in charge, I wonder how much of that sneaks into the student dialogues some times. That’s where I’m skeptical of the kids feeling safe enough to be completely honest with me.

Ellen questioned whether these dialogues could fully overcome the institutional separation dividing teachers and students, and thus worried that student dialogue members were withholding information that she deemed vital to her professional improvement. Ellen’s skepticism was not without grounds, as in two debriefs following dialogues, a student admitted that he felt uncomfortable sharing a comment with Ellen for fear of how she might view his work ethic in the future.


After identifying tensions and contradictions within classroom learning activities, participants in the cogenerative dialogues typically progressed into the responsibilitystage of mutual accountability (Henderson et al., 2003). In this stage, they began to address these problematic issues by specifically discussing anatomy content or seeking responsive solutions in the form of new classroom repertoires and enterprises.

In most instances, the tensions identified within the cogenerative dialogues related to classroom instruction and/or a learning, as illustrated in the transcript below:

Lorena: Monday was with [the substitute teacher]. What do you guys think of that lesson, the one about the lab with the senses?

Antonio: It was fun, I guess, but my group didn’t get to finish it, so—

Carlos: It was, like, fun testing all the senses and all. But I don’t think we knew what we were supposed to do.

Here, such conversations allowed students like Antonio and Carlos to share their challenges or confusions around learning activities. In response to these tensions, at each site the teacher or myself typically proposed teaching alternatives that might address the problematic issue raised by a student. At times, students were divided in their estimation of the most efficacious alternative, and in these cases, it generally fell to Ellen and Lorena to somehow negotiate a compromise that everyone could support. In other instances, when consensus was quickly reached around one of the propositions, the teachers reported feeling more certain in their enactment of such an instructional change (especially when it represented a risk they had been less willing to try earlier). Often Lorena and Ellen actually experimented with a given proposition also in courses outside their anatomy periods.

Less often but still somewhat frequent were occasions when students suggested a solution that had not been first proposed by the teacher or myself. For example, when Angel raised the issue of social exclusion within group projects in one of Ellen’s dialogues, it was another student—Melvin—who first proposed a negotiated solution:

Angel: I want to bring up something about group projects. See, I like that you let us choose our groups, but I feel like mostly it’s a choiceless choice. Because I know each time [we pick groups], me and Dylan are always waiting over on the side, saying, ‘Pick me, I’m here, we’ll work with anybody.’

Ellen: So, Angel brings up a really important issue. Should I start choosing your groups then so no one’s feeling left out?

Melvin: Why not let the persons choose one person they want to pick. Like, if it’s groups of four, maybe we should let each person choose one person they want to work with and then you [Miss Galván] could put those partners together with other partners to make the [groups of] four. So they’re not always going with the same people all over again.

Unlike options offered by the teacher or myself, these student-generated ideas rarely gained unanimous approval without some opposition or further suggestion; thus a degree of a negotiated compromise was necessary to reach a consensus. Indeed, later in the dialogue quoted above, Melvin’s suggestion sparked a debate among the students, some of whom opposed any teacher involvement in partner selection and instead presented a modification of Melvin’s proposal.

As noted earlier, not all identified problems and their solutions related to issues of teaching; at each site, discussions were held in the dialogues around ways that the students could improve their own participation in the classroom. For example, in Lorena’s dialogue, conversations of this type generally revolved around students completing homework tasks and not distracting their groupmates during collaborative learning activities, as seen in the transcript below:

Lorena (speaking to Carlos): Why weren’t you able to finish [the lab report]?

Emmy: It’s because he’s always messing around—

Mateo (speaking to Carlos): You gotta slow down. Focus more. It’s fun clowning around, but we can’t be doing that all the time.

Several of Ellen’s dialogues centered on how students could more actively participate in whole-class discussions. While Lorena and Ellen reiterated their openness to adapting their instruction and to facilitating student participation, they also outlined plans—supported by the dialogue members—that called for students to take responsibility for and make changes to their class participation.

In some circumstances students offered suggestions for classroom improvements that directly conflicted with curriculum goals set for the teachers by their pacing plans, as seen in the transcript below:

Dylan: Miss, we should do, like, that egg drop thing again…I think I could build a way better one now.

Ellen: But we just spent a whole week on that task. And we haven’t even finished [studying] the nervous system unit yet—

Dylan: I know, but it was a lot of fun and I think our group could build a much stronger helmet ‘cause now we know how to brace the egg—

Ellen: I get that, but let’s just think more about how we can finish up this unit.

Ellen noted that at these times, she would consider but usually decide against acting on student suggestions, especially when those suggestions ran up against the set curriculum for the course:

I definitely want to take the feedback and taking into consideration things that are being shared, but there are certain items where I’m like, “Well, I can’t do that so much because it does go against the overall goal…” So that’s been a tug-of-war: Should I do what they suggest or should I stick to the goals?


Reflecting Henderson and colleague’s (2003) stage of report-and-review, the teacher and students at each site—after having agreed to a course of action for a given week—would hold one another to account for their involvement in, and discuss the general outcomes of, these consensual plans (Roth & Tobin, 2005). Such efforts of report-and-review took place both within and outside the cogenerative dialogues afterschool, involved all participating members, and led to responsive changes in repertoires and enterprises by both teachers and students.

At each site, students used certain means to hold their teacher accountable for following through with the suggestions for classroom improvements that had been discussed and agreed to in earlier dialogues. Students thanked and commended the teacher for acting on their proposals, and when the outcomes of such plans were not ideal, students would offer further recommendations for improvement. For example, after Ellen’s dialogue group watched a short video clip of her instruction from the previous week, I asked members to comment on what they saw:

Vanessa: Ms. Galván was doing what we said [in the previous dialogue]. We wanted more time on the project and she was giving it to us.

Lina (addressing Ellen): And you were letting us choose our own groups, I liked that! I just wish we could have more people in them next time.

In the rare occasions when students felt that Ellen or Lorena had not made efforts to undertake a suggestion, it would often be gently repeated over consecutive meetings. Outside the cogenerative dialogues, students would even give their teacher reminders of previous suggestions during instructional time. Such means by which the students at each site influenced their teacher’s decision by giving advice and watching for evidence of its enactment prompted both Ellen and Lorena (below) to characterize the student members of their dialogues as ‘evaluators’ and ‘mini-administrators’:

It’s funny because I’ll look at them the way I look at my evaluators—to see what they’re thinking and is everything going okay for their learning. They notice what I do, how I take their suggestions, all the time. It makes me more aware of myself but in a good way.

For Lorena, above, student members of her dialogue took on an evaluative role, helping to critique her teaching based on their learning needs, and thus influenced her thinking around practice in ways similar to an instructional coach or evaluative administrator.

Student members from each site studied here also held one another accountable for their participation, within the dialogues afterschool and during instructional periods (Wassell, Martin, & Scantlebury, 2013). In the dialogue setting, several students emerged as leaders who encouraged their peers to share perspectives on or offer suggestions for certain issues at hand. Particularly in Lorena’s case (below), students expressed their disappointment when a member failed to follow through with expectations they had agreed to for classroom participation:

Lorena: So what’d you guys think of class today?

Carlos: I don’t know—you should ask Antonio.

Antonio: Miss, I was done. I was sleepy with my head down. I’m sorry.

Mateo: We were tired, too. But we still managed to listen in class.

Carlos: We can’t be doing that. Especially you, now that she [Lorena] knows us better.

Mateo: Yeah. ‘Cause we’re the ones giving suggestions to her but then messing up.

Antonio: Yeah, I know. I need to change. I’ma be a changed man.

In this exchange, students Carlos and Mateo chastise their fellow dialogue member Antonio for failing to actively engage in class, which they perceive as a contradiction to their role as trusted student advisors to their teacher. Similarly, Lorena and Ellen used this space of cogenerative dialogues both to praise students when their participation aligned with the expectations set by the group, and to have critical conversations when this participation fell short.

These efforts at accountability collectively led to responsive changes by teacher and student members of the dialogues. At each site, the vast majority of student suggestions for improvements were leveraged by both teachers as adaptive changes to their classroom environment, teaching, and/or curriculum (cf., Beltramo, 2017a). Analysis of dialogue transcripts and the video tapes of instruction following each dialogue shows that Lorena enacted 84% of her students’ 87 suggestions targeted for immediate implementation. Many of these student recommendations centered on ways of making Lorena’s curriculum and teaching more relevant and engaging to her anatomy periods. A similar analysis revealed that that Ellen acted on 78% of her students’ 59 suggestions targeted for immediate implementation, most of which related to ideas for facilitating a more comfortable environment for student participation in classroom discussions.

Analysis of field notes and videotapes of classroom observations pointed to substantial changes among the students’ participation as well. Those students involved in Lorena’s cogenerative dialogues demonstrated greater engagement and less distraction at the end of the study, even as some of their peers “checked out” as second semester seniors. Even more evident were changes among the students in Ellen’s dialogue, as students who initially were intimidated by speaking in class were participating in and even leading class discussions by the study’s end (for fuller discussion of this finding, see Beltramo, 2017b).

Just as importantly, this stage of report-and-review served as an essential platform for individual and collective reflection on the process of classroom learning improvement (Beers, 2009). As Lorena notes below, she and Ellen reported that the dialogues afforded them greater opportunities for reflection:

I think the dialogues also made me be reflective, because every week I had to make sure I was reflecting on my lesson with the kids. Because they’d say, “Yes, this lesson worked” or “That didn’t work. Can we just do this instead?” And so I have to really consider that. So it forced me to make sure I was even more reflective than I already am.

Reflection was not exclusive to the teachers, however; many times when students shared their perspectives on certain elements of class, they also justified their opinions by reflecting on their own learning needs and preferences, and thus engaged in some degree of metacognition (Cook-Sather, 2002; Morgan, 2009). For both teachers and students, then, cogenerative dialogues represented an integral space for learning about the repertoires and endeavors they undertook within the classroom.

As in the other stages of mutual accountability, a salient constraint emerged in the participants’ work around reporting and reviewing the outcomes of previous dialogues. Ellen and Lorena felt encumbered in their enactment of student suggestions by conflicting expectations from administrators, who ultimately decided the job security for these teachers. Indeed, analysis of the few instances where student recommendations or feedback did not translate into classroom changes revealed that such suggestions tended to push against the structures under which Ellen and Lorena taught. For example, after one of Ellen’s formal observations, her evaluating administrator questioned her use of student-chosen work-groups (a focal suggestion of her student dialogue members), and expressed an expectation to see heterogeneous groupings based solely on achievement.

Lorena reported even greater tensions between the expectations of her students and those of her administrators; as mentioned earlier, important themes across Lorena’s dialogues included the need to make anatomy curriculum and teaching more relevant and engaging for students. Yet, like Lorena states below, often student suggestions with regard to these themes took time or pulled her away from the district’s strict pacing plan and pushed her into content areas that were not included in the monthly benchmark exams she was tasked with giving:

These pacing plans…, we’re behind it now. First semester I was on it. In second semester, I was like, ‘Okay, I want the kids to get here.’ But now I just want them to really learn, and so they need to be engaged. I want them to learn about their health and see how I can help them apply this to their own lives. How can I get them to get something out of this that’s important for them? Do projects, right? Like the ones we talked about [in the dialogues], right? But then I’m running out of time in the pacing [plan]—I’m behind. So yeah, pacing is an issue and sometimes I don’t really care but…in every single meeting, they [administrators] ask me, “How is it going? Where are you on pacing?”

Here Lorena articulated the pressure she felt from administration to adhere to the pacing plan, and at times, this resulted in her choice to forego acting on a suggestion from the dialogues that would have strayed from the mandated curriculum. Each time this occurred, students reported some disappointment in ensuing dialogues, but ultimately expressed their understanding in statements like, “Miss Silva has to obey principals like us, too.” (Carlos).



Across the stages of mutual accountability described above emerged a parallel process of relationship building that occurred among the members of the cogenerative dialogues in both settings (Kane et al., 2006; Mullis, 2011; Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007). As members spent these hours together, week after week, comments (like those by Vanessa below) highlighted a growing comfort level and familiarity between the teacher and students:

I found [the dialogue] very helpful for both the student and the teacher because it helps the teacher understand what the student needs to have more support, and what they can do to give them more, I guess, confidence in class. Just to have a kind of bond between them so that they would know what’s going on, and how it’s going to work.

When I pressed the participants to share why the dialogues had brought them closer, some suggested that the space encouraged a feeling of safety that allowed members—particularly, the teacher—to be vulnerable and open with others. Vanessa, for example, noted that she can “give some crazy suggestion” because her teacher would “probably even try it out.”

The conditions of comfort, familiarity, and openness found in this study seemed to promote shared identify and solidarity (Cook-Sather, 2006; Wassell & LaVan, 2009), particularly among the participating students, who frequently made reference to “our group” or “us dialogue students” in their interviews with me. The dialogues also helped to bridge the teacher-student divide, making each side more approachable to the other and eventually forming some fairly strong bonds:

It [the dialogue] takes your knowledge of a student as an individual to a whole other level. It gives you a glimpse into who they are, not just as a learner, but as a person. I think that knowledge is essential for relationship-building… It creates that bridge. It makes you approachable, and it makes the students approachable for me. (Ellen).


This study sought to understand both the extent to and ways in which cogenerative dialogues might help manifest among teachers and students a sense of mutual accountability, something that scholars have set in contrast to the current discourse of accountability today, which tends to emphasize more neoliberal, high-stakes approaches. Evidence suggested that school policies related to high-stakes accountability (particularly calls for standardization backed by teacher evaluations) limited to some extent the degree to which cogenerative dialogues could foster mutual accountability, in two specific ways. First, the findings indicate that Ellen felt that, in some moments, students purposefully withheld information during a dialogue so as not to upset her. Thus, the influence of neoliberal accountability and its stress on hierarchy between teachers and students may have limited (at least to some degree) the full exchange of perspectives between members, and in turn may have also constrained opportunities for facilitating full student voice (Lundry, 2007).

Another tension seemed to occur at the stages of reciprocity and response-and-review, where cogenerative dialogue members typically discussed plans for classroom improvement. As seen in other investigations of cogenerative dialogues (e.g., Emdin, 2007) and other forms student voice (e.g., Mitra et al., 2014; Cook-Sather, 2006), a neoliberal and high-stakes approach to accountability constrained the teachers’ will to follow through with some classroom changes proposed by students. When students asked for such changes as more responsive groupings that got away from heterogeneous approaches or more project-oriented learning that strayed away from mandated pacing plans (and their accompanying benchmark tests), Ellen and Lorena reported feeling unable to undertake these suggestions. In this way, the influence of students, and the degree to which students could hold teachers accountable, was limited (Lundry, 2007).

Yet, where students felt comfortable enough to voice their opinions and suggestions honestly, and where the teachers felt able to integrate such student suggestions within their standardized curriculum, mutual accountability between these two parties blossomed to a greater extent. Across the stages described within the cogenerative dialogues at each site, mutual accountability was manifest particularly through interrelated principles of learning, agency, trust, and reciprocity. As proponents of mutual accountability have theorized (Brown, 2007; Henderson et al., 2003; Merrifield, 1999), members of the cogenerative dialogues reported instances of learning at each stage of the cycle described above. In the stage of responsiveness, members gained greater understanding of one another’s perspectives, including insights into the problems that they perceived in the classroom (Beers, 2009). Through the problem-solving discussions found at the stage of responsibility, participants often brainstormed adaptive changes that represented both possible solutions to the conflicts at hand, as well as new enterprises and repertoires for the students and teacher to undertake in each classroom. A spirit of reflection, critique, and cajoling within the stage of report-and-review helped each member grow and develop in these new enterprises and repertoires.

Previous scholarship primarily envisions learning as an outcome of mutual accountability (Brown, 2007), but here it also seemed to feed back into and support this accountability approach by facilitating shifts in agency. Elmore (2005) suggests that for democratic forms of accountability to function, there must occur a shift in agency from those in power to those of less power, for example, from teachers to students. But from a situated learning perspective, agency is not something that can be simply given; rather, it is created through capacity building and learning (Emdin, 2016). As seen in Ellen and Lorena’s respective dialogues, students learned about their teacher’s viewpoint, news ways of participation in the classroom, and even new forms of learning activities. This may have represented the capacity building that enhanced student agency in their relationship with their teacher (Bayne, 2009; Mullis, 2011). Thus, agency is not won by some and lost by others but is increased for all stakeholders—the teachers and students involved in cogenerative dialogues all developed their enterprises and repertoires and thus created agency for themselves (and each other).

Elmore (2005) also suggests that such agentive shifts occur in concert with the fostering of trust and reciprocity, which in turn offer additional support to mutual accountability. Findings from this study reflect Elmore’s theory. Throughout the stages of responsiveness, responsibility, and report-and-review, the teacher and students at each school developed close relationships based on trust through perspective-taking, intersubjectivity, and collective assent (Beers, 2009; Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007). Together with such trust also developed the “dense relations” of mutual engagement (Wenger, 1998) and reciprocity, where both teacher and students worked to help the other out.


The findings emerging in this study hold several implications for educators in the U.S. and internationally who are seeking to engage in forms of student voice such cogenerative dialogues. First, the findings suggest that cogenerative dialogues and perhaps other instantiations of student voice may be subject to the same pervasive undercurrents of high-stakes, neoliberal accountability impacting other dimensions of schooling in developed countries (Ranson, 2012; Ruben, 2011). Thus, educators investing valuable time and resources into student voice might begin to anticipate tensions like those detailed above when student voice initiatives conflict with pushes toward curriculum standardization and teacher surveillance. At the same time, because cogenerative dialogues and other forms of student consultation make room for mutual accountability and afford students the opportunities to demand more responsive classrooms, these student voice measures may also signal those remaining spaces where teachers like Ellen and Lorena still have agency to operate out of concern for equitable learning opportunities by addressing the learning needs, interests, and aspirations of their students. Finally, the findings suggest that forms of student voice like cogenerative dialogues may help reorient teachers toward the “affective labor” of their job, or the work aimed at establishing relationships of personal care and appreciation between teachers and students, which scholars argue is currently under threat by neoliberal, high-stakes accountability systems (Kostogriz & Doecke, 2013). Future research therefore might continue exploring how cogenerative dialogues and other forms of student voice might engender mutual accountability and more authentic teacher-student relationships in schools, so that accountability could be re-appropriated from its status as a “bad word” among teachers to becoming a supportive dimension of both classroom and professional learning.

Questions for Further Consideration

  • The following questions are intended to be of use for individuals or groups to use in responding to the provocations of this articles.
  • As in Lorena’s situation, when teachers and students seek out curriculum and learning positioned outside state-mandated standards, what steps can they take to gain support from administrators and other key stakeholders and policymakers?
  • How can other methods of student voice (e.g., participatory action research, student consultation, etc.) inform enactment of and research on cogenerative dialogues, and perhaps offer suggestions for the dilemmas faced by the participants in this study?
  • How can mutual accountability between teachers and students be integrated with other forms of accountability found in schools?
  • What roles can students and student voice play in resisting the associated challenges of neoliberal, high-stakes accountability found in schools today?




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International Journal of Student Voice

Editorial Board

Lead Editor

Dana Mitra (The Pennsylvania State University, USA)

Associate Editors

Mhairi Beaton (University of Aberdeen, Scotland)

Katherine Cumings Mansfield (Virginia Commonwealth University, USA)

Roseanna Bourke (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)

Valentina Grion (University of Padova, Italy)

Kate Wall (Strathclyde University, Scotland)

Paula Flynn (Trinity College University of Dublin, Ireland)

Advisory Board

Helen Beattie (Up for Learning, Vermont, USA)

Ulrika Bergmark (Lulea University of Technology, Sweden)

Allison Cook-Sather (Bryn Mawr College, USA)

Paula Flynn (Trinity College, Ireland)

Susan Groundwater-Smith (University of Sydney, Australia)

Roger Holdsworth (University of Melbourne, Australia)

Rachel McNae (University of Waikato, New Zealand)

Carol Robinson (University of Brighton, England)

Hasina Ebrahim (University of South Africa, South Africa)

The International Journal of Student Voice (IJSV) is a peer-reviewed, open access e-journal publishing on the ways in which students co-lead their schools and communities by collaborating with teachers, administrators, and community stakeholders to define problems and develop potential solutions and/or take the lead on making change in their schools and communities. We define students to include a wide range of young people, from early childhood to university studies. Taking as foundational the right of students to develop their voices and leadership capabilities and take an active role in analyzing and shaping their educational experiences, the journal publishes research related to pupil/learner voice, youth-adult partnerships, child rights, youth participatory action research, students as activists and change agents, and related fields. Likewise, we acknowledge the importance of adult educational stakeholders who share this belief and work to make the development of student voice, participation, and partnership a reality.

IJSV, established in 2015 by the Pennsylvania State University, welcomes pieces from researchers, practitioners, and students including traditional research-focused articles, practitioner reflections, and multi-media submissions. Peer review in this journal will include feedback from researchers, practitioners and students. All articles must have a user-friendly abstract that is understood by all audiences. Articles will be expected to end with a set of discussion questions to encourage online dialogue. Each submission will include a discussion forum to encourage conversation about the submissions.

For additional information, please go to the IJSV website:

Or contact Dana Mitra at: