“The school is big…bigger than any school in the world…bigger than a giant”.
This observation of a primary school was conceived by a preschool child, and reflects the perceptions many young children have about schools and their education.
Education systems around the world are often influenced by politicians, economists, bureaucrats and experienced educators, and cater for a range of student experiences. However, the experiences of learners continue to vary depending on geographic, socioeconomic and behavioural factors. How can our education system cater for the nuanced experiences of students? And how important is the voice of the child in enhancing the learning experience?
What is ‘the voice of the child’?
Education is all about learning, and by extension, learners. As such, the voice of the child must be promoted in education. The ‘voice of the child’ is a symbolic phrase often used by educators, policy-makers and activists, and represents the opinions, perspectives and experiences of children in any activities which concern or impact them. The voice of the child encompasses how children are meaningfully engaged in activities which concern them. Meaningful engagement of children in education involves listening to and responding to children effectively so that they are at the centre of decision-making in education.
The voice of the child and children’s rights
The voice of the child is crucial in respecting the rights of children, as recognised in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In particular, Article 12 emphasises that children’s opinions should be taken into account, and their views be respected in decision-making that affects them. Children should be recognised as being the most reliable source of advice on decisions which affect them as they bring value and unique perspectives to the world.
Influences on the voice of the child in current education
The way children are recognised in the Western classroom today has been influenced by centuries of Western thought on the child as learner. Many Western ideas of the child as learner stem from philosophers including John Locke, who believed that the mind of a child at birth is like a ‘blank slate’ that is to be filled with data from experiences. Such a conception is reflected in current perceptions of children as vessels to which knowledge is delivered through educational institutions. Another perspective is that of John Dewey, who favoured the idea of schools as integral parts of communities instead of institutions of preparation for future communities. Dewey perceived children as active thinkers who learn in their interactions with others, a notion reflected in contemporary perspectives of children’s rights. Such ideas were associated with studies which revealed the importance of interactions and talking in classroom environments, and promoted the role of children as ‘co-constructors’ of knowledge.
While the voice of the child in education has come far since some early philosophy on the role of children in education, there is more progress to be made. The sometimes inflexible nature of learning environments involving large groups of children may result in difficulties for educators to listen and respond to the perspectives of children. In particular, the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children with disabilities, and children from refugee or asylum seeker backgrounds may be at risk of being ignored. This was seen in the recent documentary, In My Blood It Runs, which highlighted the need for the Australian education system to recognise, include and promote Indigenous children’s voices at schools.
The importance of the voice of the child in education
Engaging children in decision-making in their education is highly beneficial for multiple aspects of the learning experience. The importance of early years of education, and the high levels of stress that children undergo when transitioning into school has been emphasised by a large body of research. A national evaluation of school readiness in Ireland revealed that ‘adopting a pedagogy of voice and a pedagogy of listening’ when children are moving from preschool to primary school can improve the transition experience for children as well as parents and educators.
Further, the ways children experience connection with the world around them is a significant factor influencing their ways of interacting and contributing. The manner in which children experience relationships and participate in communities contribute to their ‘belonging, being and becoming’. As such, schools and learning environments can become ‘constructive educational communities’ when children and young people are respected in their relationships, and understood to be key contributors in their learning. Similarly, a survey conducted by Nhuubala Yugal Education Centre (NYEC) volunteers in 2019 accentuated that disengaged children and youth wanted to be more respected by their schools.
Respecting children and youth is a fundamental value at NYEC, evidenced in the individualised and flexible approach to learning which allows students to learn at their own pace and according to their own interests. Through a focus on building relationships with students, the NYEC team places children and youth at the centre of all its programs, giving them a say in their learning. If you are interested in supporting NYEC’s commitment to re-engaging disengaged rural children and youth in their learning, please consider donating. Every donation empowers NYEC to empower local youth in Moree!