The importance of the student voice

Feedback from learners offers a corrective balance, says Dr Kevin Stannard

Some teachers seem anxious about direct student feedback, but when asked why, the reasons remain steadfastly unclear.

Are pupils capable of evaluating the effectiveness of teaching? My answer would be yes. But aren’t they likely to be distracted by shallow personality issues, or recent run-ins with particular teachers? Won’t they favour teachers who go easy on homework? The short answer, supported by research and by experience, is a resounding no.

Amidst the minutiae of benchmark tests and subsequent metrics, lesson observations and work scrutiny, feedback by the learners themselves offers a corrective and a balance that teachers should welcome. At the GDST, the student voice is something we have sought to capture and act on throughout our network of 24 schools and two academies.

We recently launched our first trust-wide student survey, which sought to find out what students think makes a great teacher. We were overwhelmed to receive almost 12,000 responses from students aged nine to eighteen – this in itself reflecting a desire among young people to make their voices heard.

In free responses as part of the online survey, we found that references to the methods teachers use (their ‘toolkit’, so to speak) were, somewhat surprisingly, less frequent than references to their personal qualities.

If you want to be a nice teacher, you will need to be loving, caring, clever and sharing, helpful, understanding and kind

These personal attributes included teachers being approachable and calm, patient, polite and positive. On the whole they overshadowed toolkit qualities like giving good feedback, preparing well, and varying lessons.

But both these broad categories were overshadowed by an important middle category, one which we’ve called ‘pedagogical praxis’ – a transitive category, rooted in the teacher’s character and background, but realised in practice in the classroom. These are qualities that are inscribed in particular behaviours towards students.

These become real, as far as students are concerned, in behaviours towards them and their classmates. Responses such as, ‘doesn’t rush me’, ‘treats me as an individual’, ‘allows independence’, ‘explains things well’, and ‘gives advice’ may be categorised as aspects of a teacher’s pedagogical praxis.

What this seems to tell us in relation to recruitment and selection is that while basic personal qualities might not be easily changeable or trainable, their translation into effective teaching is something that can be developed through professional development. You don’t need a brilliant sense of humour (fortunately) to make a lesson fun.

A year two pupil had this view of recruitment priorities: “If you want to be a nice teacher, you will need to be loving, caring, clever and sharing, helpful, understanding and kind. They need to help children to do their best and have integrity, and they also need to trust everyone.”

An older student acknowledged the sheer scale of the moral task of teaching: “A great teacher did not apply just to mark books but to change and guide a generation.”

Let that be a lesson to us all.

Dr Kevin Stannard is Director of Innovation & Learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) 


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