Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Cultural Politics of Student Voice

  • John SmythEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_23-1


The notion of student voice, in the context of the general meaning of this term, occurs against a long historical background in which young people are considered by adults to be basically immature, incapable, and needing to be “seen but not heard.” In other words, they are supposed to be silent, including in matters to do with their learning. This is an idea that no longer has any legitimacy in a contemporary context in which young people are making all manner of important decisions about their lives and futures. Yet much of educational policy is still framed around the outdated presumption that adults somehow know best when it comes to the organization and enactment of all aspects of young people’s learning.

In this entry I am using the term student voice in quite a specific way that may not necessarily concur with the way others envisage or use that term. In particular, when I use the term “student voice,” I am referring to students being given a realistic measure of agency over what they learn, how, with whom, and in what way the results of that learning will be conveyed to others. This specific meaning of student voice fits rather nicely with the broader societal commitment to young people as being active agents in socially just forms of schooling, and more broadly in matters pertaining with their lives, as expressed in United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), signed in New York on 20 November 1990, especially Article 12 that deals with the rights of young people to have a say and express opinions over adult decisions that affect them. When students learn in the “active” way being suggested in this interpretation of student voice, then they are also engaging in a process of identity formation – that is to say, they are learning how to envisage themselves as a particular kind of learner who is active as distinct from passive.

Overlooked in the old-fashioned view of learning as being a compliant and passive activity in the institutional context of schooling is the idea that learning is far from an innocent process. In reality, learning is highly dependent upon relationships, which are themselves negotiations of power between students, teachers, and schools. Whether students have agency or a voice in what they learn, with whom, how, and in what ways, in large measure determines whether learning occurs. In short, learning is a political act. Regarding learning as being a political act is not, therefore, simply a nice sounding rhetorical flourish – it is a crucial ingredient in whether or not learning occurs, especially in context of minority or disadvantage. While it may be the case that students from middle-class backgrounds whose norms match those of the school are prepared to accept passivity in return for the promise of deferred lifetime rewards that may come from learning, the engagement of minority and disadvantaged students with learning is not that straightforward.

What is being referred to in this entry as student voice is not a unitary concept – rather it is an ensemble of interlinked political acts that range from the level of the individual student, to the classroom, the institutional of the school and its culture, and systemically. To have optimum effect, these elements of student voice need to be seen as interrelated cultural acts – hence the term “cultural politics of student voice.” For brevity, the shorter term “political” will be used to refer to this more expansive cascading idea.

Against this backdrop, this entry will look at three interrelated aspects of the way power operates within student learning as this relates to student voice. When I talk about power in this entry, I am referring to the everyday usage of that term. In other words, power in student voice refers to the way in which students have the right to exercise control and influence overall aspects of their learning.

First, and drawing from the work of educational anthropologist Fred Erickson (1987), it will be argued that the notion of student “assent” (i.e., willingness of students to be compliant) is central to learning and in effect amounts to students having a stake or a voice in their learning.

Second, because there is an inherently inequitable distribution of power at the heart of the learning process, for learning to take place, there has to be a negotiation of power with students rather than the exercise of power over them. Learning is therefore a political act in which competing interests are negotiated.

Third, because of the negotiated and relational nature of learning, how and in what ways students are given a voice in their learning – which is what is meant by student voice – become highly indicative of the existence of relational trust that is built around students’ lives in the process of learning.

Student Assent as a Form of Student Voice

When students learn what is deliberately on offer or being taught in the social institution of the school, then, as Erickson (1987) put it, they are explicitly or intuitively engaging in “a form of political assent” (p. 344). That is to say, what occurs in school learning is a “leap of faith” on the part of students, as they acquiesce to “the exercise of authority” (p. 344) by adults whom they are presuming will be acting in their best interests. Another way of putting it is that when students assent to the exercise of authority within the learning process, they are giving their approval that their identity will not be besmirched and furthermore that their identities will be maintained and enhanced positively by those exercising authority over them. Erickson’s (1987) claim is that what students are doing as they learn within the context of schooling is how to “entertain risk” as they move “just past” what they already know to the “nearest region…[of] what has not yet been mastered” (p. 344). In managing the risk and vulnerability that comes with this, students are learning how to politically negotiate identities for themselves as independent beings. In the process of forming these identities, they are acquiescing to the exercise of benign authority over them. This “assent,” as Erickson refers to it, amounts to students exercising their invisible voices as they make existential choices about their willingness to submit to the authority of the teacher and in the process accord legitimacy to the institution of schooling.

As Erickson (1987) notes, the reverse is also true – he says that “not learning can be seen as a form of political resistance” (p. 344) as students indicate that they do not trust teachers or the institution of schooling and refuse to accord either or both legitimacy in the way authority is being exercised over them. In this instance, students are exercising their voice to not learn.

Among young students assent happens in ways that are largely intuitive and invisible and in forms that may not even be explicitly understood by students themselves – but nevertheless, assent still exists in the way very young students come to understand what it means to have a voice in their learning. Erickson (1987) says that as students become older, and/or in situations where there is a gross discrepancy between the ethnicity or the social class of the students and the largely middle class norms of the school, then students become much more activist (for an elaboration of the place of student voice in students as activists – see Smyth 2011, pp. 62–66) in their refusal to accept the “identity that is being assigned to them by the school” (p. 350). In this case, student voice becomes much more strident and explicit in a context where schools are often setting themselves up for all manner of “troubles” in the kind of unhelpful relationships being formed between young people and schools.

Student voice according to this line of thinking occurs when students feel their lives and aspirations are being respected and when they feel they have some agency in the learning process. Their lives, interests, and ambitions are being brought into conversation with adults in schools, and when this does not occur, their distaste is equally being made known. Student voice then is a form of assent (or not) to the benign exercise of the authority of the school. In other words, students are exercising their agency through student voice over their learning by forming an identity of themselves that is different from, and in spite of, the passive and compliant one often unwittingly, or otherwise, required of them by the authoritative stance of schools.

Learning as a Political Act in the Context of Student Voice

The proposition that education is a political act is attributable to Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The essence of Freire’s argument is that learning cannot occur unless human beings are treated as subjects who have the freedom to participate in and shape the world in which they live – in contrast to being treated as inert objects to be acted upon by external forces. Learning is thus a political act, because learners, in order to have a humane existence, have to oppose those in power in schools who make binding decisions on young people without their participation. Educational and political systems that operate in this way, denying student voice, are in effect insisting upon treating young people as passive and incapable objects. For Freire, the quintessential exemplar of this is where education is regarded as being synonymous to a banking system in which knowledge is “deposited” by experts (teachers) and “withdrawn” by those less knowledgeable (students). As Smyth (2010) summarized the compliant nature of the learning implicit in Freire’s banking view of education:

At the core of the banking concept of education is a transmission view of education based on the belief that knowledge is mostly of a factual kind that exists in order to be conveyed to learners, who accept it without question. There are obvious similarities with John Dewey’s notion of “pouring in” and learning as a process of absorption. (p. 70)

This banking view of education is troublesome on multiple levels. First, there is the unacknowledged issue of power that comes with presumptions about who has a right to know – and in this regard, students have no rights. Second, there is a clear and unambiguous, even arrogant, separation between the all-knowing teacher and the deficient learner – something that can be deeply troubling to some students. Third, knowledge in this scheme is rendered down to that which is factual, so that it can be easily transmitted from teacher to learner. Fourth, the very act of learning is presented as if it were about passively redressing defects, deficiencies, and gaps – rather than being an active collaborative process of co-creation. Fifth, envisaged in this narrow way, learning becomes a process in which a hierarchical set of authority relationships are solidified in place between students and teachers. Finally, within this diminished view of learning, the nature of knowledge itself is presented as if it was inert, neutral, objective, and not serving any interests, therefore pacing it beyond contestation – none of which of course are the case.

Student voice is a crucial counter-narrative to this banking depiction of learning for the following several reasons: First, learners are not empty vessels to be filled – far from it, they come to learning as active knowledgeable agents with rich lives, backgrounds, cultures, and aspirations, all of which need to be incorporated into their learning experiences. Second, nor are learners simply passive recipients with defects that have to be remedied – they are perceptive, intelligent, and, for the most part, willing participants even at an early age, able to constructively contribute to their own learning, and to that extent they deserve to be listened to. Third, hierarchical relationships between teacher and learner are not a natural or inevitable state of affairs – they are artificially constructed and are only sustained as long as such views are buttressed by a view of power over rather than power with students. In other words, when schools are envisaged as existing within a compliant command and control structure, with teachers, administrators, policy makers, and the educational system being the hierarchical source of all knowing, then students are diminished in ways that contravene their UNCRC rights. Fourth, it is mischievous and quite fallacious to portray knowledge as if it were innocent and interest-free – all knowledge serves certain interests while denying others, and any respectable and honest approach to learning has to engage students in robust debate and contestation of knowledge claims. What is being suggested here is that this more democratic, socially just, inclusive, and actively political view of student voice is a co-construction of learning that occurs with the consent and assent of students.

Both of these notions – student assent and learning as a political act – feed directly into a set of views of student voice as an active instance of “relational trust.”

Student Voice as Indicative of Relational Trust

Relational trust (see Smyth 2006, pp. 292–293) involves the creation of a mindset that runs counter to that of assigning students demeaning and pejorative labels such as being “at risk,” “vulnerable,” or “disadvantaged” that invariably end in student failure to learn. Instead of such deficit views, what is being constructed instead when student voice is foregrounded – when students are given a meaningful stake in their learning – is a pedagogical and dialogical approach that places trust in students to exercise a voice in working with educators to speak into existence a set of educational experiences that are committed to learning success. In other words, student voice is the crucial relay through which relational trust is created between adults and students in the process of successful learning.

One of the sharpest illustrations of the absence of relational trust was conveyed in the provocative-sounding title of Herbert Kohl’s book I won’t learn from you. What Kohl was arguing was that young people can and do exercise choice to refuse assent to learn in school, and often for good reasons, most of which have to do with young people regarding what the school is doing to them as an affront to their lives, cultures, or backgrounds. When this dissonance occurs, students are in effect refusing “to make the emotional and relational investment necessary to become engaged with the social intuition of schooling in a manner necessary for learning to occur” (Smyth 2011, p. 62). This point is also captured by Charles Bingham and Alexander Sidorkin through the title of their book No Education Without Relation. Learning then is a social, psychic, and emotional investment in forming a conducive set of relationships between students, teachers, and the institution of schooling. In practical terms within schools, this involves students exercising a voice in the content of what they learn, pedagogically in terms of how, with whom, and where, and most importantly, how the outcomes of their learning will be demonstrated to others.

Student voice is the crucial means by which students are included as equal and active partners in forging this relationship of trust or “relational power” (Smyth 2007, p. 230). In advancing this idea, Smyth (2007) conceives of relational trust as a kind of conceptual “glue that binds educative connections together in schools and that enables learning to occur” (p. 230). In this Smyth draws on the work of others who have highlighted the resourceful nature of relational trust that resides in things like “respect,” “regard for others,” “integrity,” and the willingness to see the world from the vantage point of the “other.” In this sense, relational trust is spoken into existence when student voice is regarded as a crucial institutional resource to be coveted and carefully cultivated in and through the culture of the school.

Concluding Comments

In this entry I have argued that school learning is riven with political agenda because of way power operates between students, educators, and the social institution of the school. The power differential between adults and students is constructed as an asymmetrical one, and the only feasible way of counterbalancing that is to create the space and the conditions in which students can have a meaningful degree of ownership of their learning. When such spaces are created, students are more likely to assent to the benign exercise of adult authority in structuring learning experiences, become co-constructors in in their learning, and in the process make the kind of investment in relationships necessary for learning to occur.

For educators, whether classroom teachers, teacher educators in pre-service education, or in the continuing professional development of teachers, understanding the political nature of the interpersonal and institutional dynamics of learning is crucial to advancing the idea that schools should be socially just places for all young people. Unless learning is regarded by educators and policy makers in political terms, then there is a strong likelihood that students’ rights will be trammeled, and inequitable power relationships will be further entrenched in an unjust learning process. What has been presented in this entry is an interpretation of student voice that amounts to a mapping of the cultural politics of student voice that is an expansive, inclusive, participatory, democratic, and socially just form of learning.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Huddersfield Centre for Research in Education and Society (HUDCRES)University of HuddersfieldHuddersfieldUK

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  • Emily Nelson

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