The best use of student input is in giving us a user’s perspective on teaching rather than on teachers’

Dr Kevin Stannard, the GDST’s Director of Innovation & Learning, writes a weekly column for TES. One of his recent articles is below, his other articles are available online.


Young people actually understand quite a bit about teaching and have valid perspectives on school life, writes leading educationist Dr Kevin Stannard

Tom Bennett doesn’t rate “student voice”. He likens asking students about teaching to asking airline passengers about flying. As a passenger, he admits to ignorance about the “pilot’s domain”. By implication, students know nothing about the teacher’s domain.

It would be an interesting exercise to work out how many hours a student of a given age will have spent in classrooms, in the company of teachers, closely observing how they operate.

Indeed, many times the student will have been invited to reflect on the learning process itself. In the taking of countless tests, the student will have had cause to reflect (possibly ruefully) on how well their teachers had prepared them.

Whatever the answer, it is bound to be several orders of magnitude greater than the amount of time that an airline passenger has spent in a cockpit, closely observing the pilot, or (possibly more fruitfully) watching Airplane.

To be fair, Bennett’s immediate concern is about whether students can reasonably be asked to evaluate the quality of teaching, and he is rightly highly suspicious of anything amounting to student assessment of teachers.

But his argument rests on a hyperbolic dismissal of students’ views tout court: “no child has the experience to know what the teacher is trying to do or trying to achieve”.

Bennett offers an olive branch that he immediately thrusts into the garden shredder: students’ views, he allows, are perfectly valid on questions of toilet design or corridor flashpoints; but to heed their views on anything more important would be to undermine teachers’ professional status.

On the narrow question of student views in assessing of the quality of teaching, there are grounds for a sensible discussion.

Studies show that student evaluations are predictive of learning outcomes. More importantly, student views tell us about process, not just outcomes – and results are largely what inform current attempts to measure a teacher’s effectiveness.

That said, the best use of student input is in giving us a user’s perspective on teaching rather than on teachers.

The best use of student input is in giving us a user’s perspective on teaching rather than on teachers.

Dr Kevin Stannard, GDST Director of Innovation and Learning

Students have valid perspectives on school life beyond the convenience, the corridor and the canteen. Young people actually understand quite a bit about teaching, and they sympathise with the many challenges involved in the profession of teacher.

Focus group interviews and online questionnaires suggest, for instance, that students in Years 10 and 11 have very different priorities than those in Years 12 and 13, and therefore value rather different ways of teaching.

But they understand that it is very often the same teacher who is expected to turn on a sixpence in adapting lesson by lesson, class by class.

They also appreciate that variety in teaching methods is actually quite a good thing – for their own sanity and survival through the day.

None of this is about whether a particular teacher is any good, or if students think Mrs A is better than Mr Y. Student voice is the baby to the bathwater of simplistic teacher assessment. Surely we can keep one while disposing of the other?