Student participation builds opportunities for all students to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens (as per the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians). This practical guide brings together two key areas which, when combined, build participation and improve learning outcomes for all students. These areas are:
The guide has been developed by Nicholas Abbey and Deborah Robinson. Nicholas was a co-creator of the student action teams program and Deborah has led public speaking programs in schools. The guide also draws upon the pioneering work of schools and Roger Holdsworth (a decades-long leader of student participation strategies) and others in developing student action teams.
The success of all educational experiences - in creating powerful learning - obviously depends on the quality of teachers’ and students’ talk. As Professor Robin Alexander suggests:
“We need to move from a view of talk as about ‘communication skills’ ... to a recognition of the neuroscientific and psychological evidence of its unique status as a sine qua non for all learning, especially during the first 10-12 years of life” (2004).
Likewise, when students feel responsible for important matters and can be actively involved in their school and community to make a difference, their learning and motivation are strengthened.
For many young people, deferred outcomes (e.g., distant goals of work, citizenship and acknowledged community roles) are not sufficient to sustain their motivation and commitment to learning.
With implications for their motivation and school 'success', students are unsettled by their deep-felt sense that their 'only value' is what they will become, not what they can do today. (For an excellent discussion of this, see Roger Holdsworth's Engaging students in purposeful learning through community action paper).
But when students' talk and school and community actions are combined, the educational results and consequences for student behaviour and motivation can be phenomenal.
This happens when students select specific topics that are the focus of both a public speaking program in the classroom and their problem solving work in the school or wider community.
Over several sessions (each of one to two hours duration), participants learn how to prepare and present a speech, how to conduct meetings and effective speaking and listening skills.
Alongside this is the option of forming student action teams with a practical, problem-solving focus.
These teams consist of groups of students, teachers and, where appropriate, other adults, including parents and community based workers. These teams tackle school and community issues.
Public speaking is a key part of their work. Team members need to present information about their plans in many different forums and speak in support of their recommendations, including reasons.
They thus need training and practice in public speaking, including the use of notes, voice projection and body language - as well as opportunities to develop confidence by speaking within the school.
Combining public speaking and practical actions in the school and community can provide all students with opportunities to:
What is talk? The form of a student’s oral intervention (clearly audible, well-articulated and grammatically correct) together with intonation, changes of speed, and even facial expression and body language are no less important than its substance.
As discussed in The Power of Talk on this website, when talk is working well and consistently in classrooms, students routinely talk to the class as a whole, read aloud, come out to the whiteboard, write on it and explain in detail and in depth what they are doing.
Reinforcing this work, participants in public speaking programs in schools can acquire the knowledge and skills to:
The program is conducted by a coordinator for a group of students via sessions of one to two hours each.
Over the course of these sessions, participants learn about effective public speaking and have opportunities to practice.
Classroom public speaking
The coordinator or teacher outlines the program and what is required for the on-going development of effective public speaking.
The philosophy and rationale of public speaking are also discussed, i.e., if students' voices are not adequately valued, they may learn passivity. Schools that aspire to cultivate every student's voice support students to contribute to the collective vision of how a school, community and society ought to be.
In starting a public speaking program, warm-up exercises involving all participants may comprise:
Students also begin to talk about each of the following:
With a student action team topic, the participants (individually or collectively as team members) may prepare a speech that:
For further information and advice about public speaking in schools, please contact Deborah Robinson at VICCSO.
Since 1999, schools in Victoria have been developing student action teams. Co-developed by Nicholas Abbey and Anne-Marie Ryan, the program began as a joint initiative of the Department of Justice and the (then) Department of Education.
A student action team consists of a group of students, their support teacher or teachers, and, where appropriate, other adults, including parents and community based workers.
A team enables and supports students to:
The choice of team members will be influenced by the school’s intent for initiating the program. Schools consider:
Which issues do we work on?
Teams look for issues or problems that they can work on. These might be obvious, with relevant issues at that time emerging from discussions and being generally known.
Schools also survey the students at the school or the wider community to find out what the important issues are.
Many agencies and organisations other than schools have also been involved in action team projects. Examples include local councils, youth agencies, environmental groups, police and emergency services, local media, state government and federal government departments and members of parliament.
There is value in working with the community around issues such as safety, environmental sustainability, health, etc. in that this can assist teams in deciding what is worthwhile to act upon.
Once teams decide on topics and projects, they develop a plan of how to achieve goals. These plans foster a shared understanding of the topic and what is required to bring about change.
Examples of student action teams
Student action teams examples (Holdsworth, 2009) include:
Further 'how-to' information can be found in the Student Action Teams Manual written by the Australian Youth Research Centre. It discusses and provides practical examples in relation to:
When schools provide opportunities for all students to combine classroom talk and public speaking and school and community problem solving, learning outcomes can be improved significantly.
School communities and school councils may thus want to develop their own student participation policy and action plan. The Department has an example of a student participation policy.