Promoting Student Voice in Secondary English

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, when I was studying English for the HSC, our teacher (who was genuinely awesome) would set us an essay every fortnight. Always the same kind of question; always asking us to analyse the novel, poet or play we were studying at the time. Not surprisingly, by the end of Year 12, we were all really good at writing essays, and we did well in our final exams, because they consisted entirely of, you guessed it… writing essays. To this day, I can still write a pretty mean essay, although I’m not quite sure how beneficial this skill is in our modern world. While through constant practice and repetition my schoolmates and I mastered one important but very narrow aspect of English studies, I don’t recall being especially excited or motivated about doing the exact same thing every fortnight for two years. While the invigorating classroom discussions we had about Hamlet and Milton and the rest stay with me to this day, the sheer lack of variety and choice in our assessment options was a long way from satisfying.

Approaches to assessment have changed considerably since then, and educational research is increasingly emphasising the importance of student choice and voice in best practice assessment design. Leading figures like Dylan Wiliam and Robert Marzano consistently argue for the incorporation of student choice when designing assessment tasks, citing benefits such as increased student motivation, effort and task performance. Wiliam (2011) argues that one ultimate goal of greater student voice is “activating students as owners of their own learning”. To borrow one of the corporate world’s favourite buzzwords, we might say that students experience greater “buy in” to tasks which they have helped create in partnership and negotiation with their teachers.

This term, following on from work completed on the Staff Professional Development Day in July, the Secondary English Department has worked to incorporate greater opportunities for student voice in our junior programs and assessment tasks. In Year 8, for example, students studying Romeo and Juliet have recently been given a choice of ways and modes to convey their knowledge of Shakespeare’s text, including writing obituaries, recording podcasts and developing contemporary versions of the classic play. In Year 9, students will soon choose from a range of creative text types through which they can demonstrate their learning in the Utopian fiction unit. Meanwhile in Year 10, students have been composing substantial creative and analytical independent projects, researching and writing on diverse topics of personal interest to them.

As we constantly remind our students, there is still a definite time and place in English for knowing how to write an “old school” essay, just maybe not the one every fortnight I had to churn out in my HSC days. By empowering students at key times in the year to work with their teachers and play a greater role in assessment design, we hope to generate stronger personal engagement with texts and topics, and allow a broader range of student skills and talents to shine through. Like all good things in great schools, an initiative like this is always a work in progress, but we are committed to continually developing our assessment practices and culture to ensure the best possible English experience for every student.

Peter Phillips | Head of English