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Why Listen to Students?

by Chris Unger

As a researcher at Project Zero of the Harvard Graduate School of Education for several years, I continually sought ways to inform myself and support others in the development of learning environments that truly supported students' development. In this adventure, I was often asked to work with teachers on their teaching practice, having been a part of several initiatives to develop frameworks and ideas that highlighted attributes of good teaching.

As I began to work more closely with schools, not in isolated (and disintegrated) attempts like one-shot workshops or seminars, but through ongoing, long-term relationships with whole schools, I began to turn my focus to students and their experience.

As I began to walk around in the halls, peer into different classrooms, and see many students disengaged (heads on desks, drowsy, whispering to one another,) I began to ask myself about their experience. What would they say about the kinds of teaching they were exposed to each day? I wondered how they felt about their schools as communities (in high schools, often large, with much flurry and activity for 3-4 minutes between classes).

With my focus on supporting the development of teaching and learning, I started to ask teachers if it was OK to take a few students out of their class to do some video interviews and ask them some questions about their class.

Since my initial efforts were to support the teachers I was working with, my first efforts were to ask students specifically about the class they were in. I would ask students: Tell me about your class? What are you learning in class right now? How are you learning that? Tell me how the teacher is teaching you? Do you enjoy learning? After these initial questions, I would become a little more, pointed and would attempt to carefully (and respectfully) ask the students what was or was not working for them and what could help them to learn even better.

What was important in my efforts in interviewing these students was to be sure to ask questions in ways to which students could comfortably respond, knowing that their teacher would eventually be watching the video interviews. I often did what I could to be sure that teachers were appreciated for their efforts in helping their students to learn. I also attempted, as best I could, to capture students' feelings and thoughts that might be helpful to the teacher.

After venturing into the arena of personal expressions concerning a single classroom, I began to see that students had a lot to say about their experience in school as a whole. In most cases, students had very strong feelings about their experience-- particularly when an "outsider" created the opportunity to voice their feelings in a context of trust.

I thought about the cultures of schools as places of learning where students were fully engaged and I began to consider ways that video interviewing groups of students could inform the general practices of a school: classroom-specific and school-wide.

The art of video interviewing students is a tricky and fragile enterprise. What matters most is to create rapport with the students being interviewed. It is important to honor them by telling them exactly why we wish to interview them and what we are hoping to learn. It is also helpful to tell them a little about ourselves as well as asking them about themselves in a relaxed matter in order to create a climate that establishes trust. After that, it is critical to listen fully to the students as they respond, and encourage them to discuss their ideas in depth by asking appropriate questions.

Following are some suggested questions:

About a Specific Class:
Tell me about your class? What is it all about? What are you learning? How are you learning that? What does your teacher do? How does your teacher help you to learn?
Tell me about a specific unit or project? What did you do? (First, second, next, next?) What did you learn? How did you learn it? Were you interested and engaged in it? How so? How not?
How does your teacher know if you are learning? How does he or she assess your work? How does he or she give you feedback on your work, and your learning? Does that help you learn?
Do you feel this was important to learn? Why?
If you were going to make any recommendations to your teacher about helping you to learn, what would you suggest?

About Teaching:
Tell me about the variety of teaching that is going on in your school? What kinds of teaching do you find most helpful? Why is that helpful? What helps you learn best?
What kinds of teaching does not work for you? Why is that?
What would you like to see changed in your school?

About the School:
Tell me about your school. Can you describe it to me? What is it like?
What do you like about it? What do you not like about it?
What do you think could be different? Why?

About the Purpose of School:
What do you think is the point of school? How is school helping you? What are you hoping to get out of school?
How is school preparing you for the rest of your life? What other subjects would you like to be learning?

Many of the interviews we have done have been extremely informative and have provided the basis for talking with teachers and administrators about what was or was not working for students in their school. They also reinforce what we already recognized as needs: for students to be engaged in their learning; for far more active and compelling practices in learning (like group discussions, projects, and for experiences outside the classroom.) It was also abundantly clear that students don't like learning experiences that are not relevant to their lives.

I wish I could say that we were able to share these video interviews with the entire staffs of schools, and that they led to amazing and constructive, student-informed transformation of classroom teaching as well as school-wide transformations of the learning community. In each school where we have worked, however, the teachers and administrators have been at very different places in terms of being open to and desiring to listen to their students.

If not all teachers wanted to hear their student's ideas, we would share the interviews with those we felt would be most receptive. Usually these were teachers who were already striving to do well and continuing to improve. Much of the receptivity depends, of course, on whether it is a safe and positive environment for teachers as well as for students. If teachers do not feel threatened by hearing the suggestions of their students, then the way is open for collaborative efforts to make positive changes in classrooms and the whole school environment. And that can begin as we listen to the students!

About the author

For sixteen years, Chris Unger worked at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he developed new programs of learning and studied whether the learning programs worked, or didn't work.

Chris now lives in in Seattle, Washington. You may contact him at

© June 2003

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