Pupil voice – gathering evidence

red-megaphoneSo a New Year and new opportunities? I’m not a man who puts much store by new years resolutions, they always seem to get broken, but I do like to see the dawning of a new year as an opportunity to inject new energy and purpose into things.

In the world of education the year just gone has seen some promise towards the potential offered by digital media, but also some signs that there us an awful long way to go yet.

The Handheld Learning Conference organised by Graham Brown Martin in October (reviewed in our current newsletter) attracted more delegates than ever. It included a closing keynote speech from Lord Putnam, long a fan of the potential of Digital Media for education, and participation by such luminaries as Stephen Heppell and writer Steven Johnson.

The conference was full of sparkling examples of the creative use of digital media in its many guises and its positive effect on the education of our young people.

These examples are still in the minority, though. There are also examples of good and bad: the scrapping of Year 9 SATS – good, keeping Year 6 SATS – bad; Alistair Darling’s bringing forward of the Building Schools for the Future (bsf) programme to aid the ailing construction industry – good, more latterly a complete review of the whole scheme bearing in mind that it is a PFI scheme and there is no longer any optimism that private industry will be interested in their part – bad;  controversy over the fact that a new primary school in Sheffield has dropped the title ‘school’ from its name – the controversy itself bad, the fact that this school has recognised the need to broaden its role to one of ‘ a place of learning’ good. And so on.

So still a long way to go, but for me the key to progress lies in the hands of the learners themselves, the pupils, through so called ‘pupil voice’. I use the term ‘so called’ because mostly pupil voice has simply come to mean that occasional pupils have a place on the school council, or they are asked questions about how they would like to learn and then handed down ‘adult’ judgements on what is considered suitable.

In my judgement this is not really ‘pupil-voice’ at all but does show, I think, that we tend not to trust young people to be put in charge of their own learning. It seems to be a common view that left to their own devices young people will just witter away their time on fruitless activities.

Personally I think this is nonsense which flies in the face of what we can easily observe about young peoples behaviour and what they are actually capable of.

A quick and simple example from a recent experience: my son aged 11 came home from school with his sister who had bought home some pancakes. When my son asked if he could have one she said ‘no’.

So rather than whinge he went to the internet, found and printed a recipe for pancakes, got out the required ingredients, and before starting to make the pancakes called me at the office to check that it was OK for him to do this. Had there been someone other than his teenage sister at home, who simply regards her younger brother as somehow sub-human and just an irritant (as indeed she regards Mum and Dad, mostly), I have no doubt we would have fussed over him, taken over parts of the process, and only allowed him to participate in those parts we considered him capable of. In the event he was capable of undertaking the whole thing, from start to finish, and as a matter of fact also capable of asking for help at any time he may have needed it.

There are many many examples of such behaviours where young people daily demonstrate capabilities far in advance of those we tend to allow them. Mostly these examples share the same driving principle of natural motivation to do something or to to learn something,

For me this is proof of something very simple about young people, ‘if they are motivated they will be capable of learning, and if they are allowed to learn, they will’.

How many of us have a tale about a subject that we hated because the teacher was ‘boring’ or subjects we have loved because the teacher was interesting, or made the subject interesting.

But I do not expect you to believe me about any of this. I know that very little changes without a long process of gathering and assimilating evidence, arguing over the results, before moving kicking and screaming towards something a little different.

So I am gathering evidence that will prove, contribute to the self evident facts, that young people are capable of self directed learning, are capable of more than we allow. Indeed it is my belief that they must be allowed to learn in their own way, at their own pace, rather than in a way and at a pace dictated by their elders.

I am inspired to do this by some remarkable research undertaken by Sugata Mitra an Indian physicist, called the ‘Hole in the wall experiment’ in India. In short this experiment demonstrates the extraordinary self motivated capabilities of young Indian children engendered through computer technology. Follow the link below for Sugata Mitras presentation about this:

What I am seeking are true tales of incidences in which young people have surprised with their capabilities. For example I have a true tale about an 11 year old who having believed he had lost his parents, drowned during the Asian Tsunami, swam to an island and set about setting up camp in true survival mode.

Or my observations of my 11 year old son devising with his mates a complex game they played in the local park, made up from scratch with clear rules, penalties, etc.. Or the determination of our administrators 10 year old son to get a part in the West End production of Oliver despite no formal training. He is currently playing the artful dodger in this production at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

What this is all leading to is Sutra’s concept of ‘minimally invasive education’. This is a system of education where you assume that children know how to put two and two together on their own. ‘So you stand aside and intervene only if you see them going in a direction that will take them up a blind alley. Even then there may be good reason to let them go there, or it might be more beneficial to save time to guide them in another direction’.

At the core of this concept is the belief that young people are naturally curious, are naturally motivated, do want to learn, even if that learning does not take the traditional forms of the current education system.

25 years ago, with the dawning of the personal computer, I experienced a remarkable transformation (from nervousness to confidence, sad to happy, incapable to capable) in the personality of a 16 year old who was branded as a complete failure at school.

This change took place when I involved him in some basic data processing on a computer. Of his own volition he used this as a stepping stone to learning computer programming and became a whole person again.

My role in this transformation was to provide an initial stimulus, observe his (unintended by me) progress and to be on hand when he needed help, encouragement etc.. Everything that happened to him fits the agendas of personalisation, pupil voice, self assessment, self directed learning, all the things that are currently being talked about.

Digital technology has provided the means for all of this, and there is little doubt in my mind that this is the future of education and learning in the 21st century. Progress is slow and I am impatient. That is why I am gathering evidence to speed things along.

So we would like to hear from you. If you have any stories about young people doing things that may have surprised, from the extraordinary to the more mundane, please email us at

We will compile all these examples in some meaningful way (the detail of which will become apparent as we gather more examples) and continue to publicise this across different forums.

This will include a dedicated Pupil Voice Google Group that we are setting up specifically to further the cause. There will be further information about this here in the News section.

Mick Landmann

Managing Director

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