51 Ways to Tokenize Student Voice


With the increased interest in student voice—which is any expression of students about learning, schools, or education—tokenism is bound to happen. Tokenism happens whenever students are in formal and informal roles only to say they have a voice, instead of purpose, power, and possibility. Without that substance, student voice is little more than loud whisper into a vacuum. 

Today, adults tokenize student voice and students tokenize student voice. This article explains how.
Following are 51 ways to tokenize student voice right now. The topic is explored at the end, and there are some resources.

51 Ways to Tokenize Student Voice
  1. Student voice is seen and treated like a special activity that only fits in a certain place at a certain time.
  2. One particular student is asked over and over to participate in adult activities.
  3. Adults discuss student voice without talking to students. 
  4. Students are treated favorably for sharing student voice in a way that adults approve of, while students who share student voice in disagreeable ways get in trouble at school.
  5. Adults consistently ask specific students to speak about being a student in school meetings or at education conferences.
  6. Student voice is only listened to for fixing specific issues in schools, instead of addressing everything in education.
  7. A school club will do programs to specific students, without letting those specific students do programs for themselves.
  8. Adults hold a celebration dinner for the school and invite 10 students to join 1,000 adults.
  9. Students are only asked about topics that affect them directly, rather than the entire school body or education as a whole. 
  10. Students are not taught about issues, actions, or outcomes that might inform their perspectives activities.
  11. Adults tell students they have a voice and give them the way they are expected to express it.
  12. Student voice is isolated on issues seen as student-specific challenges like school colors, dance themes, bullying, and technology.
  13. Adults install specific students in traditionally adult positions without the authority, ability, or background knowledge adults receive in those same positions.
  14. Adults constantly tell students about their experiences when they were students. 
  15. A single student's busiest times of year revolve around the education calendar—outside regular student activities—because they're attending conferences, meetings, summits, and other education activities that require adults to invite them.
  16. Adults don't tell students directly the purpose of their involvement in school committees or education conferences, except to say that they are The Student Voice. 
  17. Students are told that sharing their voice is as good as it cans get.
  18. Adults control who hears, sees, or communicates student voice.
  19. When students walk into a meeting, every adult knows there are students attending without knowing their names, where they're from, or what school they attend.
  20. During a meeting adults expect one student or a small group of students to represent all students.
  21. Students or adults perceive that students are being tokenized and thereby undermine students' abilities.
  22. Students are treated as if or told it is a favor for them to participate in decision-making.
  23. On a panel, on the Internet, or in a meeting, students are given little or no opportunity to formulate their own opinions before speaking.
  24. Students are not taught about the democratic purpose of student voice.
  25. Adults invite students to share their knowledge, ideas, opinions, and more, and then ignore what they say.
  26. One student speaker is invited to talk at an education conference, at a school board meeting, or in an Internet space like Twitter or a Facebook group.
  27. Students who attend an education rally are singled out for their attendance.
  28. Adults only invite students who are not likely to assert themselves, make demands, or complain, to adult education meetings and activities.
  29. Student voice is treated as unique, infallible, or is otherwise put on a pedestal by adults.
  30. Adults take students away from regular classes without giving students any recognition in the form of credit for their learning in education activities. 
  31. Adults choose articulate, charming students to join education activities.
  32. Students are given representative roles that are not equal to adult roles in education activities.
  33. Adult/student power imbalances are regularly observed and not addressed in classrooms and schools, while student voice banners and programs happen in other times.
  34. Adults are not accountable to students in education activities.
  35. Adults refuse to acknowledge the validity of student voice they disagree with.
  36. Students are punished when student voice activities don't meet adult expectations.
  37. Schools use student voice for some issues, and ignore it regarding others.
  38. Adults in schools take pictures and videos of students without listening to what they have to say.
  39. Adults seek out one, two, or ten students as the most popular in their school to represent student voice.
  40. Students are not given the right to raise issues, vote, or share their unfettered opinions.
  41. Student-led school research is used to back up adult problem-solving without engaging students in problem-solving.
  42. Nobody explains to students how they they were selected for an activity.
  43. Adults allow students to talk on their school's facebook page or twitter account and not at school committee or district school board meetings.
  44. Adults interpret and reinterpret student voice into language, acronyms, purposes, and outcomes that adults use.
  45. Students become burned out from participating in too many traditionally adult-exclusive education activities.
  46. Students are not seen or treated as partners in the education system by adults.
  47. Students think its obvious they have a lack of authority or power or that their authority is undermined by adults.
  48. Adults don't know, state, or otherwise support the purpose of engaging student voice in the public education systems of democratic societies. 
  49. Students are limited to sharing their voice on issues at the local building level, not in district, state, or federal activities.
  50. Students don't understand which students they are supposed to represent.
  51. Students are asked to create a representation of student voice that never leaves the classroom or education program they're in.

Exploring Tokenism


When adults appoint students to represent, share, or promote student voice, they are making a symbolic gesture towards young people. This step is generally meant to increase or demonstrate student engagement in topics adults think they need to be heard about. It can also be meant to appease student and adult advocates and stop people from complaining.

When students specifically seek to represent, share, or promote student voice, they are generally seeking a portion of control over their personal educational experience. In schools, this can look like joining student government, starting a student voice club, or holding a protest after school or at a school board meeting.

Unfortunately, these approaches to student voice actually reinforce adultism in schools. They do this by reinforcing adult power and highlighting the inability of students to actually change anything in education without adult permission.

Tokenism happens in school policy and through activities in education every day. It is so deep in schools that many students and adults never know they're tokenizing student voice, and students don't know when they're being tokenized. Students often internalize tokenism, which takes away their ability to see it, and adults are very invested in it, which takes away their ability to stop it. It is important to teach students and adults about tokenism in schools and how it can affect them.

Learn more about student voice in schools at SoundOut.org or contact us.