The Transformative Centering of Student Voices

Topics: Systems Change

Student identity plays an important role at the heart of the systems thinking for youth. But centering the student needs to go beyond tokenizing raising voices to transformative centering of voices.

Rolando Fernando, director of impact and improvement for KnowledgeWorks, joins Katie King, director of strategic foresight for KnowledgeWorks, for a conversation on how education leaders, education researchers and educators can produce better results by helping young people think in systems and what the transformative centering of student voices look like in action. Watch the video or read the transcript below.

King: Rolando and I are here to talk about the connections between two projects that we have been working on. KnowledgeWorks published our systems thinking guidebook last year. Rolando has been leading a project with KnowledgeWorks, and we just wanted to talk about the connections between those two projects and give an example of ways that we can help young people think in systems. Rolando, could you start just by telling us a little bit about the YARI project?

Fernando: Okay. The YARI project, as we fondly call it, stands for Youth Action Researchers at the Intersection. The YARI project was focused on supporting a cohort of students in this iteration. It’s 10 high school students from the Met High School in Providence, Rhode Island. We support them to investigate their learning journeys and the systems surrounding their learning journeys so that it can better respond to students at the intersection like them.

When we say students at the intersection, we mean that, first, they are from historically marginalized communities, meaning by that, this notion of historically marginalized race and ethnic groups, students from low-income families, students who self-identify as from the LGBTQIA+ subgroup. Then, they also self-identify as possessing a learning difference. For this particular project, we identify those categories of learning differences as ADD, ADHD, dysgraphia, dyslexia and executive function issues.

In this project, we provided scaffolds for this student to pursue a research question of their choice that they’re passionate about. We support them as best as we can through four stages: ask, look, discover and share. Through this entire research project process, we provide a robust matrix of support in close partnership with partners within Providence, a youth-serving organization known as Cycle and also a batch of mentors going through the graduate program at the Rhode Island College Youth Development program.

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King: Great. This project is really interesting because the research projects that they were pursuing really were looking at systems. One of the things that we say in systems thinking is that system behavior is a function of the structure, which basically means that the results and the outcomes that we see in the world and in society are not accidental. They’re the results of the way that systems are organized and put together. We have policies, people, beliefs, physical structures, and all these other things that interact in certain ways that lead to the outcomes that we see. That’s obviously very related to a lot of the topics that they were taking on. As you were observing the students diving into research and learning more about their topics, in what ways did you notice them beginning to see systems at play and recognizing that a lot of the challenges and problems that they were looking into were really the result of structural and systemic issues?

Fernando: At the very heart of the YARI project, student identity really plays a big, important role. We identify that at the very title of the project: students at this particular intersection. Upon providing them with the space wherein they can bring their full selves and wherein their lived experiences are recognized as assets and also as a source of expertise, in that, they were able to have the motivation to freely self-reflect on where they are within their learning journey. At the launch event, back in February 2020, we facilitated a session wherein they mapped out, through use of art materials, their learning journeys, identifying those points within their learning wherein they had a wonderful learning experience but also those wherein they had a really bad learning experience. Then, as they mapped it out, we encouraged them to reflect, how their identity at the intersection plays within those experiences.

Towards the end of the day, we had this fun exercise wherein we had a mock rally where they created posters. Then we paraded around that room, them screaming their advocacy for what they want to correct about the learning system. After this entire exercise of self-reflection and identity and then advocacy, we then got them to group two youth researchers with their mentor to talk about the emerging research question that’s coming up. When I asked a group of them afterwards how did they come up with their research question, which basically looks at race / ethnicity within the classroom if the race / ethnicity of the teacher and the students have a specific dynamic within how they interact and learn within the classroom, the students said, “We looked at ourselves as students plus our mentor. What do we have in common? We’re all Black women.” Therefore, they wanted to do a project that really address that. They explored that process and landed on their specific research question.

King: Great. That relates to my next question, which is about trying to have as complete a view of the system as we can. We know that none of us, from our own limited perspective and our own limited set of experiences, can have a complete view of the system. One of the things that’s a tenant of systems thinking is trying to have the expertise of multiple people who have very different experiences within a system, which obviously is very related to some of the foundations of the YARI project and having the voices of the students really lifted up. I would just wonder, what did you learn about the way that the education system works from having the experiences of these students lifted up and hearing what they were seeing and experiencing?

Fernando: From a systems level, there’s a trend right now to center student voices, to include them in conversation, and all of that. But within this project, I really learned the difference between just the tokenism of raising voices as opposed to transformative centering of voices. Because I believe that the turning point from when the students really feel empowered to have a say and even have a hand at the solution to transform the system to better respond to the specific needs of, for example, students at the intersection like them, they have to be given the space wherein they are validated, recognized, heard in their fullest self, whatever that carries, including the culture where they’re from. That’s why there’s a big push for culturally responsive education.

Once they are in that space and the high school wherein the students are based, the Met High School is one of the models in the country for liberatory education. They already have that space as well. With the YARI project, they were given the space and the tools to be able to make this questions and to reflect more deeply inwardly. They are able to now identify how their experiences, especially the bad ones, are affected by the system around them.

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A specific example is there are a couple of students whose learning differences produced trauma during the middle school years. When we started the project, we gave them the space to really air out this trauma, and it was very precarious. We had to really intentionally pursue this process of them letting this out. After that, given the tools of research, they are able to now put a framework around the damage, the trauma, that they’ve experienced. Then, specifically, their ability to frame the question and the issues and then pursue their peers, fellow students, experiencing similar traumatic events, gave them that perspective with a bit of a distance. But at the same time, with the richness of their lived experience, to be able to provide truly compelling insights about how the system around them affects their experience.

For example, if you have a learning difference in middle school, the experiences that you are othered deeply. You are placed behind the classroom, not able to participate fully with what’s happening within the classroom just because of these identified learning differences that you may possess. That really gave me a very vivid view of how important it is for us to first provide that space for them to have that breathing room, both in the heart, in the mind, to be able to go beyond just surviving and being really reflective about why are they struggling in the past so much. It still lingers on but also to have the space to think about what potential solutions can be possible for them.

King: Yeah. That’s interesting. I feel like both the framework and the research process that you engaged the students in, and some of the tools of systems thinking, both of those approaches really start with what is the experience and what is the lived experience and knowing that that’s really such an important source of information. Then, we can go to, “Okay, take that step back. Here’s the experience. What does that tell us about how the system is operating? What does that tell us about the ways that we might pursue change?” I think that no matter what process we’re engaging in to create change, it’s starting with that experience and then using that as the data to begin to think about ways forward.

Fernando: What’s fascinating for me, Katie, is to watch in real-time them drawing the mental arrows in their heads. For example, if they identify a traumatic event within the classroom and then said, “Oh, the teacher didn’t treat us well or discouraged us or things like that,” they have the wherewithal to think beyond it. So they didn’t get the training. Then, the system is not set up for that training. Then, the funding for that system was not set up properly to be able to provide that professional development for teachers. So you see the making these arrows of connections. That wasn’t just so exhilarating for me.

King: Yeah, to see them going beyond the individual level, which is how we experience things and starting to see the layers underneath it. That’s really important and something that adults, teachers, and educators, we can all do a lot more work to look beneath the surface more just like the students did. Well, thanks, Rolando, for taking the time to talk. If you’d like to learn more about the YARI project or about our systems thinking guidebook, please go to KnowledgeWorks website, where you can find more resources on all of that. Thanks for watching.

Fernando: Thank You.

Explore student-led research processes and projects with YARI.