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Don’t Design Education Without Student Feedback

Sonya Heisters

Director, YouthTruth

I live in the Bay Area, where people talk a lot about user experience or “UX” (which is tech-speak for how a person experiences something that’s been designed for them).

While most of us in education would not say, The UX of my unit on the Pythagorean theorem is dialed in,” we are designing for students all the time. And we don’t have to be user experience experts to know that gathering feedback from students about their experiences in schools can help us design better systems for learning.

Why feedback from kids?

Students are in the best position to know what’s working and not working in our schools. They know effective teaching. They know what a positive school climate feels like. And a growing body of research tells us that student perceptions are leading indicators of student outcomes.

We should be asking for — and listening to — student feedback about their educational experiences.

“But students are not consumers, they’re learners!”

You’re right – the “student as user” analogy is fraught. So I’d like to make the distinction between UX in product design and gathering feedback from students for school improvement.

In tech, gathering UX feedback is a transactional act. In education, it’s a transformative one. The power dynamics between student and teacher, child and principal, or third grader and superintendent are very different than that of a consumer with purchase power and a product designer. We have a legacy in education of doing education at students, not with students.

So, the very act of asking good questions, truly listening, and then responding accordingly is transformative. It honors the student. It requires an orientation shift from the adult. It begins to reshape that historically hierarchical relationship. It changes the system.

What’s the mechanism for this?

Since you’re designing anyway, you might as well have good feedback to inform the process. Educators have a wealth of academic data, but too often lack data on the less tangible aspects of the school experience, such as social-emotional learning, feelings of engagement, experiences of academic rigor, and school culture.

Student feedback data is the mechanism. And, it’s a renewable resource that you have access to right now.  Here’s one example of a research-based, actionable question that you could ask your students today (use a 1-5 agreement scale): The work that I do for my classes makes me really think.”

Based on the responses, invite students to offer recommendations of ways to improve relevance in the classroom. Students are already co-creators of a school’s climate and culture. Why not deliberately engage them in the process?

In the end

The only way to know if we’re on track with building a positive school culture, driving engagement, and creating safe spaces for learning, is to ask – and listen to – students directly.

Student feedback provides insights on key instructional and climate indicators that are critical levers for creating greater equality of educational opportunity. It’s important that this is done in a valid, reliable, and comparable way to be able to best utilize the data and understand it within the national, state, and local contexts of a school.

The most elegant and actionable way to know if the system we’re designing is working as intended is to solicit honest feedback that considers each and every student voice. We must, then, allow that feedback to inform real-time adjustments before it’s too late. Unlike the design of the next shiny app, the future depends on educators who lead through listening.

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