The following article comes from Educational Psychologist Dr Geraldine Rowe, who explains the importance of sharing decision-making with those most affected. Dr Rowe’s work is informed by her doctoral research into the teacher experience of shared decision-making.
Anyone putting any effort into making some kind of change in a school wants to make it stick. Heads are not interested in passing fads. They want to embed practices that can become part of a strong, sustainable school culture, supporting those aspects of the school which are in already recognised as valuable, and providing a foundation for future developments. So, an article that proposes a major rethink in the way that decisions are made in schools needs to start with an outline of why change is needed.
There is a great deal of unfulfilled potential in our pupils that remains dormant for a number of reasons:
- Pupils lack the opportunities, and sometimes the skills, to influence what goes on in their classrooms and schools;
- Some pupils feel that they have very little status in school; and
- Many pupils feel that they are working towards other people’s goals rather than their own.
All these things impact on engagement and productivity.
Teachers and educational psychologists have known for a long time that pupils work harder and enjoy their work more when they feel that they have a say in what they’re learning and in how they work. Alongside greater productivity and engagement, children behave better when they feel they are part of the decision-making process. This doesn’t just apply to children. There’s a lot of evidence to show that motivation and well-being in the workplace improve when workers are given a say in how they do their work.
What is collaborative decision-making?
Collaborative decision-making happens when the people who are affected by a decision get to play a part in making it. In a school context, these decisions can be about curriculum, teaching and learning approaches, classroom governance and the physical resources and environment of the school and classroom.
When teachers make decisions with their pupils rather than for them, some interesting things start to happen. The first thing teachers notice is that the changes pupils want to make are very often those that the teacher also wants to make. However, when pupils feel that they, not their teacher, are responsible for these changes, they do everything they can to make these changes work.
New energy and motivation is released
Another thing that initially surprises some teachers is the amount of personal time that pupils will spend planning, preparing for and carrying out learning activities which they have had some part in designing.
One example of this was described to me by a teacher whose Biology class had decided that they were going to study the heart. One pupil, whose uncle was a butcher, took photographs of animal hearts, interviewed her uncle about them and offered her research to the class. A couple of pupils who had dogs, researched whether dogs could have a heart attack. This question had arisen in the class discussion about what questions they had about the working of the heart. Pupils who knew somebody who had had a heart attack, and a couple who had had pacemakers, found out about heart disease and shared it with the class. One pupil spent the whole of his weekend making an infographic about the healthy heart, which became the centrepiece for a display designed and installed by the class during break times. This teacher found, as others have, that the set curriculum content was covered in less time than in earlier teacher-led modules.
Hidden skills and knowledge are revealed
When pupils are involved in making decisions about what they want to learn as a class and how they might learn it, they tend to set tasks at an optimal level of challenge – something every teacher aspires to! This is because pupils want to use the skills and knowledge they have to the full, and feel less shame in struggling with a task they have set themselves than one set for them. Pupils will suggest and agree to challenges for the group that frequently surprise their teachers. Once pupils see that their ideas are valued, and that they can make an input into decisions that affect them, they want to offer more of themselves into their learning communities, not less.
So, where to start?
Whilst it is preferable for to decision-making to be taken on part of the whole school culture, every teacher can find even small ways to start sharing decision-making with their pupils.
- Pause during a lesson, and invite pupils to tell you what you could do or change right now that would make the lesson better for them.
- Start to make a list of those decisions you make on behalf of your pupils and discuss which decisions they would like to be more involved with making.
- Ask your pupils which aspects of the classroom or lessons they would like more of a say in.
- Begin to negotiate aspects of the curriculum with your pupils, Share an outline of the curriculum plan/ exam syllabus, find out what they already know, and what they are interested in learning about.
- Ask pupils which community issues they feel need tackling in the school or classroom (maybe they are bothered by playground conflict, muddy stairways, or attendance) and invite them to form a social action group to tackle the issues.
A whole-school approach
Time and again, individual teachers who are using collaborative decision-making with their pupils find themselves at odds with the school culture. For this approach to work, senior leaders need to first give a voice to teachers, teaching assistants and other staff members. Heads and managers can follow a similar route to that suggested above for teachers. Start by asking staff what they would like more of a say in, and go from there. Check which decisions impacting on staff have been made collaboratively? One headteacher had a post-it above her computer to remind her to involve those most affected in decisions she was faced with. The note contained two short words: ‘Who else?’
So, the next time you are asked to decide on curriculum, resources, activities, budget, time-allocation or responses to behaviour, why not ask, ‘Who else?’