User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Freedom of Speech: If Not at School, Where?

leave a comment »


I was teaching a Psychology of Adjustment course to undergraduates.  Most of them were 18 and 19 years old.  It was a college in Georgia with a class demographic of about 2/3 who were White and 1/3 Black.  We got to the section on cultural diversity awareness.  Because it was the South, we began our discussion about racial differences.  At one point during the discussion, an attractive, blond, former high school quarterback said, “America is a free country.  I have the right not to live next to any Blacks if I choose.”  I contained my gasp, horror, and anger.  I believe in freedom of speech in my classes even those that are vastly different from my own.  So I bit my tongue and attempted to take a neutral stance.  Even though his opinion nauseated me, it was his opinion.  He made no threatening nor overtly derrogatory comments.

Fast forward one class session, I did the “White Privilege” activity with the students.  It contains a series of statements such as, “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed” and “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.”  As I read each statement, I started with “You may sit down if this applies to you.”  Not surprisingly by the end of the activity, two Black young women remained standing.  I simply asked, “How does it feel to be still standing?”  One of the beautiful (both physically and from within) women began her articulate, passionate response with contained tears in her eyes, saying things such as,  “You cannot know what it is like to walk into a store with your friends and be closely followed by a White clerk the whole time.  You cannot know what it is like to be walking down the street in broad daylight, step off of a curb, and witness the White driver overtly slam down the lock of his car door.”

I told this story to a colleague.  She said maybe the young man heard the voice and the story of a Black person, who he got to personally know through the class, for the first time in his life.  Maybe he might has changed his prejudicial views just a bit.  So did my neutral, accepting responses to both these students permit them to express their honest perspectives possibly resulting in some attitudinal change?  I cannot be sure, but hope so.

Given the way the US politicians communicate regarding the country’s issues, they could have benefited from learning how to communicate, listen, debate, and compromise over diverse issues and ideas.  So I ask and try to address in this post, “If students aren’t learning how to do freedom of speech in school, where will they learn it?

Topics covered in this post include:

  • A Rationale for Learner Voice in School
  • The Role of the Teacher
  • Suggestions for Establishing and Encouraging Student Voice
  • Learning Voice in Online Environments
  • Socratic Seminars for Learning Civil Debate and Discourse

A Rationale for Learner Voice in School

Schools in the United States (as well as in many other countries) propose that a major purpose of education in learning and engaging in principles related to democracy.

In 1916 Dewey wrote extensively about the necessity of engaging student experience and perspectives in the curriculum of schools, summarizing his support by saying,:

The essence of the demand for freedom is the need of conditions which will enable an individual to make his own special contribution to a group interest, and to partake of its activities in such ways that social guidance shall be a matter of his own mental attitude, and not a mere authoritative dictation of his acts.

To do so, school personnel need to be intentional in promoting and living the ideals of democracy.

Schools should endeavor to be relevant and inclusive of students’ daily lives. Educators and students alike benefit when schools open dialogue on contemporary issues of race and justice. To do this, schools should be deliberative in broaching difficult issues with students, in age-appropriate ways. They should focus on opening up discussions to multiple points of view.

The benefits to the learner as well to the entire school culture cannot be understated:

In its simplest form, voice is characterized by the ability to speak one’s opinions and ideas. However, simple should not be mistaken for trivial. In fact, the act of empowering a young person to express her opinions and ideas is powerful. When students are consistently encouraged to ask questions, wonder aloud, and offer opinions, they develop an ability to see the world as endlessly full of options and a place where they can confidently approach problems and seek out solutions.

But as McDonnell, Timpane, and Benjamin state in Rediscovering the Democratic Purposes of Education 

Public schools were envisioned by the Founders as democratically run institutions for instilling civic values, but today’s education system seems more concerned with producing good employees than good citizens. Meanwhile, our country’s diversity has eroded consensus about citizenship, and the professionalization of educators has diminished public involvement in schools.

The rest of this post proposes some concrete actions, ideas, and activities for making the learning environment a place for freedom of speech.

The Role of the Educator

First and foremost, the educator has to believe that student voice and discourse, regardless of the age of the students, has a place in the learning environment.  Voice does not translate into students shouting out answers to content-related questions posed by the educator.   As Catherine Cronin noted:

But what do we mean by student voice? The term tends to signify a set of values and behaviors which includes Sound (the act of speaking), Participation (student presence and involvement), and Power or Agency (see Cook-Sather, 2006). Making space for student voices confronts the power dynamics within schools, classrooms, and the relationships between teachers and students. Without addressing the notion of power in these relationships, student voice initiatives may be simply window dressing. When we truly value and create spaces for student voices, students feel respected and engaged, teachers listen, and students and teachers learn from one another.

The role of the educator also means establishing a safe space for student voice (specific suggestions are discussed in the next section).  Of special note, though, is the attitude and perspective of the educator.  It is my belief that the educator needs to convey an attitude of acceptance even of those perspectives different than her-or herself.  It is taking a neutral stance but permitting learners to voice whatever thoughts and opinions they value.  As such, I do not believe the educator should express personal values and beliefs related to religion, politics, and similar value-laden topics.  The educator in promoting freedom of speech and democratic values understands the power differential between him-herself and the learners, that expressing such opinions may shut down students whose values are different than him-herself.

Suggestions for Establishing and Encouraging Learner Voice

The bottom line for establishing and encouraging student voice is creating a safe environment of acceptance and that all voices are important and will be heard.   Soundout: Student Voice in School recommends the following:

  • Encourage mutual accountability between students and adults.
  • Engage student voice in as many topics as possible, and don’t ignore it regarding others.
  • Create ongoing opportunities to listen to student voice and engage students as partners.
  • Encourage building-level and classroom-level student voice activities.
  • Encourage different students to participate across education activities.
  • Create “safe spaces” where students can share student voice.
  • Engage adults and students as full partners in taking action on student voice.

Additional Suggestions are offered in Chalkface:

  • Be aware of power imbalance between teachers and students. Offer choice to share voices in ways that suit their culture and preferences.
  • Students are aware if their voices won’t make a difference – how will it be used as evidence for change? How much are we using it to reinforce trends, compliance, and productivity?
  • To do student voice using different structure takes time and care to bring about change, and to challenge existing discourses and structures.

Learner Voice in Online Environments

A discussion during the recent Reclaim Open Learning Conference began around the following comment/question related to posting ideas and opinions online:

How can we post our “information without signature” . . . how do we create safe classrooms sharing where students opinions aren’t recorded?

For me, the larger discussion is not necessarily about “recording” voices in the online forum as any comments made online is virtually recorded.  Strategies for creating a place for learner voice include, first, creating a safe online space to do so, and second, creating platforms where elements of privacy and anonymity can be afforded.

Catlin Tucker, in Creating and Maintaining a Safe Space Online, stated:

To be effective, an online learning platform must be a safe space where students feel their voices will be respected, supported and heard. Establishing clear guidelines for online interactions is a critical step in creating an online forum that will be successful long term.

The strategies she proposed for creating and maintaining a safe space include:

  • Read questions and conversational postings carefully to avoid unnecessary confusion.
  • Compliment your peers when they post strong responses or contribute original ideas.
  • Ask questions. If anything is unclear or you want further information or insight on a topic, just ask. If you have a question, there are probably other members of the group who are confused and need further clarification as well. Remember: There is no such thing as a dumb question!
  • Be considerate. Remember that your peers cannot see your body language or hear your tone of voice, so you need to keep your language direct and respectful.
  • Avoid slang, jargon, and sarcasm. Some slang or jargon terms may be familiar to you, but not to others. Sarcasm is negative and can lead to rifts in what is meant to be a comfortable, safe online forum.
  • Listen to all ideas presented. Remember there is no right or wrong in a discussion. A variety of perspectives adds depth.
  • Stay open minded. If you expect others to respect and consider your comments and ideas, you must do the same for their comments and ideas.
  • Respond instead of reacting. Do not write a response if you are angry or upset. Instead, wait until you have had time to calm down and collect your thoughts.
  • Really read your peers responses. Avoid skimming. Respect the time your peers have spent articulating their thoughts by reading carefully and thoughtfully.
  • Reread your messages before sending them to ensure that your ideas are clearly communicated and supported.
  • Critique the content, not the person.
  • Do not present your personal opinions as fact. Back up your ideas with information to strengthen your statements.
  • Make I statements when respectfully disagreeing. Sharing an opposing opinion or idea is an important part of discussion, but it needs to be presented in constructive manner that encourages further discussion.
  • Do not use all caps when writing. It is interpreted as yelling.
  • Avoid emotional punctuation, like exclamation points, unless you are complimenting an idea shared.

The conversation of posting information without signature also had me rethinking about open content.  I practice and promote using open platforms.  As such, I keep my blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account open and public.  But I am an adult, understand consequences, and as such, am quite intentional about what I post online.  I promote having students use public sites to create a positive digital footprint.  But now I see value in using closed and private platforms to discuss more controversial issues.  Closed Google Docs, Padlets, Todaysmeet, Primary Pads, or Blogging Platforms can be established for learners to discuss more controversial issues.  They can (should) be given the option to use a pseudonym.  Added to the list that Catlin provided would be a promise of confidentiality – that what is said in the online forum stays in that forum.  Also, the educator can commit to and insure that the forum is deleted after a given amount of time.  It then becomes a form of Snapchat for education.

Socratic Seminars for Learning Civil Debate and Discourse

The Socratic Seminar is a more formalized instructional strategy that can assist learners in developing skills for intellectual and civil debate, giving them a voice in a structured environment, using rationale debate techniques to do so.

The Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions.  Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.  They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly.

To learn more about the specifics of running a Socratic Seminar, see Scholastic’s Higher Order Comprehension: The Power of Socratic Seminar and Hubpages’ Socratic Seminar Guidelines: A Practical Guide

Socratic Seminars in Online Learning Environments

This post is also concerned with how to have a voice, develop civil discourse skills in online environments.  Several technologies, including mobile learning apps, can be used to facilitate Socratic Seminars.  These include Edmodo, Socrative, and  For specific uses and examples, see:

So I’ve offered lists of suggestions and suggestions, but the bottom line is twofold. First, a purpose of education, regardless of whether it is online or face-to-face, is to assist learners in developing civics education through respectful and genuine discourse, and second, it is the educator’s responsibility to develop and maintain a community and environment where it is safe for learner voice.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

September 29, 2013 at 11:45 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: