McLaren on Student Voice

In the welter of accountability schemes, management pedagogies, and rationalized curricula now flooding the schools, there is an ominous silence regarding how teachers and students produce and reconstruct meaning in everyday life. In the attempts to rationalize and streamline classroom pedagogy, the New Right is promoting curriculum approaches that remove both the teacher and the student from the center of action. The categories that students themselves use to make sense of the world, to understand why they act in a particular way, or why they resist in the face of dominating practices, appear superfluous to the champions of the new high-tech accountability schemes.

I would argue … that a critical and affirming pedagogy has to be constructed around the stories that people tell, the ways in which students and teachers author meaning, and the possibilities that underlie the experiences shape their voices. It is around the concept of voice that a theory of both teaching learning can take place, one that points to new forms of social relations and to new challenging ways of confronting everyday life.

Giroux’s concept of voice refers to the multifaceted and interlocking set of meanings through which students and teachers actively engage in dialogue with one another. Voice is an important pedagogical concept because it alerts teachers to the fact that all discourse is situated historically and mediated culturally and derives part of its meaning from interaction with others. Although the term voice may refer to an internalized, private discourse, such a discourse cannot be understood without situating it in a universe of shared meanings, that is, in the symbols, narratives, and social practices of community or culture in which the dialogue is taking place. The term voice refers to the cultural grammar and background knowledge that individuals use to interpret and articulate experience.

Individual voice must be understood within its cultural and historical specificity. How students, teachers, and others define themselves and name experience is a central pedagogical concern because it helps educators understand how classroom meaning is produced, legitimated, or delegitimated. This is not merely a technical concern but more importantly a moral and political consideration that must provide the basis for any critical pedagogy, especially a pedagogy that is attentive to the dialectic of power and meaning as it is shaped within capitalist social relations of production. In many cases, schools do not allow students from disadvantaged or subordinate groups to affirm their own individual and collective voices, yet teachers rarely understand how this happens.

A student’s voice is not a reflection of the world as much as it is a constitutive force that both mediates and shapes reality within historically constructed practices and relationships shaped by the rule of capital. Each individual voice is shaped by its owner’s particular cultural history and prior experience but exercised within capitalist social relations of production that help to populate student voice with meanings not of the student’s own making. Voice, then, suggests the means that students have at their disposal to make themselves “heard” and to define themselves as active participants in the world. Exhibiting an individual “voice” means, to cite Bakhtin, “retelling a text in one’s own words,” with words produced in contexts undetermined by the students and embedded in social relations outside of students’ immediate control.

The dominant school culture generally represents the privileged voices of the white middle and upper classes. In order for teachers to demystify and make the dominant school culture an object of political analysis, they need to question those voices that emerge from different ideological spheres or settings, such as the school voice the teacher voice.

Each of these voices works simultaneously to produce specific pedagogical experiences within different configurations of power. Teachers must analyze the interests these different voices represent less as oppositional in the sense that they work to counter and disable each other than as an interplay of dominant and subordinate practices that shape each other in an ongoing struggle over power, meaning, and authorship.

To “learn the discourse of school voice,” teachers must analyze the directives, imperatives, and rules that shape particular configurations of time, space, and curricula within the institutional and political settings of schools. The concept of school voice, for example, helps to illuminate particular ideologies that structure how classrooms are arranged, what content is taught, and what general social practices teachers are required to follow. More often than not, school voice represents what Bakhtin refers to as “authoritative discourse”—that which permits little or no flexibility within the context that frames it.

Teacher voice reflects the values, ideologies, and structuring principles that teachers use to understand and mediate the histories, cultures, and subjectivities of their students. For instance, teachers often use the voice of “common sense” to frame their classroom instruction and daily pedagogical activities. As in the case of school voice, teacher voice partakes of an authoritative discourse that frequently silences the voices of the students. On the one hand, the oppressive power of a teacher’s authoritative voice can be seen in instances of what Bourdieu refers to as symbolic violence. Symbolic violence is exercised when, for instance, a teacher draws his or her values narrowly in order to challenge and disconfirm the experiences and beliefs of students from subordinate groups. On the other hand, the emancipatory power of a teacher’s authoritative voice is exercised when a student’s voice is allowed to assert itself so as to be both confirmed and analyzed, in terms of the particular values and ideologies that it represents. In the latter instance, the teacher’s voice can provide a critical context within which students can understand the various social forces and configurations of power that have helped give shape to their own voices. Students who exhibit the values and everyday practices of subordinate groups can learn to free themselves from the authoritative hold of middle-class discourse as a means to self-empowerment, without rejecting either their own working-class discourse or, for that matter, middle-class discourse.

It is often through the mediation of teacher voice that the very nature of the schooling process is either sustained or challenged. The power of teacher voice to shape schooling according to the logic of emancipatory interests is inextricably related not only to a high degree of self-understanding, but also to the possibility for teachers to join together in a collective voice as part of a social movement dedicated to restructuring the ideological and material conditions both within and outside of schooling. Thus, we must understand the concept of teacher voice in terms of its own values, as well as in relation to the ways it functions to shape and mediate school and student voices.

The concept of voice acknowledges the political and pedagogical processes at work in the construction of forms of authorship within different institutional and social spheres. Moreover, it represents an attack on the unjust practices that are actively at work in the wider capitalist society. But most important, such a pedagogy begins with the assumption that the stories that schools, teachers, and students construct can form the basis for a variety of approaches to teaching and learning in which hope and power and class struggle play integral roles. …

This brings us to the action dimension of critical literacy—what Ramin Farahmandpur and I refer to us praxis-oriented pedagogy … . Praxis-oriented pedagogy bridges the gap between critical knowledge and social practice. This involves bringing theory into the streets. It includes organizing and mobilizing students, parents, and teachers at the community level, and linking their struggles to larger national and international struggles.

Given the pivotal role that critical literacy can play in the warp and weft of the daily lives of students, a question that many social justice educators raise has to do with the concrete applications of critical literacy in their classrooms. For example, as Ramin Farahmandpur and I have argued, social justice educators can incorporate economic literacy as part of teaching critical literacy. A useful resource guide in teaching economic literacy is Rick Ayers’ Studs Terkels Working: A Teaching Guide (2001) used in conjunction with Studs Terkel’s nationally acclaimed book, Working (1972). Terkel’s book is an ethnographic account of the lives of working men and women. In his book, Terkel interviews workers about job security, workplace safety, economic opportunity, and whether or not they find personal fulfillment and meaning in the work they perform.

Following the ideas developed by Terkel, teachers can direct students in interviewing family members, friends, and people who make up their local neighborhood. Students investigate not only the types of jobs that exist in their community, but also the workplace conditions that exist, including terms of employment, salary ranges, and medical and dental benefits. Students can communicate through the internet with other students undertaking similar projects who live in neighborhoods with widely divergent socioeconomic conditions. They can then link job conditions to related socio-political issues affecting their communities. In Los Angeles they might include complications arising from anti-immigrant government initiatives; racial profiling by the police; the treatment of the homeless; slave labor in sweatshops; and the political education of undocumented immigrants. These conditions can then be traced to economic initiatives put forward by both Democrats and Republicans at both state and federal levels. Students can then analyze these initiatives in the light of competing economic philosophies (i.e., socialist, green, reform). Students can also interview the “owners” as well as the “producers” of the various businesses that exist in their neighborhoods and raise issues that affect people’s working and non-working lives.

This activity and variations thereof can encourage students to link local issues with the wider arena of social life. Students will most likely raise a number of critical questions: Why is there a shortage of community centers in some neighborhoods and not in others? How can public transportation be made more accessible? Why is there a large police presence in some communities for the purpose of repression and other, more benign forms of police presence in the gated communities for the purpose of protection? Why is there a larger concentration of liquor stores in African-American communities and virtually none in other communities populated by white and middle-class residents?

Here, classroom teaching can be a dialectical approach to knowledge. Comments by Dunayevskaya help underscore such an approach when she writes:

As Marx put it in his Theses on Feuerbach: “The educators themselves must be educated.” This requires that (1) some of the lectures be given “from below,” not only to give the students “experience,” but so that the teachers can learn; and (2) where possible, at least one of the lectures (say on the class struggle), be made “in the field” either by a tour of a factory or visit to a picket line. (There is sure to be one somewhere if eyes and ears are turned to the production line.) As for learning from students, it is not only a question of the dialectical principle Hegel articulated, that “Error is a dynamic of truth,” but also a fact that even when a student commits errors, the teacher can discern where his or her presentation failed to communicate; failure to project an idea is every bit as wrong as failure to “know.”

… Preparing students for critical citizenship through critical literacy deepens the roots of democracy by encouraging students actively to participate in public discourses and debates over social, economic, and political issues that affect everyday life in their own and neighboring communities. In this way, students can acquire the pedagogical courage and moral responsibility to participate in democratic life as critical social agents, transforming themselves into authors of their own histories rather than being written off as the passive victims of history.


McLaren, Peter. 2007. Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy. Boston: Pearson Education, pp.243-245, 51-53. || Amazon || WorldCat


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