This is an exciting time for Ontario’s education system: this past year, we have been observing the development of numerous initiatives by the Ministry of Education, as well as several school boards, to increase student engagement, equity, and well-being.

However, these transformations have largely been initiated, and are currently being implemented, in a hierarchical manner. Most of the time, evaluation within our education system fails to meaningfully capture student feedback and decision-making fails to meaningfully include a diversity of students. This hierarchy is also present in how decisions around learning are made within our classrooms: teachers are seen as the providers of knowledge and students are treated as passive consumers of education.

In other words, student voice is not systematically integrated within our education system. We, the Toronto Youth Cabinet, believe that we need to fundamentally transform the roles of students and adults in our classrooms and schools. We imagine classrooms and schools where students are drivers of their learning, teachers are facilitators of learning, and students and adults make decisions about learning and education as equal partners.

Though we are striving to improve our system, we fail to recognize how the education system fundamentally suppresses the freedom, agency, knowledge, passion, inquiry, and creativity of young people. Students lack the ability to significantly impact what they learn, how they learn, how they are assessed, as well as the challenges in their school and their school community. We do not recognize how lack of student voice is a systemic cause of disengagement and reduced achievement, feelings of powerlessness, reduced well-being, and reduced democratic participation within society. Alison Cook-Sather’s research shows that when students are denied formal power in the classroom and in school at large, students will disengage from their learning. Student voice is the key factor that will transformatively increase engagement, and empower students as shapers of their lives, their learning, and the world around them.

Most opportunities for student voice are given to students who are in leadership positions, such as Student Councils, Student Senates and Student Trustees. The TYC recognizes the work doing by these groups, however, many students within the TYC express not feeling consulted by these groups. Oftentimes, these students come from more privileged backgrounds, and students who are marginalized or disengaged have limited opportunities to be involved in decision-making. Unfortunately, students who are called on to represent the student voice are tokenized representatives of the diversity present within our student bodies.

Today, the TYC Education Group is launching Students of Toronto: a campaign to call for increased integration of student voice within classrooms and schools. We recommend that the Ministry of Education, the Toronto District School Board, and the Toronto Catholic District School Board to develop a systems-level student voice strategy that includes professional development for staff on enabling student voice in classrooms, implementing dialogue-based school and classroom student feedback systems, and targeted consultations with marginalized (including Black and Indigenous students) and disengaged students. We urge decision-makers to consider the perspectives of leaders of educational philosophy, including Paulo Freire and John Dewey, as well as recommendations from Ontario’s very own Hall-Dennis Report in 1965 and Report of the Royal Commission on Learning in 1995. To this day, key recommendations of these reports that advocated for student voice were not implemented.

We reached out to all TDSB high schools, all TCDSB high schools, and numerous community youth organizations, and with those interested in this campaign, will be running student focus groups and launching a portrait series. Students will discuss not only the challenges in the education system that they are most concerned about, but also in what ways they would like to be involved in shaping their classroom learning and their schools. Within a few months, we will be releasing a final report compiling the student feedback received from our campaign.

Over the next few months, look out for our #StudentsofToronto focus group and portrait posts on social media, as well as our final report! If you work with high school students and are interested in hosting a focus group, please do not hesitate to reach out to Naima Raza, Education Lead, at naima@thetyc.ca. The TYC will also host a “Youth Talks Education” dialogue open to all high-school aged students in early February. Stay tuned for more information!

Naima Raza                           Edna Ali                                                                                        Education Lead                     Executive Director

Created by City Council in 1998, the Toronto Youth Cabinet is a youth-led advocacy organization and the official youth advisory body of City of Toronto. Through outreach, engagement and training, the TYC provides a  critical gathering place for diverse young people interested in making change within a municipal governance context.