This article describes my doctoral research into shared decision-making in the classroom and offers hope and encouragement to teachers and school leaders who seek greater collaboration with their pupils.
In my mid-fifties, having worked as an Educational Psychologist for over 30 years, I decided that I needed to find a way to reinvigorate my professional life and give myself a leg-up for the next twenty years of my working life. That leg-up was a Doctorate in Education from The UCL Institute of Education. I knew that I wanted my doctoral thesis to be on pupil agency in the school and classroom, and I was fortunate to have a supervisor who was an eminent researcher in psychology and human behaviour and who had little prior involvement in pupil voice research. The advantage of his being new to this field was that it forced me to explain to him exactly what was going on in progressive and democratic classrooms that could be studied and analysed. It took me several preliminary research studies to realise that the practice at the centre of these classrooms was something I named ‘collaborative decision-making’ (CDM). CDM happens when teachers make classroom decisions with, rather than for, their pupils. These decisions can be about anything in the classroom that affects the pupils: curriculum, management of time resources, pedagogy, conduct, social relationships, and the classroom itself.
For my thesis I studied three teachers in state schools who were sometimes sharing classroom decision-making with their pupils. Very little research had been carried out on the teacher perception of pupil voice, and that which was available was mainly asking them about the impact on pupils, rather than on themselves.
Through my research I wanted to find out:
Over fifteen months, I combined a series of in-depth interviews interspersed with classroom visits to look at shared decision-making from the teachers’ point of view.
As the interviews progressed, my decision to focus on the experience of teachers was reinforced. Participants’ stories were rich in detail and emotion, and their accounts of classroom life reaffirmed my belief that any collaboration between teachers and pupils can only take place if teachers allow it to happen. Therefore an understanding of teacher-perspective was vital for CDM to thrive in classrooms.
The beauty of my research was hearing from teachers how their pupils’ learning came to life when they were involved in the design of curriculum, lessons and classroom governance, even when these opportunities were sporadically given.
One of my participants asked the whole class to support him while he supported a pupil whose behaviour had previously led to him being taught outside the classroom. They agreed, and over the weeks that followed, that pupil became a full and contributing member of the class community. That same teacher recognised that some children were in need of teacher input to develop their civic decision-making skills or the confidence to use them, and put plans in place to support them in this. He recognised that CDM is an important skill for family, work and community life, and told me that if he had not introduced CDM into the classroom, he would never have identified those who needed his help to develop this valuable skill. He also recognised that CDM was a crucial experience for all pupils but especially for those from less privileged backgrounds – a finding supported by the research in this field.
Another participant said that using CDM with his pupils helped him to know when he had overestimated or underestimated their abilities; only by involving them in planning, would children be working at the most effective levels of challenge.
There was already a body of research evidence to support the idea that pupils thrive when they have a say in what happens in their classrooms. My participants’ accounts confirmed that CDM was not only good for children, it was also good for teachers!
None of my participants had been trained in CDM, nor had it ever been suggested to them that they teach in this way. They described how it just felt the right thing to do, and how sharing decision-making with pupils felt much more natural than deciding everything for them. As one participant said, ‘It’s their school…it’s their time.’ They had all experienced for themselves the positive response of pupils to CDM and that the role that teachers have when they share some of the decision-making power with pupils allows them to be their authentic selves in the classroom. For one participant, it was the best way for the class ethos to become more inclusive, and enabling previously disengaged pupils to become full members of the class community. For another, it was a way of enabling previously quiet pupils to feel they had something to say, and to help everyone feel responsible for making the classroom the best place for learning.
One of the conclusions of my thesis was that many aspects of the conventional school culture can actively discourage CDM. Examples include: behaviour policies that use external control; the emphasis on individual attainment; and a lack of teacher voice and agency over their own work. I also concluded that teachers need role models and also a theoretical framework to explain how CDM impacts on learning, mental health and social relationships.
As a way of addressing these conclusions, I wrote my book. The title, It’s Our School, It’s Our Time, is an adaptation of the interview quote, reflecting that CDM is not about giving away power and decision-making to pupils, but a sharing of power. I also wanted the title to illustrate that school staff also need a voice, and that the first step in developing a collaborative school culture begins with senior leaders sharing decision-making with staff.
The book is full of stories and accounts of and about teachers who have used CDM with their pupils, across all age ranges and, with a couple of exceptions, in state schools. Having worked with staff, pupils and parents in over a hundred schools, I am very aware of the practicalities and demands of school life and the book not only acknowledges the barriers to collaboration, but describes how teachers and school leaders have dealt with these. When I told my sister-in-law, who is not a teacher, what my thesis was about, she said, ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but CDM is not exactly rocket science, why aren’t they all doing it?’ I had to admit that before I carried out my research I had similar thoughts. My book is a book of hope and encouragement, for 6 important reasons:
I learnt from my research that children welcome any opportunity to take part in classroom decision-making, however small. Your school may not yet be ready to review the school culture, but you can start small forays into CDM to see for yourself how your pupils respond.
One of the ways that my participants used CDM was to problem-solve a situation which they were themselves finding stressful, for example playground fighting and squabbling that carries over into lessons, or mess and noise in the classroom. Their responses tended to follow a similar pattern. The teacher would:
My participants found that once they got into the habit of sharing problems with those most affected – their pupils – relationships with and between pupils improved, they were less stressed, and children learnt how to solve community problems together. One teacher told me recently that she had been worrying about the difficulty of homework she was setting, only to find that the pupils had many ideas for ways to overcome this conundrum, and she wished she had asked them earlier.
Most of the barriers to CDM stem from a culture of competition and control, and once that is recognised, a school can make the decision to change that culture. Children and teachers who have known only such a culture need to be involved in creating the new collaborative culture. The reason for hope is that the people who are going to be at the heart of that change are already right in front of you. The encouragement comes from the stories and accounts of those teachers who have already overcome some of those barriers.
The teachers I have written about all had the courage of their convictions and a strong belief in the abilities of children and young people. They did not always get it right, but found that collaboration with pupils produced results that were new, exciting and untapped the potential of pupils that would otherwise have remained dormant. If you have been reading this and thinking, ‘We are doing some of this already, but I’d like to develop it more’ or maybe, ‘I think this is interesting but don’t really know if it’s for me/our school’ please do give me a call and we can have a chat (no charge). I would just love to support any of you to try CDM out with your pupils – or staff, if you are a manager or leader. Although my book and this article use educational settings as the examples for CDM, I am also happy to talk to people who work in sectors other than education who are interested in greater collaboration in the workplace or community.
Dr Geraldine Rowe has a background in Organisational Psychology and over thirty years’ experience as an Educational Psychologist in several Local Authorities. The author of It’s Our School, It’s Our Time: a companion guide to whole-school collaborative decision-making, published in 2021 by Routledge, Geraldine now works with anyone who wishes to develop a more collaborative culture in their organisation. She can be contacted via her website pupilparticipation.co.uk, or on 07831 770346.