Divergence and Convergence, Educating with Integrity: Proceedings of the 7th Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May. 10 - 11, 2008. Kyoto, Japan: Doshisha University Shinmachi Campus. (pp. 1 - 7)

The collaborative wisdom of student voice

by Tim Murphey (Kanda University of International Studies)

This paper explains how listening to what students say works and doesn't work in their own English education can be of great value not only to educators, but also to students themselves. Though seldom elicited, research in many countries and contexts is showing the value and validity of student voice in educational decision-making. Local Japanese based research about what students say about their English schooling in JHS and HS and how that might impact our teaching in universities is reviewed here. Then I describe ways that teachers can become more aware of student voice and elicit it further in their daily practices and research. Finally, I look briefly at a “wish-list” of more student involvement in an improved Japanese educational system.

Value and Validity of Student Views Internationally

Student voice in general education has been the subject of many recent publications that “underscore the importance of understanding the experiences of students in and out of school in their own terms and finding ways to engage students in their own development and in the improvement of the strategies and structures that shape the possibilities of schooling” (Thiessen 2006, p. 346).
Research in general education internationally shows increasing student voice improves education in four areas:
  1. Student learning
  2. Rapport with teachers
  3. Efficiency of institutions and programs
  4. Making students more active citizens later in life
    (see References, especially Fletcher, N.D.)
Thus, eliciting the voices of students not only democratizes education, in Dewey's sense of experiential education, but it also provides educators with suggestions for change. Mostly ignored by experts, using information from the “horse's mouth” is both sensible and recommended. In The Wisdom of the Crowds (2004) Surowiecki writes of how very often, against our intuition, the averages from crowds of people guessing and giving their opinions can be much wiser than any small homogeneous group of experts.
". . . the averages from crowds of people guessing and giving their opinions can be much wiser than any small homogeneous group of experts."

Through asking a large group of students what works and does not work in their classes and getting information about the majority trends, we benefit from the wisdom of the crowds. Furthermore, these students are indeed the ones who have had the greatest number of teachers and observed the greatest number of classes. Any one teacher may have seen at most a few other teachers in a few other classes. In England (Halsey, Murfield, Harland, & Lord, 2006), Australia (Student Voice, 2007), and America (Harvard Family Research Project, 2002) researchers have been confirming again and again the advantages of student voices being heard by teachers, researchers, educational planners, and themselves.
In economics, the term "prosumer" was created to refer to the growing desire of consumers to produce many of the things they wish to consume (Tapscott & Williams, 2006). “Custom-made” is becoming truly "customer-made". This can be seen from “do-it-yourself” home remodeling stores to personal web pages and blogging. In education, it is time that we let students contribute more to the design and delivery of their own education. Again, principally because they know more about their needs and desires than we do and how they wish to learn, consulting them has been shown to increase their own autonomy and agency in their lives.

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While “in the educational literature, thousands of research papers have focused on the value and nature of student evaluations of teaching” (Moore & Nuol, 2005, p. 141) sometimes positively and sometimes negatively, the majority of these have dealt with students evaluations of teaching immediately after a course and usually in university contexts. Please note that the two studies below are not in this genre. In these studies with Japanese university students, we are asking about their evaluations of six years of English education in JHS and HS, not courses that they have just had. In addition to this, many of these students have had very different types of English instruction in their university years to which they can compare and contrast their JHS and HS English classes. Thus, we are asking for these “consumers” to evaluate the effectiveness of a six-year long system of education and whether it met their needs or not – these are not evaluations of single classes. While we do acknowledge that JHS and HS teachers and administrators also definitely have valid views of what is needed in their educational contexts (which are more often than not ignored by decision makers), we find it absurd that the primary clients, the students, have mostly been overlooked in this regard.

Student Voices in EFL

In SLA research, many are presently questioning the acquisition metaphor and seeing advantages to looking at the participation in socialization metaphor, recalling Watson-Gegeo's off cited phrase that, “The substitution of socialization for acquisition places language learning within the more comprehensive domain of socialization, the lifelong process through which individuals are initiated into cultural meanings and learn to perform the skills, tasks, roles, and identities expected by whatever society or societies they may live in” (1988, p. 582). When students invest (Norton, 2001) in socializing in order to participate in a group, they end up identifying themselves as users of the language and creating identities that support them in these endeavors. Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), when it is interpreted as student-centered and action-based (van Lier, 2007), has also clearly directed teachers in this direction. Students are expected to be active participants in their learning. Indeed, with Swain's output hypothesis and later collaborative dialogue (2005), we see that unless we actually use the language and produce it, that we are not learning as much as we might. Critical pedagogy goes one step further asking not only that students use the language they are learning, but that they use it proactively to better their learning conditions and society.
". . . if we can allow students more voice in their education that they will be engaged and learn more, not only about the subject matter, but about being engaged citizens in society."

While in ESL, critical pedagogy and participatory education has been paying some attention to student voice, in EFL we find it greatly lacking. We need more studies like Berlin (2001-2002) that look closely at what students are saying about their education in general. We need more student and school ethnographies like those of Day (2002), Norton-Peirce (1995), and Kanno (2003) that bring student-processes of identification, alienation, and participation to our attention. Participatory education (Campbell & Barnaby, 2001) holds that if we can allow students more voice in their education that they will be engaged and learn more, not only about the subject matter, but about being engaged citizens in society.

Local Research Accessing Student Voice: Japanese University Students' Evaluations of Secondary English Education

Falout et al. (2008) is a larger replication study mirroring Murphey (2002) in which students were asked to write open-ended letters of advice to JHS and HS teachers (Below we give a brief sketch of the main findings of these two articles, for more details please go to Falout et al. 2008 at http://jalt-publications.org/archive/proceedings/2007/E136.pdf). In both studies, comments were grouped into categories of positive and negative experiences in secondary education, plus a “wants” category. The results showed a large proportion of the comments to be negative toward experiences in EFL classrooms, particularly toward the heavy focus on grammar in HS. The letters strongly requested “more practical, interactive, and communicative pedagogy” (p. 2). Falout et al. (2008) was comprised of more participants from a wider demographic background (see Table 1) but came out with much the same results.

Table 1. Comparison of administrations of the original and present studies on student voice
Murphey, 2002 Falout, et al. 2008
Administered Fall 2000 Administered Spring 2007
1 university 4 universities
Aichi Prefecture (central Japan) Greater Tokyo Area
100 participants 440 participants
1 yr. students only 1st. - 4th yr. students
English majors 20 majors
83% female 44% female

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The participants from the original study (Murphey, 2002) were educated under the 1994 Course of Study, while most of the participants in the present study came from the 2002 Course of Study with its more explicit focus on CLT. Nevertheless, as results show below, not much has changed from the students' point of view. (For more details of the study please see Falout et al., 2008)


Despite learning under different Course of Study guidelines, students in both studies wrote fewer positive comments and more negative statements from JHS to HS, and both groups voiced a “plea for more practical, interactive, and communicative pedagogy” (Murphey, 2002, p. 2) (see Table 2).

Table 2. Comparison of results of the original and present studies on student voice
Murphey (2002*) Falout et al. (2007*)
Decrease in the number of positive comments (14 to 2) and increase in negatives (19 to 36) from JHS to HS Decrease in the number of positive comments (618 to 402) and increase in negatives (399 to 487) from JHS to HS
More negative (55) than positive (16) comments More positive (1,020) than negative (886) comments
Top overall positive: Enjoyable activities (games, songs) Top overall positive: Communication
Top overall negative: Grammar Top overall negative: Teachers (Japanese)
Top overall request: more communication Top overall request: more communication
* Data for Murphey (2002) were collected in 2000 and for Falout et al. (2008) in 2007.

The three most common positive items in JHS were chances to communicate (particularly with peers), general enjoyment in their classes, and the opportunity to communicate with an assistant language teacher (ALT) who is a native speaker. The top three positive comments in HS dealt with grammar, communication, and teacher, particularly referring to the personality of the teacher or the ability to present the material in an interesting way
The top three common negative comments in both JHS and HS were teachers, grammar-translation, and lack of oral communication. Comments about teachers especially referred to their lack of enthusiasm, lack of ability in English (particularly pronunciation), and lack of ability to present the material in an enjoyable way.
The three most common comments in the “wants” category in both JHS and HS, or suggested to both JHS and HS teachers, were more chances for oral communication, an increase of enjoyment in learning activities, and more inclusion of native speaking ALTs in the classroom.
The subcategory grammar-translation ranked among the top three in both positive and negative categories. Further analysis of comments about grammar was conducted to provide more detailed information and comparison regarding attitudes toward grammar. It turned out students found grammar in JHS helpful for HS entrance exams, and in HS they found it helpful for college entrance exams (see Table 3).

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Table 3. Attitudes toward EFL grammar based on 192 comments from 440 Japanese students from a study by the author
Complete breakdown of attitudes toward grammar Count (%) JHS Count (%) HS
Negative Affect / Dislike Grammar 55 (13%) 46 (10%)
Useful for Exams / Conditional Support 41(9%) 26 (6%)
Positive Affect / Like Grammar 6 (1%) 18 (4%)
Total Count mentioning grammar 102 (23%) 90 (20%)

Student Data Analysis

In Falout et al. (2008), these data were also analyzed by students in small groups. As a result, students recommended more communication, better teaching, and greater consistency across classrooms and across levels of education (for more details in all the above categories please go to Falout et al. 2008 at http://jalt-publications.org/archive/proceedings/2007/E136.pdf)


We know of at least four means of eliciting the wisdom of the crowds and using mass collaboration in our curriculum planning and daily teaching: action logs, language learning histories, student petitions, and surveys. Both teachers and students need to know that there are multiple pathways to solving problems and improving education in order to have hope (Murphey & Carpenter, 2008). Along with pathways thinking, we need to generate agency thinking (Snyder et al. 1999), i.e. the confidence that we do indeed have the capacity to act.

Action Logs and Newsletters

To best understand how we actually teach, we can ask the crowds who know the most about our particular teaching – our students. The writing of action logs, in which students evaluate and comment on classroom activities after each class (Murphey, 1993), is one way to aggregate student information for our individual professional development. In action logs, students often write about how they are learning, and much of the information is also valuable for other students when it can be redistributed in newsletters – what Tapscott and Williams (2006) call peering. When teachers collect student reflections of learning strategies and positive learning outcomes in a newsletter for other students to read, everybody in the class – students and teachers alike – potentially benefits from the wisdom of the group. Sharing these reflections in our professional publications disperses this local knowledge to an even wider group of teachers and students.

Language Learning Histories

Perhaps one of the most in-depth ways that teachers can gain understanding of students' dynamic dispositions toward language learning are personal language learning histories (LLHs) written by the students themselves (Murphey, 1999). When teachers read their students' LLHs they may gain insight into what students are interested in, what has positively and negatively impacted their interest, and what they might be ready for (Benson & Nunan, 2005; Chou, Lau, Yang, & Murphey, 2007; Murphey & Carpenter, 2008; Murphey, Chen, & Chen, 2005; Yamaura, 2008). Teachers with new students, from cultures they know little of, can benefit from reading a collection of LLHs from these students to help understand their strategies, beliefs, and attitudes formed from past learning experiences. When students read peers' LLHs, they also can become more sensitive to their classmates' learning dispositions and model their strategies and attitudes (Murphey & Arao, 2001). Moreover, the Internet has provided a far-reaching medium for aggregating and disseminating LLH data from diverse groups. Vera Menezes' website, for example, carries several hundred Japanese, Brazilian, and Finish language learning histories. In a similar fashion, the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University offers a rich archive of oral histories.

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Student Petitions

Groups of students can also learn to write their own learning futures by simply asking for changes. In the fall of 2005 students at Dokkyo University near Tokyo asked peers to sign petitions asking that (a) university student services offices be open at lunch time since that was the main time when students were free and on campus, and (b) Asian Englishes become a curriculum component since English would most likely be used to interact in Asian contexts. The petitions were sent to the dean and president who responded that they appreciated the student feedback and would look into it—and they did! Two years hence student services were open at lunch time, and an Asian Englishes course had become part of the first-year curriculum in the English department (Murphey, 2006). Inviting students to express their views publicly has many positive outcomes for both the institution and the students.


Surveys are another way to invite student views for making positive changes in the classroom and beyond. Administrators at Nihon University in Tokyo were searching in 2006 for ways to revise their English curriculum. Based on surveys of matriculated students and alumni, plus comments gleaned from informal student focus groups, administrators decided to stream students into level-appropriate English classrooms. Now that the new curriculum is in effect, students taking the new classes were surveyed for their opinions about the classes, including the method of streaming, and the results will be used in the assessment and further revision of the curriculum. Increasingly, schools are seeking student opinions for their business strategies to improve the quality of education and attract prospective students from Japan and overseas (Japan Student Service Organization, 2007).


My own personal wish list for potential changes to enrich student education through their active voices are:
  1. Student-run newspapers.
  2. Teachers learning more about their students & from them. (e.g. Language Learning Histories)
  3. Teachers and students slowing down (including the job-hunting system in universities).
  4. Teachers collaborating with students on research.
  5. Students attending faculty meetings and being consulted about school and program changes.
  6. Literacy based-interviews replacing pencil and paper multiple-choice entrance exams. Students (and MEXT) say they want talk – make it the test! (Murphey, 2008)
  7. Teachers traveling yearly with their students to observe other teachers and take courses in Japan and abroad.
  8. Students all over the world spending at least one year abroad (accumulated time) during university life in order to graduate.
  9. And of course, juggling balls in every classroom.
One Japanese HS teacher who read the above results commented as follows, acknowledging the constraints in her job and yet realizing that she could also change:
…what shocked me is that they didn't like teachers!!! But I have something to think about. Yes, I am very strict at the beginning of the school year to have them prepare for English classes as well as to set up norms and disciplines. Besides, my lesson speed might be too fast. I know that, but I can't change it (my present school is a highly competitive one, so I am supposed to cover the textbook and sub text). As to the last topic, what students said they want in HS English classes, I was surprised to see the percentage about the students who wanted ‘More Communication' in HS classes. I've expected they like communication. But the percentage is much more prominent than I thought. In conclusion, the data made me remember that I need to make more efforts in order to make my classes more communicative and fun!

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I conclude in taking sustenance from Wilga Rivers' advice:
We must find out what our students are interested in. This is our subject matter. As language teachers we are the most fortunate of teachers – all subjects are ours. The essence of language teaching is providing conditions for language learning – using the motivation which exists to increase our student's knowledge of the new language: we are limited only by our own caution, by our own hesitancy to do whatever our imagination suggests to us to create situations in which students feel involved …We need not be tied to a curriculum created for another situation or another group. We must adapt, innovate, improvise, in order to meet the student where he is and channel his motivation. (Rivers, 1976, p. 96)

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