ORONO – Two University of Maine professors are out with new research examining how calls for civility and tone policing factor into the growing practice of student voice in preK–12 schools.

Assistant professor of educational leadership Catharine Biddle and assistant professor of science education Elizabeth Hufnagel say student voice — “youth-adult partnerships and the inclusion of students in school decision-making” — is still a relatively new concept. Because it cuts against traditional ideas about youth and the purpose of education, they say schools may be ill prepared for emotional or negative feedback from students. As a result, teachers and school administrators could seek to discourage or suppress such comments, raising questions about the extent to which the goal of elevating youth voice is being met.

Biddle and Hufnagel examined the case of one New England high school with nearly a decade’s worth of student voice efforts. Despite that strong foundation and a national reputation as a leader in the practice, the school ran into problems when it sought open-ended comments from students on an annual survey. A handful of the comments were highly emotional and pushed the bounds of what some adults at the school thought was civil. Students and teachers alike in the school’s student voice organization worried these comments would lead to a so-called “danger zone,” where all feedback from students would be received negatively by teachers. Ultimately, they opted to suppress the most highly charged comments rather than share them with the entire school.

As Hufnagel and Biddle point out, this represented a double standard: “They designated the bounds of civility to strategically and politically prioritize teachers’ emotional well-being over sharing the students’ concerns and emotional sense making.”

The authors also note how the regulation of emotional expression — commonly referred to as tone policing — is often used to shut down speech that a particular group of people might not want to hear. In a high school setting, where one of the goals of education is to teach students to be active participants in civic life, Hufnagel and Biddle say tone policing and calls for civility may be teaching the wrong lesson: “It is worth considering deeply whether or not this type of civic education, which reifies civility as a desirable quality over providing youth with a critical understanding of the strategic power of choosing civility, is desirable.”

Ultimately, Biddle and Hufnagel conclude that more research is needed into the role that emotion and civility play in the practice of student voice. Their article, “Navigating the ‘Danger Zone’: Tone Policing and the Bounding of Civility in the Practice of Student Voice” will appear in the August 2019 edition of the American Journal of Education.

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