Ladder of Student Involvement
There’s no ONE right place on the Ladder, all the time for everyone.
For a long time, the only formal role for young people in society was as a learner who attended school in order to meet society’s expectations. That is changing. Right now and more than ever before, students increasingly have positions throughout education beyond being the passive recipients of adult-controlled classrooms; instead, they are serving schools as decision-makers, planners, researchers, and more. However, there is still a long way most students to go before they experience Meaningful Student Involvement.
SoundOut’s Ladder of Student Involvement is not the same as other models you might be familiar with.
It is essential to understand there are boundless ways for students to be involved throughout the education system. With an absence of critical literature that examines those boundless ways, in 2001, I turned to the work of sociologist Roger Hart. (Hart, 1997) I adapted the Ladder (Fletcher, 2003) for schools from Hart, who originally adapted the Ladder from Arnstien (Arnstein, 1969). Hart proposed that the pinnacle experience for children in organizational decision-making was to initiate action and share decision-making with adults. My interpretation soon differed from his.
In 2011, I reinterpreted the Ladder once again. I adapted the Ladder to reflect the practical structure of schools today. While there are ideal structures that are enacted in exceptional schools, I want to encourage students and adults to examine why and how students are involved throughout the education system today. Each individual activity students are involved in throughout the education system, from local classrooms to national departments of education around the world, can be measured against the Ladder of Student Involvement.
Understanding the Ladder
Before exploring the Ladder in-depth, its important to understand that this is not meant to position one relationship as better than all others, or that a classroom, school or education system can be one way all of the time. Instead, it is to help understand the gradient ways students are involved throughout schools.
RUNG 1: MANIPULATION
In nations around the world, students of particular ages are compelled by law to attend schools. Once they are there, students receive grades, scores and other acknowledgements of their academic performance and behavior. Some people automatically say these are examples of adults manipulating students. However, if students understand why they are forced to attend schools and agree to the democratic nature of compulsory education, the manipulative nature of these arguments is dismantled.
Similarly, if students do not succeed academically or socially in many schools, they will receive failing grades. Success is awarded with good grades, and there is a clear line for failure that is acknowledge with low grades. There are alternatives to manipulating students to performing to adults’ expectations, too. This act minimalizes learning into an exchange based off control and compliance, rather than authentic learning from effective teaching. Classroom teachers might manipulate students into behaving how they want them to, while noncertificated or paraprofessional staff can manipulate students by offering them exclusive rewards for good behavior. School leaders sometimes manipulate students by coercing student leaders to sway other students with threats of poor letters of recommendation into college, or noncompliant students with threats of expulsion.
- Challenge: The challenge of this rung is that students are forced to attend without regard to interest. This is true of general school attendance and school board meetings. Grades, praise, or prizes are used to manipulate students.
- Reward: The reward to manipulating students is that students experience whatever they are attending, whether a class, special program, athletic event or otherwise. Often this gives adults further rationale for continuing activities. Manipulating students cannot be meaningful.
RUNG 2: DECORATION
Moving up the Ladder, adults use students to decorate their actions throughout the education system. This happens whenever adults affix students to something they want to do for themselves, but insist on having students participate because it is school related. For instance, press conferences, school open houses and education foundation fundraisers often decorate with students. Similarly, decoration can happen in classrooms when a teacher really wants to cover a topic regardless of students’ needs or desire. At this point, teachers simply decorate their time with students in order to collect a paycheck for the day. School leaders might have students sit with them during a press conference to say acceptable things, or allow a positive message to be spray painted onto the school building with their approval. Afterschool workers and paraprofessionals can decorate with students by not allowing students to make any decisions about programming, but forcing them to attend in order to say students were there. Districts may launch programs to tell students about education reform initiatives simply to claim students know about what they are going through while they are going through it, without allowing students to say anything critical or otherwise respond substantively.
- Challenge: The challenge is that the presence of students is treated as all that is necessary without reinforcing any sort of meaning in their involvement. Students do not have to learn in classrooms or from activities where they are decorations, because the intention truly is not for them to learn. Instead, it is for adults to fulfill their agenda while students are in attendance.
- Reward: The reward may be that student presence is a tangible outcome that demonstrates adults have some thought in mind regarding student involvement. Using students as decorations cannot be meaningful.
RUNG 3: TOKENISM
Students are tokenized when adults involve them simply to say students are involved, rather than having a genuine desire to engage them. In these circumstances, students receive no information, have no input and are not given opportunities to learn anything of substance. Instead, they simply attend and adults claim credit for their participation. Some students will say their entire school experience reflects this reality. When adults invite students to be ushers at professional education conferences, they are tokenizing students. In an instance where a teacher takes a vote in a class ostensibly to decide on the next activity they are going to do, but then makes a decision completely different from what the students choose, that teacher is tokenizing students.
- Challenge: In these circumstances, meaningfulness is challenged because students are used inconsequentially by adults to reinforce the perspective that students are involved. Tokenizing students can teach them their perspective is irrelevant, and that their attendance is all that is necessary for adults. It can also teach students to tokenize other people for different reasons, including women, people of color and otherwise.
- Reward: The reward to this approach is that it may validate student attendance without requiring adults take any effort to go beyond that simple approach. Tokenizing students cannot be meaningful and has no reward.
RUNG 4: INFORMATION
Rung four is the first actual opportunity for meaningful involvement to happen for students in schools. When adults tell students what is happening in schools and let students share their attitudes, opinions, ideas, knowledge, wisdom and actions, schools are beginning to form the basis for meaningful involvement. They are treating students like information sources, as informants. This can happen in classes where teachers survey students about their learning styles or options in making curriculum; in student athletic programs where coaches facilitate connections between sports with learning through structured reflection; and in state or provincial education agencies that host programs to gather student voice about learning.
- Challenge: The challenge of this rung is that adults do not have to let students impact their decisions. There could be a mass of student voice pointing in one direction, but adults maintain their authority and choose to go a different direction. Worst still, they do not feel accountable to students and might not actually tell students about why they made the decisions they made and why they excluded students.
- Reward: The reward may be that students impact adult-driven decisions or activities while adults maintain control. Informing adults can be meaningful if the activity reflects the Characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement.
RUNG 5: CONSULTATION
Consulting is a specific job, different from coaching or being an informant. When adults in education recognize students are experts who can inform schools greatly, they can engage students as consultants. This can happen informally in a classroom or extracurricular program when an adults asks students their opinions on topics throughout education, including what happens, why it happens, who is involved or when it happens. When students share student voice to respond to these kinds of questions, adults may or may not act upon their guidance. The important part, though, is that students consult the process. Outside schooltime education programs can consult with students by inviting them to participate in staff hiring processes, while some school boards currently consult students by having ex-officio or special roles for students on their boards.
- Challenge: The challenge of Rung 5 is that students only have the authority that adults grant them, and are subject to adult approval. While this can feel safe for adults, it can also reflect an inability of educators to prepare students to be responsibly and ethically engaged in schools. Similarly, this approach to student involvement can also feel disingenuous to students since it does not reflect their sincere capacities and desires.
- Reward: The reward to this rung is that students can substantially transform adults’ opinions, ideas, and actions while adults maintain control. Consulting adults can be meaningful for students if the process reflects the Cycle of Engagement explored further in this chapter.
RUNG 6: STUDENT/ADULT EQUALITY
On the sixth rung, students are fully equal with adults while they are involved in a given activity within schools. This is a 50/50 split of authority, obligation, and commitment. There is not specific recognition of the developmental differences between grade levels or students and adults, and that’s not “bad”, per se. Opportunities for student involvement aren’t necessarily distinguished between grade levels, academic achievement, social groupings, or other factors, either.
- Challenge: The challenge of this rung is that without continuous acknowledgment of their needs, ideas, wisdom and actions, students may lose interest and become disengaged quickly in activities that do not reflect this rung. Thoughtful facilitation focused on self-applying skills learned through meaningful involvement can help students apply lessons learned to other situations that are not meaningful.
- Reward: This same rung can allow students to experience full power and authority in relationship to each other and with adults. This rung can also foster the formation of basic Student/Adult Partnerships.
RUNG 7: STUDENT-LED ACTION
On the seventh rung, which is completely student-driven, adults are not situated in positions of authority. Instead, they are there to support students in passive or very behind-the-scenes roles. This gives students the platform to take action in situations where adults are apparently indifferent, apathetic, or disregarding towards students, or students are not seen with regard for their contributions, only for their deficits. This can happen when students form self-teaching groups to examine topics teachers do not address in class or otherwise, or when students create extracurricular clubs that reflect their desires without adult leadership.
- Challenge: The challenge of this rung is that in this way, self-led activities by students can operate in a vacuum where the impact of their actions on the larger school is not recognized by the entire school community. A “school community” is all the people who intimately attach to a school building, including the teachers, administrators, students, and the students’ families. In this community, student-led activities may not be seen with the validity of activities led by students and adults together.
- Reward: However, approaches to meaningful involvement that reflect Rung 7 can allow students to experience high amounts of self-efficacy. Developmental, cultural, social, and educational experiences led by students may be extremely effective too, both for themselves, their peers, and their school communities as well.
RUNG EIGHT: STUDENT/ADULT EQUITY
When students are completely equitable with adults, the the activity they are involved in occupies the eighth rung of the ladder. Equity allows for this to be a 40/60 split, or 20/80 split when it’s deemed appropriate by students and adults together. Everyone involved is recognized for their impact in the activity, including students and adults, and each has ownership of the outcomes. Equity between students and adults requires conscious commitment by all participants to overcome the barriers involved, and positions adults and students in healthy, whole relationships with each other while moving forward through action and learning. This can lead to creating structures to support differences by establishing safe, supportive environments for equitable involvement. In turn, this may lead to recreating the climate and culture of communities, and lead to the greatest meaningfulness of student involvement.
Exploring the Ladder
It is important to recognize that the Ladder is not meant to represent the involvement of every student in every school all at once. It’s also not support to show the entire experience of one student throughout their day. Instead, it should be used to plan and assess each specific instance of student involvement. That means that rather than say a whole classroom is rung 4, several students could be experiencing that they are at that rung four while others are experiencing that they are at rung six.
For a long time, determining which rung students occupied was left to perspective and position: If an adult believed the students on their committee were at rung 6, and the students believed they were at rung 8, they simply agreed to disagree. The following rubric can help provide a clearer explanation of what student involvement looks like.
Roger Hart, a sociologist for UNICEF who developed the original Ladder of Children’s Participation in 1994, identified the first three rungs as representing forms of non-participation. However, while the first rung generally represents the nature of all student involvement in schools with the threat of attend or fail, there are more roles for students than ever before throughout the education system. Rungs 6, 7, and 8 generally represent Student/Adult Partnerships, which are intentionally designed relationships that foster authentic student engagement in schools. With this knowledge in mind, the rungs of the Ladder can help students and adults throughout education identify how students are currently involved in schools, and give them goals to aspire towards.
Validation for Students AND Adults
The Ladder model can inspire action that validates students and adults by authorizing their involvement throughout the education system in different ways. When students initiate action and share decisions with adults, partnerships flourish. Later in this book there are examples of specific ways that students and adults can work together to realize that vision.
As I describe earlier, simply calling something meaningful does not make it so. Saying that students are complex is an understatement; saying that schools need to be responsive to their complexity seems overly simplistic. However, according to the Ladder, many educators may be treating students in disingenuous, non-empowering ways without even knowing it.
Among student voice researchers and practitioners who have learned about and studied this model, there is an important argument about the Ladder. There is been a debate raging about whether Hart was off-based regarding the pinnacle experience for young people in decision-making. Many people wondered if it is best for adults to initiate activities and share decision-making with young people; whether it is best for young people to initiate and direct decision-making in their activities; or for young people to initiate activities and share decisions with adults. It was his research that led Hart to conclude that child-led experiences where best for all involved. (Hart, 1997)
I have been serving schools with my Meaningful Student Involvement hypothesis for more than a decade and teaching about the Ladder model the entire time. After spending several years implementing each of the rungs on the Ladder in classrooms, boardrooms, offices, and other spaces throughout the education system, I have come to understand that Hart was not acknowledging the unique environments and cultures of schools when he created the Ladder. Unfortunately, many practitioners of student voice in schools today do not acknowledge it, either.
In recreating the Ladder for schools, I wanted to accommodate this understanding. However, instead of merely installing alternative words or shuffling around different words to other places, I have added wholly new concepts to the ladder. Illustrating the differences in involvement like this can help adults and students critically examine the myriad ways involvement happens throughout schools focused on decision-making and much more. However, it’s essential to consider the unique environments of schools and the different ways involvement happens there as opposed to the community at large. It’s essential to understand where students and adults are at and where we can really go with Meaningful Student Involvement. As soon as we begin using it, we assume responsibility for interpreting and re-interpreting this Ladder every time we use it in order to provide much needed information to keep modifying Meaningful Student Involvement.
I would LOVE to hear your thoughts, reflections and ideas about the Ladder. Please share your words in the comments section below!