Making Student Involvement Meaningful

“The times are a changing.” Forty years ago Bob Dylan’s song was shocking, provocative and powerful. Today it seems shocked, pretentious and spent. However, as a teacher from Oakland recently said in a SoundOut workshop, “Students have changed more in the last ten years than schools have in the last hundred.” Despite all these years of sage voices and students changing, schools have not done a very good job of listening, let alone responding to these challenges.

Lots of people have thought about why students have changed so much. Media infiltration, commercialism and technology usage have all been cited as sources that have changed the experience of learning in today’s schools. However, as educators search for answers, the drivers who fuel these changes have largely been ignored: students themselves. Rather than working with students to help understand and negotiate why, how, when, where and what they learn, educators, administrators and school leaders have largely changed schools for students, and done change to students, without their ideas, concerns or actions in mind.

In the past five years SoundOut has worked with more than 75 K-12 schools across the nation to help students and educators re-envision the role of students in education. Make no mistake: Students have one essential role in schools, and that is the position of learner. What SoundOut does is help define new ways students can learn in schools, while they become engaged in positively changing schools.

A Crisis of Purpose

Traditional student involvement has taken several forms, including student government, extra-curricular programs and athletic activities. In some of the most progressive classrooms, schools and education agencies across the country, those activities have been extended to engage students in special committees, advisory boards and other opportunities. The dilemma with the majority of all of those activities is simple: It is disconnected from the essential role of students in schools. Devoid of classroom credit or meaningful evaluations of student learning, these activities actually dissuade the majority of the student body in many schools from participating. Informal surveying conducted in many of the schools SoundOut has worked in has shown that fewer than 25% of all students in a school participate in any substantive school-based activity outside of the classroom.

Adding to that conundrum is the reality that many students do not connect with classroom learning topics, teachers or outcomes in any significant way. That is not a recent development: in the 1920s John Dewey proposed that schools design relevant learning opportunities for all students, which eventually led to the creation of career and technical education classes in many high schools. While some schools have adjusted their subject areas for modern interests, a large number still have not. Leadership, technology, modern politics and contemporary culture courses are not the norm in American high schools; worse still, these are actually rare topics in middle schools, and almost completely missing from elementary schools. Even in schools where these adjustments have happened, there is still often a crisis of disinterest among students.

All of that is to say that most activities that proponent student involvement suffer a crisis of purpose. There is no real reason for the majority of students to actually become engaged throughout their education. This majority does not seek the rewards of traditional student leadership activities, and generally speaking, they do not yearn for the acknowledgment of being “star” students. This is the same majority of students who go to school just because somebody tells them to. Their moms or dads, girlfriends or best friends, or the truancy officer is there everyday to remind them that they are not in it alone.

Staring Out the Window

The good news is the answers to these problems have been shared no fewer than ten million times over the last one hundred years! The problem is that we – educators, administrators, politicians, researchers – still have not learned to listen to them. The voices offering the solutions do not offer them in simple ways; rather, the answers are complex and idealistic, opportunistic and often inconvenient. Sometimes the answers present themselves as very sophisticated, substantive transformations; others, they are seemingly menial and insignificant – to the people listening. However, each of these answers is a solution to the challenges schools face.

Where do these elusive “silver bullets” come from? The tests where the unexceptional student performed exceptionally – there was an answer there. Classes that had high attendance – there was an answer there. Teachers that every student loved, hallways where students want to “hang out”, clothes that lots of students wanted to wear each have an answer. In a more complex fashion, every time a student has griped about class, they have shared a solution. Every frustrated crumpling of paper, every exhibition of crying and storming from a room, every hallway fight, and even every school shooting has presented a solution to the challenges of schools.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of these solutions is that they have not been so convenient to us. Rather than staring us in the in the face, they are staring out the window or down at their cell phone – where they are often text messaging a friend about how boring this class is. So it is not particularly clear how to learn from student voice. However, there is an answer in the words and actions of students.

Somehow, somewhere along the way many adults forgot to listen. Or we actively plugged our ears. Worst still, a small group of us, the masters of education, learned how to manipulate student voices, turning them into opportunities to strengthen our assumptions, keep our jobs, maintain our schools, and build our reputations. Perhaps most heinously, a small (and actively growing) group of adults learned how to use student voice against students, actually using their words, deeds and ideas to keep them from becoming active partners throughout the educational process.

Starting Point

In order to find out what students think is meaningful, start by listening to their voices. Not just the token few, either: surround yourself in the muck and mire of daily student lives. Stand in the hallways and just listen. Go to the cafeteria and simply hear. Make provocative statements to your classroom and soak up the responses, positive and challenging. Gather together a group of students and challenge them to be completely honest with you about what sucks about their school. Don’t stop after that. SoundOut offers an entire Cycle that addresses next steps. But trust that the only place to start honestly, authentically transforming schools is by listening to students themselves.

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