The Characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement

After 15 years of working with K-12 schools, districts, state agencies, and national education organizations across the US and Canada focused on Meaningful Student Involvement, I am confident in saying the following vision is absolutely essential for school improvement. Here’s why:

The essential partner in school reform- students- are not routinely, systemically, or systematically engaged in the process of school reform; more so, their role is continuously relegated to that of “recipient.” Their roles must change in order for ANY school reform to be effective. The change that is required is the fostering of Meaningful Student Involvement.

The Greatest Challenge?

The greatest challenge facing schools today is not the literacy deficit or even the achievement gap, as tragic and real as both those are. The single problem plaguing all students in all schools everywhere is the crisis of disconnection. It is disconnection from learning, from curriculum, from peers, from adults; it is disconnection from relevance, rigor, and relationships; it is disconnection from self and community; it is simple disconnection. While it doesn’t only affect schools, is does plague schools in a special way.

A Cure to Student Disconnection

A cure to student disconnection is meaningfulness. Meaningful Student Involvement happens when the roles of students are actively re-aligned from being the passive recipients of schools to becoming active partners throughout the educational process. Meaningful Student Involvement can happen in any location throughout education, including the classroom, the counselor’s office, hallways, after school programs, district board of education offices, at the state or federal levels, and in other places that directly affect the students’ experience of education. Real learning and real purpose take form through Meaningful Student Involvement, often showing immediate impacts on the lives of students by actively authorizing each of them to have powerful, purposeful opportunities to impact their own learning and the lives of others.

Misunderstanding What’s At Hand

As we see increased interest in the entwined topics of student engagement and student voice throughout schools, it becomes easy to misunderstand the relationships between these topics and Meaningful Student Involvement. Student voice is any verbal, visual, or other expression learners make regarding education. This can include students sharing their life stories in class, or graffiting on the hallway wall. Student engagement is the outcome of learners’ emotional, social, cultural, psychological, or other bonds towards school; it is a feeling. Meaningful Student Involvement is the process of engaging students as partners in every facet of school change for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community and democracy. It can be said, then, that Meaningful Student Involvement strengthens, supports, and sustains student voice in order to foster student engagement for every student in every grade in every school.

Characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement

Characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement
These are the Characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement, as identified by Fletcher (2005).

Many schools have used SoundOut’s Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement to reconsider their approaches to learning, teaching, and leadership in schools. Following are six characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement that form my new vision for students in school reform. The following six characteristics show exactly what is present in schools where Meaningful Student Involvement is an organizing premise for school transformation. Anything other than these six characteristics is not fully meaningful.

Characteristic #1: School-wide Approaches to Meaningful Student Involvement.

  • All students in all grades are meaningfully involved throughout their education
  • All school reform measures include opportunities for all students in all grades to become engaged in education.
  • Students are involved in system-wide planning, research, teaching, evaluation, decision-making, and advocacy.
  • Meaningful involvement starts in kindergarten and extending through graduation.
  • There are a variety of opportunities throughout each students’ individual learning experience
  • There are also a variety of opportunities for students in the learning experiences of their peers; within their school building; throughout their districts, and; across their states.
  • There are a variety of opportunities for meaningful involvement in classroom management, interactions with peers and adults throughout the school, and ongoing throughout their educational careers.
  • There are opportunities for student/adult partnerships in learning communities; student-specific roles in building leadership, and; intentional programs designed to increase student efficacy as partners in school improvement.

Characteristic #2: High levels of Student Authority through Meaningful Student Involvement.

  • Students’ ideas, knowledge, opinions and experiences in schools and regarding education are actively sought and substantiated by educators, administrators, and other adults within the educational system.
  • Adults’ acknowledgment of students’ ability to improve schools is validated and authorized.
  • Students are deliberately taught about learning, learning about the education system, learning about student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement, and learning about school improvement.
  • Schools’ commitment to Meaningful Student Involvement is obvious through sustainable activities, comprehensive planning and effective assessments
  • Assessments measure shared and individual perceptions and outcomes of Meaningful Student Involvement .

Characteristic #3: Interrelated Strategies Integrate Meaningful Student Involvement.

  • Students are incorporated into ongoing, sustainable school reform activities.
  • There are deliberate opportunities for learning, teaching, and leadership for all students throughout the educational system.
  • In individual classrooms this can mean integrating student voice into classroom management practices; giving students opportunities to design, facilitate, and evaluate curriculum; or facilitating student learning about school systems.
  • In the Principal’s office it can mean students’ having equitable opportunities to participate with adults in formal school improvement activities.
  • On the state school board of education it can mean students having full voting rights, and equal representation to adults.
  • Whatever the opportunities are, ultimately it means they are all tied together with the intention of improving schools for all learners all the time.
  • Every school should be in a continuous mode of improvement; every single improvement effort should seek nothing less than to engage students.
  • Doors are opened for classroom teachers, building principals and other adults in schools to fully and completely partner with students.
  • Each of these strategies are integrated with a building, district, and/or school improvement plan
  • Each of these strategies is obvious within regular policies and procedures in schools, districts, and/or state agencies.

Characteristic #4: Sustainable Structures of Support for Implementing Meaningful Student Involvement.

  • Policies and procedures are created and amended to promote Meaningful Student Involvement throughout schools.
  • This includes creating specific funding opportunities that support student voice and student engagement.
  • This also includes facilitating ongoing professional development for educators focused on Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • This new vision for students is integrated and infused into classroom practice, building procedures, district/state/federal policy.
  • Ultimately it engenders new cultures throughout education that constantly focus on students by constantly having students on board.
  • Sustainability within schools is actively observed, examined, critiqued and challenged by students and adults as the intermixing of culture and structure.
  • Structures of support include student action centers that train students and provide information to student/adult partners.
  • Structures also include curriculum specifically designed to teach students about school improvement and student action.
  • Structures also include fully-funded, ongoing programs that support Meaningful Student Involvement.

Characteristic #5: Personal Commitment to Meaningful Student Involvement.

  • Students and adults acknowledge their mutual investment, dedication, and benefit.
  • Acknowledgment is visible in learning, relationships, practices, policies, school culture, and many other ways.
  • Meaningful Student Involvement is not just about students themselves.
  • It insists that from the time of their pre-service education, teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, counselors, and others see students as substantive, powerful, and significant partners in all the different machinations of schools.
  • When they have this commitment every person will actively seek nothing other than to fully integrate students at every turn.
  • Students previously seen “the other” are no longer viewed as different and separate, both in intention and action.
  • Particular emphasis is placed on engaging low-income students, students-of-color and low-achieving students in buildings where predominately white, upper-income and/or high achieving students have been perceived as having greater value or more importance than other learners.
  • Sharing and re-affirming personal commitment is a cultural norm within the environment where Meaningful Student Involvement happens.

Characteristic #6: Strong Learning Connections Within Meaningful Student Involvement.

  • Classroom learning and student involvement are connected by classroom learning and credit, ensuring relevancy for educators and significance to students.
  • This deliberate connection ties together the roles for students with the purpose of education.
  • It also substantiates student/adult partnerships and signifies the intention of adults to continue transforming learning as learners themselves evolve.
  • Meaningful Student Involvement should not be an “add-on” strategy for educators – it should be integrated throughout their daily activities.
  • Classroom teachers should acknowledge exceptional projects and involvement by students with credit.

This new vision for students provides all people in schools, young and adult, with opportunities to collaborate in exciting new ways while securing powerful new outcomes for everyone involved, most importantly students themselves.

Other Important Considerations

  • Appropriateness: Students have far more wisdom than many adults might think. At the youngest ages, they are capable of expressing their views in simple and powerful ways. Appropriateness includes involvement that is developmentally, age and stage, individuality and culturally appropriate.
  • Respect: Meaningful Student Involvement is founded on respectful relationships between students and adults throughout education. Giving the floor to students doesn’t take away from adult responsibilities. One of the most important things we can do is ensure a safe and supportive learning environment where Meaningful Student Involvement can happen. Shared understanding
  • Mutuality: Reciprocity is essential to Meaningful Student Involvement. This includes developing a common understanding about why and how students are being involved, what the purpose is, and how students can contribute to shaping the way activities occur. Reciprocity cannot just happen at the beginning of activities, either—it needs to be monitored and honed as the engagement unfolds.
  • More Than Words: Meaningful Student Involvement requires adults often act as facilitators. They should use techniques like:
    • Projection—Asking questions that explicitly invite their views, such as ‘Tell me, what do you think about …?’, ‘How do you feel when …?’, ‘What do you like about …?’, ‘What makes you think that?’, ‘What makes you feel that way?’, and so on.
    • Ask leading questions—Accompanied by concrete stimuli and hands-on experiences in which students can explore and express their ideas, while others carefully observe and document.
    • Clarifying—Make sure you understand what students are actually saying and prompt them to elaborate on their ideas can help to further support and validate student contributions.
    • Let Go—Understand there are times to take charge and there are times to let go. Know which one is which without overdoing either approach too much. Meaningful Student Involvement requires self-negotiation, too.
    • Take Action—Don’t simply talk about change too much. Instead, more quickly towards tangible, accessible activities that show clear results whenever possible. Also teach students that waiting can be good, too.
  • Acknowledging Power Relationships: Power is a key consideration in Meaningful Student Involvement, because schools are built on it. From kindergarten, students are taught adult voices count more than theirs. Be mindful of power differences between students and adults and do not to put words into the mouths of the people you’re trying to engage. Power dynamics can also occur among students. If you’re working with students in a group setting, it is important to be sensitive to these dynamics and create opportunities for everyone to be involved. Small social groups can work best; integration and infusion can too.
  • Ethical Imperative: Adults throughout all of the education system have an ethical imperative to meaningfully involve students. It is essential to respect and honor the ethical rights of students, the places they come from and the communities where they belong. Ways of doing this include providing clear information about what student involvement might include, and seeking students’ genuine interest in becoming involved before automatically assigning them. Can you have an understanding with students that if they chose not to become involved there will be no negative consequences for that decision? Voluntary involvement can be the key. Even if students agree to take part, they should have the freedom to withdraw at any time without penalty. Students also have the right to privacy and confidentiality. This includes seeking their explicit permission for any material arising from their involvement being published. Finally, students have the right to be assured that their involvement will be worthwhile and enjoyable.

The impacts of Meaningful Student Involvement are only beginning to be shown; with time, expanded practice, and investment, I am convinced that this vision will fully demonstrate not only the efficacy of the practice, but ultimately, of education, community, and democracy itself. There can be no lesser goal for any school, nor should their be.

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