Help Us Help Ourselves: Creating Supportive Learning Environments With Students

Student Voice in the Structure of Schools for

“The essence of the demand for freedom is the need of conditions which will enable an individual to make his own special contribution to a group interest, and to partake of its activities in such ways that social guidance shall be a matter of his own mental attitude, and not a mere authoritative dictation of his acts.” – John Dewey

Meaningful student involvement can support school change many ways, especially in creating supportive learning environments.

Along with state education agencies across the United States, the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has identified supportive learning environments as one of the nine primary characteristics of successful schools.

Despite the negative implications of how conservative administrators define “supportive learning environment,” (picture metal detectors, police in the hallways, random locker checks), there are potential benefits of said place.

As the Learning First Alliance detailed in its guide to safe and supportive schools, one cannot easily separate the necessity of student involvement in creating the most beneficial learning environments for learning.  The purpose of this article is to delineate the meaningfulnessof that student involvement.

Defining Meaningful Student Involvement

When considering student involvement in the past, educators often cite the classroom and extracurricular activities as opportunities enough for participation. When considering the role of students in creating safe and supportive learning environments, meaningful student involvement implies something more.

By attaching the adjective meaningful to student involvement, educators and administrators must explore the depth and potential of that participation and the possibilities for enriching it.  An exploration of how to involve students meaningfully must be undertaken in every school; however, examining the meaningfulness of current student involvement is vital to moving towards meaningful student involvement.

In order to define what makes an activity meaningful, students, educators, and administrators can explore what current activity is.  (No activity is meaningless; that is, where one might be intended to empower and engage students, others might be intended to pacify or placate students.)  Are students reading morning announcements meaningful involvement? Is a teacher allowing a student to volunteer in the school library meaningful? Can students meaningfully lead schoolyard cleaning crews? Is the student hall monitor’s role meaningful? While each of these roles has its place in schools, it is important to note that none of these roles can be deemed meaningful without adult AND student consent.  Where adults might view any opportunity for student decision-making as meaningful, students might disagree, and vice-versa.  In fact, some of these positions might be demeaning and belittling to students.

Dimensions of Meaningful Student Involvement

After working in schools for several years I identified several dimensions to meaningful student involvement.  These dimensions reflect the discussions I’ve had with students, teachers and administrators, opportunities to directly observe education decision-making, and research from schools across the United States and Canada.  The use of the word “dimensions” is meant to mirror professor James Banks’ writing on multicultural education, where he intends to allow space for growth.  I intend the same.  Also, The following dimensions are completely interactive dimensions that are reliant upon one another.  Each exists throughout Meaningful Student Involvement in varying degrees.

  • Equality – Meaningful student involvement engages students as equal partners with educators, administrators, and other adults in school change.
  • Quality – Meaningful student involvement addresses an important educational issue, validates student voice through action, and articulates its goals and design clearly.
  • Learning – Meaningful student involvement develops complex learning and thinking skills for students. Students should be able to articulate the goals of the opportunity and their connection to student learning. Indicators might include one or more of the following objectives:
  • Equity – Meaningful student involvement contributes to educational excellence for all.
  • Infusion – Meaningful student involvement promotes deep, coherent system-wide organizational change, and lasting, personal attitudinal change.
  • Evidence – Meaningful student involvement has measurable evidence for its achievements for at least one criterion among Dimensions C, D, E (Learning, Equity, and Infusion).

While there is no clear-cut picture that exactly states what meaningful student involvement is, every case claiming meaningfulness should meet these six dimensions in varying orders. Educators and students must consider each environment for involvement unique and on a situational basis; therefore, no two classrooms, schools, boards, or other implementations for meaningful student involvement will be identical.

In the past, the most progressive educators have sought out student voice. There have been many teaching methods and school management styles that involve students, even if they came without the emphasis or power that is necessary for meaningful student involvement. A 1996 survey by the National School Board Association found that fifty school districts across the United States included student representation in their board meetings. Initially it would appear as if this were a successful implementation of student involvement.

However, upon further examination we find that many of these opportunities involvement are tokenistic or use students as decoration. The majority of these boards had one student representative, instead of two or three among boards of 15-20 adults. While student bodies elected most student representatives, facts were not available on whether those elected were representative of the majority student body, either by race, academic achievement, or other standards. Finally, none of these students were given a vote in any of the matters of the school board.

By denying these student representatives the primary tool of decision-making on school boards, these adults served to negate the voice of students and encouraged their use as merely a “stamp of approval.”  This perpetuates the old forms of student involvement, and negate the need for meaning and purpose in learning.

The Philosopher’s Stone

Supportive learning environments see the student as a community learner. Many educational theorists have illustrated the necessity of this understanding, including John Dewey and George Counts. John Dewey’s approach was through advocating techniques in schools for restoring or developing a sense of community in an era during which industrialization, science, technology and urbanization were destroying community as known throughout the United States. In George Counts’ treatise on education, Dare the School Build a New Social Order, Counts wholly dispels the isolation of students from community life. Writing against so-called child centered education he says,

Place the child in a world of his own and you take from him the most powerful incentives to growth and achievement. Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of contemporary society lies in the fact that the child is becoming increasingly isolated from the serious activities of adults… Until school and society are bound together by common purposes the program of education will lack both meaning and vitality.

The implications of these great philosophers’ opinions weigh heavily upon the roles of students in education today, as our modern communities become tighter in hyperspace and grow further apart in real time. The absence of connectivity between schools and students as community members is an inherent flaw in the course of modern schooling; by engaging students throughout education we can assert the roles that Dewey and Counts advocated for students in the larger community that surrounds their schools and their lives.

Students Learning By Creating Supportive Learning Environments

The classroom offers a foundation throughout the educational experience that other forms of meaningful student involvement should stand upon and build from. Schools must be committed to meaningful student involvement as a practice, and then allow educators and students to create the ways of infusing the idea throughout school. In the earliest grades students might be rule-makers and experience self-determination in learning; towards the end of their high school years classrooms can be solely for reflection on real-world experience. Here are some meaningful ways to involve students in the classroom.

  • Self-directed student learning – The idea of students leading their in-class learning is not new, and many models have been created to encourage student autonomy and partnered guidance from teachers. Whether working alone or in small groups, students are given an outcome to work towards by teachers. The method by which they get to that outcome is not prescribed.
  • Applied learning in all courses – With the hands-on, practical application of classroom lessons and curricula in school-based decision-making, students engaged in research, planning, instruction, and evaluation will have an investment in their learning that is unparalleled throughout much of their early lives.
  • Student-led parent-teacher conferences – Although the format varies, the concept of student-led conferences remains the same from school to school: the student is in charge of the academic conference with parents, and works with the teacher to present their academic learning.
  • Students evaluating teachers, classes and schools – This practice, when appropriately applied to a classroom, acknowledges student voice while providing a useful measure from which teachers can grow. Students are in the unique position to rate their own increase in knowledge, as well as changed motivation.
  • Students teaching students – While much has been said about cross-age tutoring and mentoring, few schools have pursued the idea of students as teachers. The Summerbridge Program has explored this concept in summer school settings, and exclaim that these programs help close the achievement gap, provide powerful role models to children of color, emphasize reciprocal investment in schools, and demonstrates the rewards and challenges of teaching to the young teachers.
  • Students designing curriculum – The Learning-Centered Curriculum-Making Project has helped hundreds of students make learning experiences more cohesive and purposeful. When the curriculum was completed, and the course taught, teachers found that all students answered the guiding questions and successfully completed their self-prescribed activities.

Students Leading By Creating Supportive Learning Environments

The role of meaningful student involvement in educational decision-making is not merely a question of whether or not to organize a democratic school, although many traits are similar. So where are there opportunities for meaningful student involvement in educational leadership?

  • Students as grant administrators – While it might seem like a far-fetched idea in schools many schools, districts, and state education agencies that are modifying it and reporting good results. One administrator with a student grant reader recently said, “Having a student involved helps reminds adults why we’re doing the work, and it keeps us focused on that. The students also help us think in new ways that we might not have without them.”
  • Students as researchers – Many classroom teachers have adopted participatory action research, or PAR, methods in their curriculum to great success. In PAR students examine problems that they are affected by, either as perpetuators or recipients. This way they able to voice their concerns over problems such as school effectiveness, intimidation by other students, and making the curriculum more interesting.
  • Students as school board members – In Anne Arundel County, Maryland students serve as full members of the Board of Education and sit on every advisory, curriculum, study committee and task force in the district. There are student-led focus groups, forums and other school-wide activities to regularly solicit student voice. Throughout 25 years of Anne Arundel County’s student involvement efforts, students have saved the district thousands of dollars through their innovative thinking, and have regularly improved the entire school district.


With the student firmly placed in the role of community member and learner, educators can see the importance of applied and contextual teaching methods. By introducing students to real-world decision-making opportunities, students will begin to understand the vital importance of their education in a community context, one that will reaffirm the significance of schools.

You Might Like…


  • Anderman L. & Midgley, C. (1998). Motivation and Middle School Students. ED 421281.
  • Burnett, J. (1976). Introduction. From The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1889-1901, Volume 1. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Counts, G. (1932). Dare the School Build a New Social Order. New York: John Day Co.