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Learning from Meaningful Student Involvement

Meaningful Student Involvement Learning Process
Meaningful Student Involvement Learning Process



There is a lot to learn from Meaningful Student Involvement. The SoundOut Learning Process features five areas we have found students have to learn about in order to foster equitable Student/Adult Partnerships. They include learning about learning; learning about the education system; learning about education reform; learning about student voice, and; learning about Meaningful Student Involvement.


Why Learn from Student Voice?

What does it say that after eight, ten, or even thirteen years of formal schooling the majority of students cannot explain the process of education in that they participate in? SoundOut believes that every student should be able to verbalize what they are a part of when they come to school. This is what Giroux calls sharing the “language of possibility.” (McLaren, 2003) For that reason, the Meaningful Student Involvement Learning Process is the final framework.

The notion behind the Meaningful Student Involvement Learning Process is pinned to Delpit’s essential theories focused on social justice in education. Addressing the neoliberal myth that all students benefit from free-range education practices, Delpit in turn promoted the practice of teachers “decode” the white, middle-class culture that pervades schools. (Delpit, 1988) Dismantling the entrenched systems of power and authority throughout the education system, Meaningful Student Involvement relies on students learning about all aspects of education. This requires decoding and the end of the assumption that any action in schools is good action, and combats the belief that any student voice is good student voice by acknowledging where students are at now, and naming new places they can go.

This Learning Process is designed to maximize student learning while realizing their involvement potential throughout the educational system. Each of the following components of the Learning Process is neither a step nor an end in-and-of-itself. Instead, each is an interlocking platform that can serve to ensure the meaningfulness of student involvement.

Starting in kindergarten and extending through twelfth grade, students should have the opportunity to expand their capacity to be meaningfully involved throughout education. The following Learning Process represents a constructivist perspective, in the sense that it is essential for past student learning to be acknowledged in order to build upon and progress. Regardless of the grade a student experiences Meaningful Student Involvement, their previous knowledge about education should be assessed and built upon.

Seattle Youth Engagement Cadre sponsored by SoundOut
A group of educators at the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence in Seattle learn about student engagement with SoundOut facilitators.


What Learning Focuses On

In order to foster Meaningful Student Involvement, learning should focus on five areas. Students and adults should learning about learning; learning about the education system; learning about education reform and transformation; learn about student voice, and learn about Meaningful Student Involvement. Of course, each of these can be studied independently, but without an understanding of each a complete picture of possibilities and purpose might not be complete. Additionally, each of these should be studied before, during and after different activities. As illustrated in the Cycle of Engagement, reflection is essential for learning through Meaningful Student Involvement.


Learning about Learning

Learning is no longer the mystery it once was. We now know that there are different learning styles, multiple learning supports and a variety of ways to demonstrate learning. In order to be meaningfully involved, students must understand those different aspects as well.

Students have the mental capacity to learn about learning from the very beginning of their intentional educative experiences. From those pre-school years through graduation, schools can be fostering student learning about learning. This means helping students understand what learning styles are, how they function and what good it does to recognize them. It means providing students with countless opportunities to explore different learning styles in addition to encouraging them to self-identify their own predominant style. It also means allowing them multiple opportunities to re-assess their learning style, build empathy with learners who identify with other styles and expand their capacities to successfully learn through other avenues.

As students build their capacity to learn about learning, more opportunities should be shared that expand their understanding of what learning is, how learning happens and what learning does. Through this constructivist approach, students can incorporate learning from life and learning in classrooms, reinforcing the relevance of the teaching/learning process and self-education.

Learning about the Education System

The complexities of schools are not known to many adults. Theoretical and moral debates, funding streams and the rigors of student assessment are overwhelming to many administrators, as well as teachers and parents. Many adults cannot name everything involved in an education system, either. An education system is the entire set of activities, individuals, places and outcomes set into motion for students to learn. It is made of everything that goes into schools from local, state and federal sources. These include the laws, policies, and regulations; funding, resource allocations, and procedures for determining funding levels; district, state and federal administrative offices, as well as school facilities, and transportation vehicles; human resources, staffing, contracts, compensation and employee benefits; books, computers, teaching resources and other learning materials; and many other elements. (Glossary of Education Reform, 2013)

In order for students to be meaningfully involved in schools, they must have at least a basic knowledge of what is being done to them and for them, if not with them. At the minimum, students should know there is a current system for educating young people, and they are part of it. They should understand grade levels and student grouping, e.g. elementary, middle, and senior high schools as well as the purposes of grading, testing, graduation, and dropping out. Students should understand the ways curricular topics work together to form a liberal arts education, as well as the relationship between classes, schools, districts, state education agencies, and federal education departments. Students should have a wide understanding of who the individuals are throughout the education system, from individual students to teachers, principals, superintendents, governors, state education leaders, legislators, and federal leaders. The connections between graduation and life after high school, e.g. college, work, and income levels, should be made clear, as well as the relationship between public schools, basic education and the democratic society we live in.

Learning about Education Reform

The unending process of school transformation is heavily influenced by economic trends, cultural attitudes, socio-economic backgrounds and political beliefs. Understandings about the nature of democratic governance and social justice play into school leadership, too. There are many practical avenues for students to learn about formal and informal school improvement measures, particularly by becoming meaningfully involved within those activities. Sometimes there is no better avenue for understanding than through active engagement in the subject matter, and school improvement may be one of those areas.

Learning about Student Voice

While it seems intuitive to understand the voices that we are born with, unfortunately many students seems to lack that knowledge. Whether through submissive consumerism, oppressive social conditions or the internalization of popular conceptions of youth, many students today do not believe they have anything worth saying, or any action worth contributing towards making their schools better places for everyone involved. Even if a student does understand their voice, it is essential to expand that understanding and gain new abilities to be able to become meaningfully involved.

Learning about Meaningful Student Involvement

While Meaningful Student Involvement is not “rocket science”, it does challenge many students. After so many years of being subjected to passive or cynical treatment, many students are leery or resistant towards substantive engagement in schools. Educating students about Meaningful Student Involvement means increasing their capacity to participate by focusing on the skills and knowledge they need. Only in this way can they be effective partners, and fully realize the possibilities for education today and in the future.

When the Learning Process is complete, schools should use what the evolving capacities of their student body to re-inform the next process, as students in the cohort will certainly be able to become meaningfully involved in yet more expansive ways! This is the re-invigorating challenge of Meaningful Student Involvement: As students are always evolving, so should schools. That should not equate the end of tradition; instead, it should mark the beginning of a transformation that never ends. That is what learning is all about.


New Star Cultural Center in Sao Paulo
A group of students and educators with SoundOut at the New Star Cultural Center in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

More Areas to Learn About Through Meaningful Student Involvement

The five areas of the Meaningful Student Involvement Learning Process show a general process for what students and adults should learn about to prepare for and engage in throughout different activities. There are additional areas participants can learn about.

Learning about Ourselves

Wrapped up in this deconstruction is an understanding of who is involved in Meaningful Student Involvement and throughout the education system at large. Students can learn about who they are individually, which situates their voice in the center of classroom curriculum. They can learn about who other students are, individually and as student bodies; who teachers are personally and professionally; who the administrators and support staff are supporting them throughout the education system; and other adults who benefit their learning, teaching and leadership. Nobody should be left out of this function, whether students are examining the individuals within their own buildings or the people who constitute their local school boards.

Learning about Our Roles

Starting from the youngest ages, students should have a functioning understanding of the roles involved directly in their education. As they progress through grades, this understanding should expand until they completely understand the myriad roles throughout education, as well as their functions, activities and outcomes. This should include the roles of students; parents; school support staff, paraprofessionals, non-certificated staff, and adult volunteers; secretaries, adult tutors, coaches, librarians, classroom assistants, and parent representatives; teachers, teacher leaders, and teacher coaches; counselors and mental health specialists; building administrators including the principal or headmaster and assistant principals; district administration including staff and leaders; state administration and the chief school officers; elected officials like school board, superintendents, governors, state legislators, and the state supreme court; and federal officials, including the department of education, congress and national leader.

Students should learn about the specific roles they are interested in, going to focus on, on set to partner with through Meaningful Student Involvement. For instance, if a student team is working with a group of teachers, education professors and a teachers union representative to promote students going into the teaching profession after they graduate, they should understand the role of the teacher. This should happen beyond a superficial way, too: Students should know “what it takes to be certified as teachers; how teachers are affected by policies and requirements in choosing how and why they teach a certain way; what specific instructional methods are commonly used by teachers and which seem to work best; how educational research informs new instructional approaches, or how certain kinds of professional development can improve teaching effectiveness in a school, among many other things.” (Glossary of Education Reform, 2013)

Learning about Functions of Education

Many people have broad opinions about what the functions of the education system are. Before we think about the functions of the system though, we have to name exactly what the education system is and does. Understanding the moving pieces of the education system, it is easier to understand that the function of the education system has several parts:

  • To make sure that new generations learn what previous generations know, and expand on it as necessary;
  • To help young people move from living with their families to living in the wider society;
  • To intentionally and coincidentally socialize students to the culture, attitudes and values surrounding them;
  • To help people find what roles they are going to have in society;
  • To drive society and social reform through focus on specific topics and people, like English language learning and low-income students. (Haggar, 2013)


Once a student understands these functions of school and the education system, they can be more effective agents of change throughout that system. (Fielding, 2001) Without a full understanding of the functions of education, students will merely be yelling into a vacuum while trying to get it to stop.

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