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Meaningful Student Involvement for Teachers

Given the tensions that exist throughout education today, it seems increasingly outlandish to ask teachers to do one more thing. Fortunately, Meaningful Student Involvement does not ask that. Instead, it asks teachers to acknowledge the resources already present and to utilize them in proactive, engaging ways. In a similar way that students are human resources for transformation and not problems to be fixed, teachers are vital partners for democracy.

As the single most important adult role in the education system today, it is vital to support teachers deliberately and effectively. Meaningful Student Involvement does this by engaging “the role of educators as civic intellectuals” who can facilitate student learning focused on,

“…what it means to understand the purpose and meaning of education as a site of individual and collective empowerment.” (Giroux, 2013)

This happens when teachers invest in learning not as directors or enforcers, and not only as facilitators, coaches and guides-on-the-side, but also as co-learners with students. Side-by-side, teachers can appropriately and accordingly infuse the experience of every learner in every grade with impact, depth, perspective, and ultimately, the meaningfulness at the heart of the frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement.

Integrating Meaningful Student Involvement in the Classroom

By integrating Meaningful Student Involvement in the classroom, teachers can engage students in substantive partnerships that transform learning and teaching. In the classroom, educators can actively shift students from being the passive recipients of adult-driven teaching towards becoming active partners throughout the education system.

Beyond the classroom, teachers can foster roles for all adults as allies to students, actively nurturing Student/Adult Partnerships and transforming education as a practice and as a system. In this way, the role for teachers in Meaningful Student Involvement echoes Theodore Sizer’s goal when he created the Essential Schools Coalition by enshrining his premise of “teacher as coach, student as worker” and moving it one step further towards teacher as facilitator, student as ally. (Sizer, 2004)

More than 30 years ago, Henry Giroux exposed traditional classrooms by making their visible and invisible exchanges of power obvious. He demonstrated clearly the hidden and overt forms of domination affecting learners, showing how hierarchical relationships, top-to-bottom communication practices, rigid time schedules, rigid behavior expectations for students, and inflexible forms of evaluation entrench non-meaningful learning, teaching and leadership throughout education. All of these attributes reinforce roles for students as recipients and defeat their potential as partners in their own learning. (Giroux, 1981)

New Thinking for Old Challenges

Albert Einstein famously noted, “No problem can be solved from the same thinking that created it.” Engaging students as partners in learning positions them as knowledge creators by placing them in roles to transform education.

Following are descriptions of several strategies, methods and learning structures that can embed Meaningful Student Involvement deeply within the classroom and throughout student learning. They all reflect Einstein’s dictum, along with Dewey’s belief that teachers,

“Give pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results.” (1948)

These strategies and structures actively engage students in a number of ways. They are hands-on, interactive and generative by nature, encouraging students to critique, construct and produce knowledge through Meaningful Student Involvement. In some, students teach each other; in others, they create new knowledge with adults as co-learners.

When done with Student/Adult Partnerships at their core, students are co-creating knowledge that is place-based, problem-oriented, project-driven and goal oriented. Within each of these strategies and structures are individual and group activities; the exploration of diverse perspectives; constructivist techniques for building on prior knowledge; brainstorming and problematizing; Socratic dialogue; problem-solving processes, and team teaching. None of them perfectly embodies Meaningful Student Involvement, and all of them have to be adapted, critically examined and reconsidered every time they are employed.

All of these approaches make student voice central to learning and elevate the teacher-student relationship towards Student/Adult Partnerships.

There is an important note to make before reading this chapter: No single teaching method or activity is the be-all and end-all for Meaningful Student Involvement. Not one approach holds this promise for every single student in every single classroom throughout every single school across every education system all around the world. Instead, Meaningful Student Involvement has to be invented and re-invented for every location, every opportunity and every student who is targeted for engagement.

The following strategies and structures are provided here as a reference point for educators who want one. This not meant to be an exhaustive or all inclusive list; instead, it’s a starting point. Moving from these static descriptions towards the dynamic, ongoing and consistent space of active practice and critical reflection is absolutely vital. As the motto of The Freechild Project says, “Only through actions do words take power.” I co-founded The Freechild Project with the belief that too many people were talking about youth changing the world, and not enough were actually doing it.

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There are many other structures and approaches too; the simple reality is that they meet the aims of Meaningful Student Involvement stated earlier in this text. That is a simple reality with a challenging truth: even the best structures and approaches can fall apart if they are not true to the outcomes stated here.


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