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Reasons Why Meaningful Student Involvement Matters

Meaningful Student Involvement takes task with learning that does not position students as partners in learning, teaching and leadership. Here are three more reasons why it matters.

Building Classrooms

More than ever before, there is room within classrooms for students to lead learning. With flipped classrooms, student-led lessons and student-driven parent-teacher conferences becoming more popular, it is increasingly important to contextualize what is happening for both students and adults, including teachers, parents and others.

Students leading learning is not about students getting to do whatever they want, however, whenever and wherever they want. It is not about spoiling children, making incapable citizens or under-producing workers. However, without context a lot of these activities lose their potential effect on both students and educators.

Meaningful Student Involvement positions these activities as central to building student ownership in education, community and democracy. Given that relevance, all of these activities allow students to build classrooms and co-design education so that its sustained throughout their lives. Experienced self-actualized learning in the youngest grades may be best, since students will take the habits formed throughout their learning careers and well into their adult lives, if not all their days.

When students teach, guide and direct their peers and adults while building classroom learning, they can show educators many things. They actively show all of the information they know about a topic. It can build students’ sense of pride, sense of efficacy and feelings of accomplishment when they participate in building classrooms. If a student teaches their parents or siblings it can strengthen their courage and build their self-esteem in healthy ways.

When planned and implemented in age appropriate ways, Meaningful Student Involvement can allow educators to see specifically what students do and do not know, what they fully understand, and where they have learning gaps. Obviously, students’ oral communication and presentations skills can improve, too.

Students can also help build classrooms and other learning environments by participating in what used to be called classroom management, but is increasingly recognized as good facilitation and learning leadership. Engaged as partners in the classroom, students can help build classrooms with everything from keeping the classroom tidy to seating arrangements. Beyond that, students can be engaged in “decision-making… when managing issues pertaining to safety of students and moral issues such as racial and sexual discrimination.” (Lewis & Burman, 2008)

A Story About Student Ownership

At Park Forest Elementary School in State College, Pennsylvania, students experience a great deal of opportunities to build classrooms. Students experience such depth of ownership in building the culture of their school that during a service project for a homeless shelter, they intervened when adults began exercising too much control in the project planning. The students recommended that the group find out exactly what the families at the homeless shelter needed, and then proceeded to survey the shelter. When the group found that the families wanted Easter baskets, the students then focused their efforts on making baskets for the shelter. (Dickinson, 2014) Because of the culture fostered by Meaningful Student Involvement in their school, the students felt such ownership over their experience in the classroom that they called out adults for disrupting that experience.

Transforming Schools

Rather than being the passive recipients of school transformation, students can be meaningfully involved as partners throughout action. All the roles in learning, teaching and leadership can be co-facilitated with students, while all the outcomes can be measured by student/adult partners working together. Meaningful Student Involvement is a key to learning through transformation.

All students in every school should understand and be actively engaged as partners in the transformation, reform, improvement and other change processes going on around them. They are not the ineffectual, incapable objects of change that many educators and school leaders inadvertently treat them as. Instead, every student of all ages is capable of informing, forming, driving and critiquing school transformation efforts of all kinds.

The real question is whether adults want to engage them through Student/Adult Partnerships, which are required for this work, and whether adults are actually capable of that. For more than 100 years of schooling and more than 30 years of the current education reform movement, students have been written about, targeted, studied, analyzed, debated over, challenged and sought after repeatedly as the subjects of school improvement.

This has not been an easy road to cross. The best reformers, including Kozol (1991), Fullan (1991), Kohn (1993) and Goodlad (1984) have all called for student voice. However, the resounding response has been to simply listen to student voice, no matter what it has to say. Spanning as far back as the 1980s to the present, education researchers like Goodlad and others, along with critical pedagogues like McLaren (McLaren, 2003) and Shor (Shor, 1996) began examining the positioning of students in schools, either as passive recipients or practical informants for adult-driven agendas.

In the late 1990s, well-meaning education-oriented nonprofit organizations began seeding youth-led programs focused on students’ opinions about schools. These students learned community organizing techniques and methods, and after more than 15 years of funding from large and small philanthropic foundations across the United States are still leading organizing campaigns across the country.

With the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 2001, state education agencies had a mandate to hire school improvement coaches and experts across the nation. Over the next several years, a few of these individuals led the next wave of student voice activities, including myself. Today, these activities are transitioning again from focusing solely on school improvement towards classroom practice, school leadership and beyond. Meaningful Student Involvement shows how all these disparate activities are related, and moves one step beyond.

Meaningful Student Involvement in school transformation positions students as active co-creators who actually learn from improving education. It gives educators and school leaders the onus for creating Student/Adult Partnerships they can benefit from in their jobs, as well as students themselves. Everyone can win through Meaningful Student Involvement in ways that student voice initiatives can never aspire to.

The fragmented nature of a lot of student voice work neglects the interconnected nature of these efforts; Meaningful Student Involvement weaves this diversity together into intricate tapestries that show the future of schools in a clear, un-enigmatic way.

A Story about Understanding Expectations

An example of engaging students as partners in school transformation comes from the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, under the leadership of Greg Williamson. Working with more than 100 high schools across the state, Williamson launched Student2Student to empower students with knowledge about many of the school improvement initiatives affecting them every day. Essentially a peer mentoring program, Student2Student trained 12th grade students in a train-the-trainer model focused on what school improvement is, what specifically happens in their schools, and why students should care about it. Then, these 12th grade students trained incoming 8th and 9th grade students at their high schools and feeder middle schools. The new high school students learned about new graduation requirements and much more. School leaders quickly noticed the amount of awareness and enthusiasm among incoming 9th grade students, and supported the program as it spread further. While they were excellent teachers, participants also provided powerful proof to education decision-makers that engaging students in school improvement is key to transforming learning, teaching and leadership.

Creating New Knowledge

The final area covered in this section related to teaching students about schools is creating new knowledge. With the proliferation of education media through the Internet over the last decade, stories of students generating powerful learning and teaching among themselves have gone from interesting anomaly to average occurrence. Flipped classrooms and other approaches to student-generated learning experiences are more common than ever, and a loud minority of educators seem genuinely excited about students creating new knowledge.

Early in his writing, Freire (1970) explained a new concept called “banking education”, in which educators treat students like empty vessels waiting to be filled with the knowledge of the educator and the textbooks they employed in the classroom. Freire railed against this approach, challenging that it was disingenuous, inauthentic and oppressive to students of all stripes. Freire wrote that as an educator, “I am not impartial or objective; not a fixed observer of facts and happenings.” (Freire, 1998) Yet, this is what banking education attempted to treat educators as.

Instead, Freire—and many since him—have posited that education needs to be created and recreated for every student in order to reflect the dynamic nature of humans. Freire believed that education should focus on problem-posing; that is, examining a challenge until you can name a problem, and upon naming it going about addressing it. He believed that as humans who are learning we are changing, and because of we are changing our learning should address the world as changing, too. (Freire, 1970) This is reflected excellently in many educators’ commitment to creating new and exciting ways to foster student learning in their classrooms today.

It is equally important, however, to situate students as change agents in the larger discourse of society. This is about more than voting and media discourse; its about learning as a democratic right and responsibility. Schools should always aspire to such powerful goals.


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