Review of “Authorizing Students’ Perspectives: Toward Trust, Dialogue, and Change in Education”

Originally published in Meaningful Student Involvement Research Guide by Adam Fletcher (2004) Olympia, WA: SoundOut.

Review of “Authorizing Students’ Perspectives: Toward Trust, Dialogue, and Change in Education,” By A. Cook-Sather. Published in 2002 in Educational Researcher 31(4) pp 3-14.

After a hundred years of public schooling entrenched in authoritarianism, it comes as no surprise that the past twenty years of school reform efforts have been an adult-driven process that relies on adult ideas and conceptualizations about education.

Cook-Sather’s argument for authorizing student perspectives runs counter to these practices. In order to truly engage students in school reform, advocates for student inclusive school change must change the minds of adults and the structures of schools.

In the introduction to her paper Cook-Sather introduces the history and foundation of her concept of “authorizing” the perspectives of students. She writes,

“At the root of the terms that underlie the following discussion – authorize, authority, author, and authoritative – is power: the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter” (p3).

Cook-Sather then provides a preliminary synopsis of research supporting her theory, and places this work in critical theory, couching the concept of “authorizing students perspective” in the work of writers Henry Giroux and Michelle Fine.

She then introduces a broad range of activities by researchers and educators and identifies the diverse backgrounds of those activities.

Cook-Sather examines the history of popular attitudes about young people, exploring early nineteenth century philosophy and mid-twentieth century psychology.

She then identifies a variety of attempts at engaging students in school change in the last fifty years, including the work of constructivist and critical education theorists.

Diversifying the palette of interest in student voice, Cook-Sather also explores interconnections with postmodern feminists and social critics, as well as recent developments in the medical and legal realms that offer social contexts for engaging participants in institutional transformation.

Cook-Sather believes that students should not just be listened to, but also be engaged in the work of school reform.

She notes research which showed that as well as being engaged in change work, it is essential for students to see themselves as change agents. Cook-Sather acknowledges several important nuances, including the importance of every educator asking their students what they think directly, rather than relying on studies and indirect surveys.

She discusses the challenges educators may face, including logistical, psychological, intellectual and personal barriers, and describes possibilities of overcoming these hurdles.

Finally, Cook-Sather proposes that student involvement advocates “go beyond what has already been accomplished.” She suggests that instead of simply rethinking where students can have power and authority in schools, actually create sustainable activities where that power takes form and purpose within schools.

Authorizing provides an important theoretical construct for educators to develop their own opportunities for Meaningful Student Involvement.

The background information provides ample justification for action, while Cook-Sather’s experience encourages readers to take action on their own.

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