Back in 2000, I was working as the first-ever student engagement specialist at the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. In the course of my work, I conducted a scan of activities across the United States, Canada and around the world through which students were improving schools. I found a lot of terms used frequently and interchangeably, like student empowerment and student leadership. I also found a few terms that weren’t talked about much that I wanted to explore.
One of those terms was student voice. Generally used as a synonym for student actions to change school or in curriculum as students sharing their experiences in class, this term fascinated me. Packed with potential, I read through the scant amounts of studies, articles and other literature available then and decided that the term was a cloak of sorts: Instead of being authentic, genuine or substantial, student voice was often slapped on any information adults were seeking and students were replying to.
I wanted to differentiate that types of student involvement. Talking with educators and students around Washington state, I found the phrase Meaningful Student Involvement to be useful, and ran with it.
Student voice is any expression of any student, anywhere, at any time related to schools, learning and education. Meaningful Student Involvement is the process of engaging students as partners in every facet of school change for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community, and democracy.
- Doesn’t necessarily change education
- Doesn’t require schools to change
- Doesn’t require adults to change
- Doesn’t require students to change
Meaningful Student Involvement…
- Is systemwide action for school improvement
- Fosters deep student/adult commitment
- Requires whole school transformation
- Supports deep learning by students and adults
- Expands possibilities for students and adults
Surely these two areas overlap, and it can be said that student voice is a foundation of Meaningful Student Involvement. However, on its own, student voice doesn’t not require, obligate or otherwise compel schools to be difference. The research-driven Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement do require substance, purpose and outcomes beyond appearances.
Elements to transformation
My work with more than 300+ K-12 schools in dozens of districts across the United States and around the world has led me to understand there are certain elements to transforming student voice into Meaningful Student Involvement. People in any role can build a team to move these elements into place. Here are what they look like.
- Assess. Look closely at what is currently happening in your location, whether a school, district or otherwise. Examine it for whether you’re listening to student voice, or fostering Meaningful Student Involvement, using our tools.
- Plan. Through deliberation, strategic action planning can transform schools. Overarching objectives, SMART goals, responsible partners and accountable student/adult partnerships have to be intact throughout. SoundOut’s planning tools allow educators and students to partner together while meeting real needs throughout their schools, districts and beyond.
- Educate. A lot of people assume that they will intuitively and inherently understand Meaningful Student Involvement, and that’s simply not true. You can’t make up the process; there is research that shows there are characteristics to adhere to.
- Systematize. Don’t try the scatterplot approach; instead, use the education system to structurally transform the roles of students throughout schools. Examine decision-making critically and purposeful challenge apathy.
- Support. Fostering Meaningful Student Involvement isn’t a one-time activity. Instead, it must be continuously sought-out, built, deconstructed, rebuilt and examined once more. Support must happen throughout every place Meaningful Student Involvement is intended to happen. There must be deliberately placed champions, succinctly enacted strategic plans, committed cultural and structural scaffolding, and authentic evaluations throughout.
- Celebrate. As students move closer to partnership with educators and further from being the consumers of schools, its essential to move their values to the forefront. One of these is celebration, which can allow adults in schools to lift up success, challenge being overwhelmed and support the ongoing evolution of schools. It can also let student creativity, enthusiasm and capacity for joy to come to the forefront, rescuing adults from our own cynicism.
Moving from here to there
Are you a K-12 school teacher who is interested in shifting their perspective from student voice to Meaningful Student Involvement? Maybe you’re a school leader, principal or headmaster who wants to engage students as partners in formal school improvement processes. Perhaps you work in a state or provincial education agency, or a local or regional school district. Are you a K-12 student who is ready for something more?
Steps to Transform Student Voice to Meaningful Student Involvement
- Teach Students About Education. Make learning transparent to students by teaching them what they’re learning, how to learn it, where learning happens, and why they are learning.
- Open the Doors to the System. Create education systemwide opportunities for students to have regular, sustained input into the decisions that affect them. This includes curriculum, teaching approaches, school climate, assessment, behavior expectations, building leadership, district leadership, state policymaking, and more.
- Foster Sustainability for ALL Students. Listening to students shouldn’t be a one-time experience in a students’ school career. Instead, these should be sustained experiences that are ongoing from kindergarten through graduation and beyond. Students should know what they’re sharing too, and be aware of how to improve and increase their effective involvement throughout the education system.
If you’re interested in learning other steps to transforming student voice, see our article about the Characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement »
After helping launch hundreds of Meaningful Student Involvement projects, these are the elements that have come clear to me as keys for transformation. What do you think matters most? I’d love to read your feedback in the comments below – please share!