Self-evaluation is a vital lifelong skills students need; learning to assess their peers, teachers, classes, schools and the entire education system is essential to being a responsible citizen and meaningful contributor to society.
Are there certain steps every adult could take to engage every student in every school everyday?
SoundOut says “Yes”. Since we began studying student voice programs around the world and operating our own activities across the United States, SoundOut staff have identified a pattern of activities that occurs in every single activity where both students and adults agree there was meaning. Our Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement identifies that pattern, giving adults a practical guide to their daily relationships with students.
Meaningful student involvement is not a magical formula or mysterious bargain with students – but, it doesn’t just simply happen, either. By following the Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement, student participation is transformed from passive, disconnected activities into a process promoting student achievement and school improvement. The Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement is a continuous five-step process. It can be used to assess current activities, or to plan future programs.
The Cycle of Engagement
The following sections explore each point in the Cycle of Engagement.
1. Listen to Students
Meaningful student involvement inherently requires simply being listened to. Providing space a platform for Student Voice to be heard can be challenging. Listening to Student Voice can happen in personal conversations, classroom discussions, agenda items in meetings, or through written reports and studies.
2. Validate Students
When students speak, its not enough to nod your head. Validating students does not mean automatically agreeing with students, either. It is important to offer students sincere comments, criticism, or feedback. Disagreeing with students allows young people to know that you actually heard what was said, that you thought about it, and that you have your own knowledge or opinion which you think is important to share with them. Students must know that education isn’t about autonomous authority, and that a chorus of voices inform learning and leading schools.
3. Authorize Students
Meaningful student involvement requires capacity, which comes from experience and knowledge, as well as positioning and learning. Providing students with authority means going beyond traditional roles for students in classrooms by actively providing the training and positions they need in order to affect change. It is essential that adults provide students with the opportunities they need to be authors of their own narratives.
4. Act With Students
Transitioning from passive participants to active learners and leaders throughout education requires students taking action to create change. Mobilizing students in positions of new authority allows them to affect cultural and systemic educational transformation, and encourages educators to acknowledge students as partners.
5. Reflect With Students
Meaningful student involvement cannot happen in a vacuum. Educators and students should take responsibility for learning through Student Voice by engaging students in conscious critical reflection by examining what was successful and what failed. Students and adults can also work together to identify how to sustain and expand the Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement by effectively returning to the first step above.
Individually, these steps may currently happen in schools. When they do happen, it is rare that they are connected with school improvement, and even less likely, connected with one another. The connection of all the steps in a cycle is what makes partnerships between students and adults meaningful, effective, and sustainable.
Meaningful student involvement does not just happen. The following elements offer important considerations for anyone wanting to “ramp up” the effect of student voice in their learning environment.
When is student involvement meaningful?
Partnerships: When students are allies and partners with adults in improving schools.
Learning & Power: When students have the training and authority to create real solutions to the challenges that schools face in learning, teaching, and leadership.
Mutual Accountability: When schools, including educators and administrators, are accountable to the direct consumers of schools – students themselves.
Vital: When student-adult partnerships are a major component of every sustainable, responsive, and systemic approach to transforming schools.
When is student involvement not meaningful?
Passiveness: When students are regarded as passive recipients in schools, or as empty vessels to be filled with teachers’ knowledge
Tokenism: When the contributions of students are minimized or tokenized by adults by asking students to “rubber stamp” ideas developed by adults, or by inviting students to sit on committees without real power or responsibility.
Filtering: When student perspectives, experiences or knowledge are filtered with adult interpretations.
Unprepared: When students are given problems to solve without adult support or adequate training; or students are trained in leadership skills without opportunities to take on real leadership roles in their school.
Each of these elements influences Meaningful Student Involvement; whether its positive or negative is up to each school.
A commitment to engage students as partners requires educators and students work together to ask critical questions that examine the assumptions behind student voice. The following are essential questions in this process that can help with planning and examining activities, projects and outcomes.
Essential Planning Questions
Question 1: Why will students be meaningfully involved?
Have students identified if they want to be meaningfully involved? If so, why do students want to be meaningfully involved? If not, why not?
Have adults identified why they want to meaningfully involve students? If so, why do adults want students to be meaningfully involved? If not, why not?
Is meaningful student involvement seen as a learning tool? Is it being utilized as a pathway for students to successfully meet classroom goals
Question 2: How will students be meaningfully involved?
What specific duties/tasks/assignments will students have?
How will adults be involved?
How does meaningful student involvement relate to the school’s climate?
How does meaningful student involvement relate to formal school improvement activities?
Question 3: Who will be meaningfully involved?
Is the activity for traditionally or nontraditionally involved students? If it is for nontraditionally involved students, how will their involvement be ensured? How will it be sustained?
Is there equal representation from across the school/class/group of students targeted?
Question 4: What will students be meaningfully involved in?
Have clear goals or a distinct purpose been identified for students to be meaningfully involved in?
Are there parameters for students, do they have complete autonomy, or are the roles for students clearly defined ahead of their involvement?
Is there a distinct plan for educating, reflecting and assessing student involvement?
Question 5: When will students be meaningfully involved?
Is the activity in-class, during class time, during the school day, directly after school, in the evening, on the weekends, or during a break?
What accommodations have been made in order to acknowledge the specific nuances of student schedules, i.e. homework, transportation, lost seat time, etc?
How often will meaningful involvement occur within the student’s educational career? During one day? Throughout a week? In a quarter or semester? Throughout one school year? Beyond?
Question 6: Where will students be meaningfully involved?
Are students meaningfully involved in their local school in addition to other educational environments?
Who controls the environments where meaningful student involvement will occur? How do they affect meaningful student involvement?
Do students have opportunities to become meaningfully involved throughout their communities?
When your class or group has completed these critical questions, step forward into planning how to move students from traditionally passive roles towards those of active, engaged partners throughout schools.
Every student is always somewhere on the Ladder of Meaningful Student Involvement, all the time. Where are you involved today?
For a long time, the only formal role for young people in society was as a learner who attended school in order to meet society’s expectations. That is changing. Right now and more than ever before, students increasingly have positions throughout education beyond being the passive recipients of adult-controlled classrooms; instead, they are serving schools as decision-makers, planners, researchers, and more. However, there is still a long way most students to go before they experience Meaningful Student Involvement.
SoundOut’s Ladder of Meaningful Student Involvement is not the same as other models you might be familiar with.
It is essential to understand there are boundless ways for students to be involved throughout the education system. With an absence of critical literature that examines those boundless ways, in 2001, I turned to the work of sociologist Roger Hart. (Hart, 1997) I adapted the Ladder (Fletcher, 2003) for schools from Hart, who originally adapted the Ladder from Arnstien (Arnstein, 1969). Hart proposed that the pinnacle experience for children in organizational decision-making was to initiate action and share decision-making with adults. My interpretation soon differed from his.
In 2011, I reinterpreted the Ladder once again. I adapted the Ladder to reflect the practical structure of schools today. While there are ideal structures that are enacted in exceptional schools, I want to encourage students and adults to examine why and how students are involved throughout the education system today. Each individual activity students are involved in throughout the education system, from local classrooms to national departments of education around the world, can be measured against the Ladder of Student Involvement.
Understanding the Ladder
Before exploring the Ladder in-depth, its important to understand that this is not meant to position one relationship as better than all others, or that a classroom, school or education system can be one way all of the time. Instead, it is to help understand the gradient ways students are involved throughout schools.
RUNG: STUDENT/ADULT EQUITY
When students are completely equitable with adults, the the activity they are involved in occupies the eighth rung of the ladder. Equity allows for this to be a 40/60 split, or 20/80 split when it’s deemed appropriate by students and adults together. Everyone involved is recognized for their impact in the activity, including students and adults, and each has ownership of the outcomes. Equity between students and adults requires conscious commitment by all participants to overcome the barriers involved, and positions adults and students in healthy, whole relationships with each other while moving forward through action and learning. This can lead to creating structures to support differences by establishing safe, supportive environments for equitable involvement. In turn, this may lead to recreating the climate and culture of communities, and lead to the greatest meaningfulness of student involvement.
RUNG: COMPLETELY STUDENT-LED
On the seventh rung, which is completely student-led, adults are not situated in positions of authority. Instead, they are there to support students in passive or very behind-the-scenes roles. This gives students the platform to take action in situations where adults are apparently indifferent, apathetic, or disregarding towards students, or students are not seen with regard for their contributions, only for their deficits. This can happen when students form self-teaching groups to examine topics teachers do not address in class or otherwise, or when students create extracurricular clubs that reflect their desires without adult leadership.
Challenge: The challenge of this rung is that in this way, self-led activities by students can operate in a vacuum where the impact of their actions on the larger school is not recognized by the entire school community. A “school community” is all the people who intimately attach to a school building, including the teachers, administrators, students, and the students’ families. In this community, student-led activities may not be seen with the validity of activities led by students and adults together.
Reward: However, approaches to meaningful involvement that reflect Rung 7 can allow students to experience high amounts of self-efficacy. Developmental, cultural, social, and educational experiences led by students may be extremely effective too, both for themselves, their peers, and their school communities as well.
RUNG: STUDENT/ADULT EQUALITY
On the sixth rung, students are fully equal with adults while they are involved in a given activity within schools. This is a 50/50 split of authority, obligation, and commitment. There is not specific recognition of the developmental differences between grade levels or students and adults, and that’s not “bad”, per se. Opportunities for student involvement aren’t necessarily distinguished between grade levels, academic achievement, social groupings, or other factors, either.
Challenge: The challenge of this rung is that without continuous acknowledgment of their needs, ideas, wisdom and actions, students may lose interest and become disengaged quickly in activities that do not reflect this rung. Thoughtful facilitation focused on self-applying skills learned through meaningful involvement can help students apply lessons learned to other situations that are not meaningful.
Reward: This same rung can allow students to experience full power and authority in relationship to each other and with adults. This rung can also foster the formation of basic Student/Adult Partnerships.
RUNG: STUDENT CONSULTATION
Consulting is a specific job, different from coaching or being an informant. When adults in education recognize students are experts who can inform schools greatly, they can engage students as consultants. This can happen informally in a classroom or extracurricular program when an adults asks students their opinions on topics throughout education, including what happens, why it happens, who is involved or when it happens. When students share student voice to respond to these kinds of questions, adults may or may not act upon their guidance. The important part, though, is that students consult the process. Outside schooltime education programs can consult with students by inviting them to participate in staff hiring processes, while some school boards currently consult students by having ex-officio or special roles for students on their boards.
Challenge: The challenge of Rung 5 is that students only have the authority that adults grant them, and are subject to adult approval. While this can feel safe for adults, it can also reflect an inability of educators to prepare students to be responsibly and ethically engaged in schools. Similarly, this approach to student involvement can also feel disingenuous to students since it does not reflect their sincere capacities and desires.
Reward: The reward to this rung is that students can substantially transform adults’ opinions, ideas, and actions while adults maintain control. Consulting adults can be meaningful for students if the process reflects the Cycle of Engagement explored further in this chapter.
RUNG: STUDENT INFORMED
Rung four is the first actual opportunity for meaningful involvement to happen for students in schools. When adults tell students what is happening in schools and let students share their attitudes, opinions, ideas, knowledge, wisdom and actions, schools are beginning to form the basis for meaningful involvement. They are treating students like information sources, as informants. This can happen in classes where teachers survey students about their learning styles or options in making curriculum; in student athletic programs where coaches facilitate connections between sports with learning through structured reflection; and in state or provincial education agencies that host programs to gather student voice about learning.
Challenge: The challenge of this rung is that adults do not have to let students impact their decisions. There could be a mass of student voice pointing in one direction, but adults maintain their authority and choose to go a different direction. Worst still, they do not feel accountable to students and might not actually tell students about why they made the decisions they made and why they excluded students.
Student-centered means that schools focus on students’ needs, interests, dreams, or cultures. Whether it happens through teaching, learning, decision-making, or otherwise, student-centered activities general mean that adults assess what students want or need; determine how they’ll meet those wants or dreams; and decide the validity of what students learn in the process of an activity. Some schools content they are student-centered through every aspect of student experience within that school, including classrooms, hallways, and beyond; other schools don’t even mention student-centered experiences with the idea that adults always know what is best for all students, regardless of generation, race, gender, sexual identity, or otherwise.
Challenge: The absence of student voice within student-centered activities is ironic. Other roadblocks to student-centered learning include the adultcentric perspective that schools should reflect the needs of communities, parents, businesses, politicians, government, and of everyone but students themselves.
Reward: Benefits to student-driven activities often focus on the relevance of the activity to students themselves: By allowing students’ needs to be the focus of schools, educators feel as if students become more invested and engaged within the activity that throughout their learning experiences. Students sometimes feel this way, too.
RUNG: STUDENT TOKENISM
Students are tokenized when adults involve them simply to say students are involved, rather than having a genuine desire to engage them. In these circumstances, students receive no information, have no input and are not given opportunities to learn anything of substance. Instead, they simply attend and adults claim credit for their participation. Some students will say their entire school experience reflects this reality. When adults invite students to be ushers at professional education conferences, they are tokenizing students. In an instance where a teacher takes a vote in a class ostensibly to decide on the next activity they are going to do, but then makes a decision completely different from what the students choose, that teacher is tokenizing students.
Challenge: In these circumstances, meaningfulness is challenged because students are used inconsequentially by adults to reinforce the perspective that students are involved. Tokenizing students can teach them their perspective is irrelevant, and that their attendance is all that is necessary for adults. It can also teach students to tokenize other people for different reasons, including women, people of color and otherwise.
Reward: The reward to this approach is that it may validate student attendance without requiring adults take any effort to go beyond that simple approach. Tokenizing students cannot be meaningful and has no reward.
RUNG: STUDENT DECORATION
Moving up the Ladder, adults use students to decorate their actions throughout the education system. This happens whenever adults affix students to something they want to do for themselves, but insist on having students participate because it is school related. For instance, press conferences, school open houses and education foundation fundraisers often decorate with students. Similarly, decoration can happen in classrooms when a teacher really wants to cover a topic regardless of students’ needs or desire. At this point, teachers simply decorate their time with students in order to collect a paycheck for the day. School leaders might have students sit with them during a press conference to say acceptable things, or allow a positive message to be spray painted onto the school building with their approval. Afterschool workers and paraprofessionals can decorate with students by not allowing students to make any decisions about programming, but forcing them to attend in order to say students were there. Districts may launch programs to tell students about education reform initiatives simply to claim students know about what they are going through while they are going through it, without allowing students to say anything critical or otherwise respond substantively.
Challenge: The challenge is that the presence of students is treated as all that is necessary without reinforcing any sort of meaning in their involvement. Students do not have to learn in classrooms or from activities where they are decorations, because the intention truly is not for them to learn. Instead, it is for adults to fulfill their agenda while students are in attendance.
Reward: The reward may be that student presence is a tangible outcome that demonstrates adults have some thought in mind regarding student involvement. Using students as decorations cannot be meaningful.
RUNG: STUDENT MANIPULATION
In nations around the world, students of particular ages are compelled by law to attend schools. Once they are there, students receive grades, scores and other acknowledgements of their academic performance and behavior. Some people automatically say these are examples of adults manipulating students. However, if students understand why they are forced to attend schools and agree to the democratic nature of compulsory education, the manipulative nature of these arguments is dismantled.
Similarly, if students do not succeed academically or socially in many schools, they will receive failing grades. Success is awarded with good grades, and there is a clear line for failure that is acknowledge with low grades. There are alternatives to manipulating students to performing to adults’ expectations, too. This act minimalizes learning into an exchange based off control and compliance, rather than authentic learning from effective teaching. Classroom teachers might manipulate students into behaving how they want them to, while noncertificated or paraprofessional staff can manipulate students by offering them exclusive rewards for good behavior. School leaders sometimes manipulate students by coercing student leaders to sway other students with threats of poor letters of recommendation into college, or noncompliant students with threats of expulsion.
Challenge: The challenge of this rung is that students are forced to attend without regard to interest. This is true of general school attendance and school board meetings. Grades, praise, or prizes are used to manipulate students.
Reward: The reward to manipulating students is that students experience whatever they are attending, whether a class, special program, athletic event or otherwise. Often this gives adults further rationale for continuing activities. Manipulating students cannot be meaningful.
Exploring the Ladder
It is important to recognize that the Ladder is not meant to represent the involvement of every student in every school all at once. It’s also not support to show the entire experience of one student throughout their day. Instead, it should be used to plan and assess each specific instance of student involvement. That means that rather than say a whole classroom is rung 4, several students could be experiencing that they are at that rung four while others are experiencing that they are at rung six.
For a long time, determining which rung students occupied was left to perspective and position: If an adult believed the students on their committee were at rung 6, and the students believed they were at rung 8, they simply agreed to disagree. The following rubric can help provide a clearer explanation of what student involvement looks like.
Roger Hart, a sociologist for UNICEF who developed the original Ladder of Children’s Participation in 1994, identified the first three rungs as representing forms of non-participation. However, while the first rung generally represents the nature of all student involvement in schools with the threat of attend or fail, there are more roles for students than ever before throughout the education system. Rungs 6, 7, and 8 generally represent Student/Adult Partnerships, which are intentionally designed relationships that foster authentic student engagement in schools. With this knowledge in mind, the rungs of the Ladder can help students and adults throughout education identify how students are currently involved in schools, and give them goals to aspire towards.
Validation for Students AND Adults
The Ladder is a tool that can inspire action that validates students and adults by authorizing their involvement throughout the education system in different ways. When students initiate action and share decisions with adults, partnerships flourish. Later in this book there are examples of specific ways that students and adults can work together to realize that vision.
As I describe earlier, simply calling something meaningful does not make it so. Saying that students are complex is an understatement; saying that schools need to be responsive to their complexity seems overly simplistic. However, according to the Ladder, many educators may be treating students in disingenuous, non-empowering ways without even knowing it.
Among student voice researchers and practitioners who have learned about and studied this model, there is an important argument about the Ladder. There is been a debate raging about whether Hart was off-based regarding the pinnacle experience for young people in decision-making. Many people wondered if it is best for adults to initiate activities and share decision-making with young people; whether it is best for young people to initiate and direct decision-making in their activities; or for young people to initiate activities and share decisions with adults. It was his research that led Hart to conclude that child-led experiences where best for all involved. (Hart, 1997)
I have been serving schools with my Meaningful Student Involvement hypothesis for more than a decade and teaching about the Ladder model the entire time. After spending several years implementing each of the rungs on the Ladder in classrooms, boardrooms, offices, and other spaces throughout the education system, I have come to understand that Hart was not acknowledging the unique environments and cultures of schools when he created the Ladder. Unfortunately, many practitioners of student voice in schools today do not acknowledge it, either.
In recreating the Ladder for schools, I wanted to accommodate this understanding. However, instead of merely installing alternative words or shuffling around different words to other places, I have added wholly new concepts to the ladder. Illustrating the differences in involvement like this can help adults and students critically examine the myriad ways involvement happens throughout schools focused on decision-making and much more. However, it’s essential to consider the unique environments of schools and the different ways involvement happens there as opposed to the community at large. It’s essential to understand where students and adults are at and where we can really go with Meaningful Student Involvement. As soon as we begin using it, we assume responsibility for interpreting and re-interpreting this Ladder every time we use it in order to provide much needed information to keep modifying Meaningful Student Involvement.
I would LOVE to hear your thoughts, reflections and ideas about the Ladder. Please share your words in the comments section below!
After 15 years of working with K-12 schools, districts, state agencies, and national education organizations across the US and Canada focused on Meaningful Student Involvement, I am confident in saying the following vision is absolutely essential for school improvement. Here’s why:
The essential partner in school reform- students- are not routinely, systemically, or systematically engaged in the process of school reform; more so, their role is continuously relegated to that of “recipient.” Their roles must change in order for ANY school reform to be effective. The change that is required is the fostering of Meaningful Student Involvement.
The Greatest Challenge?
The greatest challenge facing schools today is not the literacy deficit or even the achievement gap, as tragic and real as both those are. The single problem plaguing all students in all schools everywhere is the crisis of disconnection. It is disconnection from learning, from curriculum, from peers, from adults; it is disconnection from relevance, rigor, and relationships; it is disconnection from self and community; it is simple disconnection. While it doesn’t only affect schools, is does plague schools in a special way.
A Cure to Student Disconnection
A cure to student disconnection is meaningfulness. Meaningful Student Involvement happens when the roles of students are actively re-aligned from being the passive recipients of schools to becoming active partners throughout the educational process. Meaningful Student Involvement can happen in any location throughout education, including the classroom, the counselor’s office, hallways, after school programs, district board of education offices, at the state or federal levels, and in other places that directly affect the students’ experience of education. Real learning and real purpose take form through Meaningful Student Involvement, often showing immediate impacts on the lives of students by actively authorizing each of them to have powerful, purposeful opportunities to impact their own learning and the lives of others.
Misunderstanding What’s At Hand
As we see increased interest in the entwined topics of student engagement and student voice throughout schools, it becomes easy to misunderstand the relationships between these topics and Meaningful Student Involvement. Student voice is any verbal, visual, or other expression learners make regarding education. This can include students sharing their life stories in class, or graffiting on the hallway wall. Student engagement is the outcome of learners’ emotional, social, cultural, psychological, or other bonds towards school; it is a feeling. 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. It can be said, then, that Meaningful Student Involvement strengthens, supports, and sustains student voice in order to foster student engagement for every student in every grade in every school.
Characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement
Many schools have used SoundOut’s Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement to reconsider their approaches to learning, teaching, and leadership in schools. Following are six characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement that form my new vision for students in school reform. The following six characteristics show exactly what is present in schools where Meaningful Student Involvement is an organizing premise for school transformation. Anything other than these six characteristics is not fully meaningful.
Characteristic #1: School-wide Approaches to Meaningful Student Involvement.
All students in all grades are meaningfully involved throughout their education
All school reform measures include opportunities for all students in all grades to become engaged in education.
Students are involved in system-wide planning, research, teaching, evaluation, decision-making, and advocacy.
Meaningful involvement starts in kindergarten and extending through graduation.
There are a variety of opportunities throughout each students’ individual learning experience
There are also a variety of opportunities for students in the learning experiences of their peers; within their school building; throughout their districts, and; across their states.
There are a variety of opportunities for meaningful involvement in classroom management, interactions with peers and adults throughout the school, and ongoing throughout their educational careers.
There are opportunities for student/adult partnerships in learning communities; student-specific roles in building leadership, and; intentional programs designed to increase student efficacy as partners in school improvement.
Characteristic #2: High levels of Student Authority through Meaningful Student Involvement.
Students’ ideas, knowledge, opinions and experiences in schools and regarding education are actively sought and substantiated by educators, administrators, and other adults within the educational system.
Adults’ acknowledgment of students’ ability to improve schools is validated and authorized.
Students are deliberately taught about learning, learning about the education system, learning about student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement, and learning about school improvement.
Schools’ commitment to Meaningful Student Involvement is obvious through sustainable activities, comprehensive planning and effective assessments
Assessments measure shared and individual perceptions and outcomes of Meaningful Student Involvement .
Students are incorporated into ongoing, sustainable school reform activities.
There are deliberate opportunities for learning, teaching, and leadership for all students throughout the educational system.
In individual classrooms this can mean integrating student voice into classroom management practices; giving students opportunities to design, facilitate, and evaluate curriculum; or facilitating student learning about school systems.
In the Principal’s office it can mean students’ having equitable opportunities to participate with adults in formal school improvement activities.
On the state school board of education it can mean students having full voting rights, and equal representation to adults.
Whatever the opportunities are, ultimately it means they are all tied together with the intention of improving schools for all learners all the time.
Every school should be in a continuous mode of improvement; every single improvement effort should seek nothing less than to engage students.
Doors are opened for classroom teachers, building principals and other adults in schools to fully and completely partner with students.
Each of these strategies are integrated with a building, district, and/or school improvement plan
Each of these strategies is obvious within regular policies and procedures in schools, districts, and/or state agencies.
Characteristic #4: Sustainable Structures of Support for Implementing Meaningful Student Involvement.
Policies and procedures are created and amended to promote Meaningful Student Involvement throughout schools.
This includes creating specific funding opportunities that support student voice and student engagement.
This also includes facilitating ongoing professional development for educators focused on Meaningful Student Involvement.
This new vision for students is integrated and infused into classroom practice, building procedures, district/state/federal policy.
Ultimately it engenders new cultures throughout education that constantly focus on students by constantly having students on board.
Sustainability within schools is actively observed, examined, critiqued and challenged by students and adults as the intermixing of culture and structure.
Structures of support include student action centers that train students and provide information to student/adult partners.
Structures also include curriculum specifically designed to teach students about school improvement and student action.
Structures also include fully-funded, ongoing programs that support Meaningful Student Involvement.
Characteristic #5: Personal Commitment to Meaningful Student Involvement.
Students and adults acknowledge their mutual investment, dedication, and benefit.
Acknowledgment is visible in learning, relationships, practices, policies, school culture, and many other ways.
Meaningful Student Involvement is not just about students themselves.
It insists that from the time of their pre-service education, teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, counselors, and others see students as substantive, powerful, and significant partners in all the different machinations of schools.
When they have this commitment every person will actively seek nothing other than to fully integrate students at every turn.
Students previously seen “the other” are no longer viewed as different and separate, both in intention and action.
Particular emphasis is placed on engaging low-income students, students-of-color and low-achieving students in buildings where predominately white, upper-income and/or high achieving students have been perceived as having greater value or more importance than other learners.
Sharing and re-affirming personal commitment is a cultural norm within the environment where Meaningful Student Involvement happens.
Characteristic #6: Strong Learning Connections Within Meaningful Student Involvement.
Classroom learning and student involvement are connected by classroom learning and credit, ensuring relevancy for educators and significance to students.
This deliberate connection ties together the roles for students with the purpose of education.
It also substantiates student/adult partnerships and signifies the intention of adults to continue transforming learning as learners themselves evolve.
Meaningful Student Involvement should not be an “add-on” strategy for educators – it should be integrated throughout their daily activities.
Classroom teachers should acknowledge exceptional projects and involvement by students with credit.
This new vision for students provides all people in schools, young and adult, with opportunities to collaborate in exciting new ways while securing powerful new outcomes for everyone involved, most importantly students themselves.
Other Important Considerations
Appropriateness: Students have far more wisdom than many adults might think. At the youngest ages, they are capable of expressing their views in simple and powerful ways. Appropriateness includes involvement that is developmentally, age and stage, individuality and culturally appropriate.
Respect: Meaningful Student Involvement is founded on respectful relationships between students and adults throughout education. Giving the floor to students doesn’t take away from adult responsibilities. One of the most important things we can do is ensure a safe and supportive learning environment where Meaningful Student Involvement can happen. Shared understanding
Mutuality: Reciprocity is essential to Meaningful Student Involvement. This includes developing a common understanding about why and how students are being involved, what the purpose is, and how students can contribute to shaping the way activities occur. Reciprocity cannot just happen at the beginning of activities, either—it needs to be monitored and honed as the engagement unfolds.
More Than Words: Meaningful Student Involvement requires adults often act as facilitators. They should use techniques like:
Projection—Asking questions that explicitly invite their views, such as ‘Tell me, what do you think about …?’, ‘How do you feel when …?’, ‘What do you like about …?’, ‘What makes you think that?’, ‘What makes you feel that way?’, and so on.
Ask leading questions—Accompanied by concrete stimuli and hands-on experiences in which students can explore and express their ideas, while others carefully observe and document.
Clarifying—Make sure you understand what students are actually saying and prompt them to elaborate on their ideas can help to further support and validate student contributions.
Let Go—Understand there are times to take charge and there are times to let go. Know which one is which without overdoing either approach too much. Meaningful Student Involvement requires self-negotiation, too.
Take Action—Don’t simply talk about change too much. Instead, more quickly towards tangible, accessible activities that show clear results whenever possible. Also teach students that waiting can be good, too.
Acknowledging Power Relationships: Power is a key consideration in Meaningful Student Involvement, because schools are built on it. From kindergarten, students are taught adult voices count more than theirs. Be mindful of power differences between students and adults and do not to put words into the mouths of the people you’re trying to engage. Power dynamics can also occur among students. If you’re working with students in a group setting, it is important to be sensitive to these dynamics and create opportunities for everyone to be involved. Small social groups can work best; integration and infusion can too.
Ethical Imperative: Adults throughout all of the education system have an ethical imperative to meaningfully involve students. It is essential to respect and honor the ethical rights of students, the places they come from and the communities where they belong. Ways of doing this include providing clear information about what student involvement might include, and seeking students’ genuine interest in becoming involved before automatically assigning them. Can you have an understanding with students that if they chose not to become involved there will be no negative consequences for that decision? Voluntary involvement can be the key. Even if students agree to take part, they should have the freedom to withdraw at any time without penalty. Students also have the right to privacy and confidentiality. This includes seeking their explicit permission for any material arising from their involvement being published. Finally, students have the right to be assured that their involvement will be worthwhile and enjoyable.
The impacts of Meaningful Student Involvement are only beginning to be shown; with time, expanded practice, and investment, I am convinced that this vision will fully demonstrate not only the efficacy of the practice, but ultimately, of education, community, and democracy itself. There can be no lesser goal for any school, nor should their be.
Since 2002, SoundOut has been promoting Meaningful Student Involvement, which is the process of engaging students as partners in every facet of the education system for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community and democracy.
Moving beyond listening to student voice, Meaningful Student Involvement engages every student as a partner with adults throughout K-12 schools. Centered on learning, this approach confronts the historic perception of students as passive recipients of adult-driven education systems by situating
It introduces nontraditional, highly effectual opportunities for students in hallways, classrooms, principals’ offices, school boardrooms, and beyond, providing a model for school improvement that strengthens the commitment of students to education, community and democracy.
Embracing a systems thinking approach to school transformation, Meaningful Student Involvement re-envisions the roles of students in equitable partnerships with adults throughout the learning environment. It promotes student engagement by securing roles for students in every facet of the educational system and recognizes the unique knowledge, experience and perspective of each individual student.
Different than Meaningful
While Meaningful Student Involvement touches upon many areas, activities and strategies for learning, teaching and leadership in education, it is not the same or synonymous with other topics. For instance, Meaningful Student Involvement is different from…
Student voice, which is any expression of any student about any aspect of learning, schools or education.
Student engagement, which is the excitement and investment a young person feels towards learning
Pupil consultation, which is a systematic process for listening to students’ opinions about school.
Meaningful Student Involvement transforms education by empowering student voice in student/adult partnerships to foster student engagement. It offers practical, tangible and pragmatic avenues for action right now.
How It Happens
Meaningful Student Involvement happens through learning, teaching and leadership throughout K-12 education from the classroom to the school board room and beyond.
Professional development for educators on this model focuses on both line-level practices to create Student/Adult Partnerships with every student in every grade level in all schools, as well as systems transformation affecting all of education.
Essential roles emerge, including students as school planners, educational researchers, classroom teachers, learning evaluators, systemic decision-makers, and education advocates. It also includes identifying concrete learning goals from involvement, creating practical systems for sustainability, and transforming traditionally exclusive adult-only environments.
What Meaning Looks Like
In order to implement strategies for Meaningful Student Involvement effectively, you must discover the breadth of Meaningful Student Involvement. The following characteristics can give you a sense of the process involved.
High Levels of Student Authority: A core commitment is fostered within all members of the school community – including teachers, administrators, school staff, parents, community supporters and others – to meaningfully involve students as learners, teachers and leaders throughout schools.
Interrelated Strategies: Learn about and incorporate the Cycle of Engagement into learning, teaching and leadership of schools. All school improvement activities should reflect the frameworks of meaningful involvement. Efforts that engage teachers as classroom experts and parents as community partners can also include students as meaningful contributors. New, daily and consistent efforts should be made to engage all students, everywhere, all the time.
Personal Commitment: All adults throughout an education environment expand their expectation of every student in every school to become an active and equal partner in school improvement.
Sustainable Structures of Support: Sustainable structures are implemented to support students and educators as they create responsive systems that engage all students in all schools, everywhere all of the time.
Strong Learning Connections: The experience, perspectives and knowledge of all students are validated through sustainable, powerful and purposeful education-oriented roles.
Support and Researc
As a research-driven model reflecting international practice, Meaningful Student Involvement effectively reveals the evolving capacities of children and youth in the environments where they spend a large majority of their days: schools. It centers on developing constructivist-learning opportunities for students to participate in roles as education researchers, school planners, teachers, learning evaluators, systemic decision-makers, and advocates in schools, for schools.
Adults in schools, including teachers, administrators, and support staff, as well as parents, are central to Meaningful Student Involvement, as well. By building partnerships for better curriculum, classroom management, and formal school improvement, Meaningful Student Involvement recognizes the necessity of engaging all adults within the learning environment as partners to students. Focused professional development for staff and learning opportunities integrated throughout the school day for students allow the whole school to change.
By reinforcing critical thinking, active problem solving, civic participation, and an appreciation for diverse perspectives, Meaningful Student Involvement allows students to apply essential “soft skills” learning to real world issues that affect them every day. It represents a shift away from the perspective of students as passive recipients of adult-driven schools by positioning every young person in every learning environment as a learner, teacher, and leader. Even more so, Meaningful Student Involvement gives schools concrete, customized tools to do this.
“The times are a changing.” Forty years ago Bob Dylan’s song was shocking, provocative and powerful. Today it seems shocked, pretentious and spent. However, as a teacher from Oakland recently said in a SoundOut workshop, “Students have changed more in the last ten years than schools have in the last hundred.” Despite all these years of sage voices and students changing, schools have not done a very good job of listening, let alone responding to these challenges.
Lots of people have thought about why students have changed so much. Media infiltration, commercialism and technology usage have all been cited as sources that have changed the experience of learning in today’s schools. However, as educators search for answers, the drivers who fuel these changes have largely been ignored: students themselves. Rather than working with students to help understand and negotiate why, how, when, where and what they learn, educators, administrators and school leaders have largely changed schools for students, and done change to students, without their ideas, concerns or actions in mind.
In the past five years SoundOut has worked with more than 75 K-12 schools across the nation to help students and educators re-envision the role of students in education. Make no mistake: Students have one essential role in schools, and that is the position of learner. What SoundOut does is help define new ways students can learn in schools, while they become engaged in positively changing schools.
A Crisis of Purpose
Traditional student involvement has taken several forms, including student government, extra-curricular programs and athletic activities. In some of the most progressive classrooms, schools and education agencies across the country, those activities have been extended to engage students in special committees, advisory boards and other opportunities. The dilemma with the majority of all of those activities is simple: It is disconnected from the essential role of students in schools. Devoid of classroom credit or meaningful evaluations of student learning, these activities actually dissuade the majority of the student body in many schools from participating. Informal surveying conducted in many of the schools SoundOut has worked in has shown that fewer than 25% of all students in a school participate in any substantive school-based activity outside of the classroom.
Adding to that conundrum is the reality that many students do not connect with classroom learning topics, teachers or outcomes in any significant way. That is not a recent development: in the 1920s John Dewey proposed that schools design relevant learning opportunities for all students, which eventually led to the creation of career and technical education classes in many high schools. While some schools have adjusted their subject areas for modern interests, a large number still have not. Leadership, technology, modern politics and contemporary culture courses are not the norm in American high schools; worse still, these are actually rare topics in middle schools, and almost completely missing from elementary schools. Even in schools where these adjustments have happened, there is still often a crisis of disinterest among students.
All of that is to say that most activities that proponent student involvement suffer a crisis of purpose. There is no real reason for the majority of students to actually become engaged throughout their education. This majority does not seek the rewards of traditional student leadership activities, and generally speaking, they do not yearn for the acknowledgment of being “star” students. This is the same majority of students who go to school just because somebody tells them to. Their moms or dads, girlfriends or best friends, or the truancy officer is there everyday to remind them that they are not in it alone.
Staring Out the Window
The good news is the answers to these problems have been shared no fewer than ten million times over the last one hundred years! The problem is that we – educators, administrators, politicians, researchers – still have not learned to listen to them. The voices offering the solutions do not offer them in simple ways; rather, the answers are complex and idealistic, opportunistic and often inconvenient. Sometimes the answers present themselves as very sophisticated, substantive transformations; others, they are seemingly menial and insignificant – to the people listening. However, each of these answers is a solution to the challenges schools face.
Where do these elusive “silver bullets” come from? The tests where the unexceptional student performed exceptionally – there was an answer there. Classes that had high attendance – there was an answer there. Teachers that every student loved, hallways where students want to “hang out”, clothes that lots of students wanted to wear each have an answer. In a more complex fashion, every time a student has griped about class, they have shared a solution. Every frustrated crumpling of paper, every exhibition of crying and storming from a room, every hallway fight, and even every school shooting has presented a solution to the challenges of schools.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of these solutions is that they have not been so convenient to us. Rather than staring us in the in the face, they are staring out the window or down at their cell phone – where they are often text messaging a friend about how boring this class is. So it is not particularly clear how to learn from student voice. However, there is an answer in the words and actions of students.
Somehow, somewhere along the way many adults forgot to listen. Or we actively plugged our ears. Worst still, a small group of us, the masters of education, learned how to manipulate student voices, turning them into opportunities to strengthen our assumptions, keep our jobs, maintain our schools, and build our reputations. Perhaps most heinously, a small (and actively growing) group of adults learned how to use student voice against students, actually using their words, deeds and ideas to keep them from becoming active partners throughout the educational process.
In order to find out what students think is meaningful, start by listening to their voices. Not just the token few, either: surround yourself in the muck and mire of daily student lives. Stand in the hallways and just listen. Go to the cafeteria and simply hear. Make provocative statements to your classroom and soak up the responses, positive and challenging. Gather together a group of students and challenge them to be completely honest with you about what sucks about their school. Don’t stop after that. SoundOut offers an entire Cycle that addresses next steps. But trust that the only place to start honestly, authentically transforming schools is by listening to students themselves.
An assumption of Meaningful Student Involvement is that schools have the ability to be meaningful. However, how meaningful can a school be? The following is a brief examination of the best practices educators and students can create, sustain, and expand on in order to herald fully meaningful schools.
Trait 1: Foster Meaningful Involvement for ALL Learners.
This means no more student councils.
All students in all grades in all schools need to experience meaningful involvement.
Meaningful involvement is a practical, tangible component of every students’ daily educational experience.
There are no tokenistic gestures of representation.
The passive activity of voting no longer passes for involvement.
All students experience concrete activities, including dialogue, peer-driven conflict resolution and interactive learning.
A democratic culture and education serves as the decision-making apparatus once facilitated by student councils.
Trait 2: No More Tokenism.
There should be no single seats for high school students on building-, district-, or state-level committees.
All school committees at all levels should be operated in a way that deliberately engages all students as equal partners.
All education meetings use techniques that are engaging.
All education decision-making includes equitable positions for students on those committees, including numbers and representative power.
Trait 3: Student/Adult Courts Rule.
Educators learn to use school rules as interactive educative tools.
Schools engage students and adults collectively in determining appropriate outcomes for infractions.
Trait 4: Student-Driven Learning.
Self-guided educational practices are already the norm in some “alternative” schools; let’s make this practice normative throughout all levels of schools.
There is a possibility in the relationships between all students and teachers to actually have all K-12 students design their own individual academic programs.
Utilize learning experiences as educational and democratic processes.
Rather than seeing this as a situation where adults are “handing over the keys to the car” to a 16-year-old, let’s use student-driven learning in a constructivist fashion from kindergarten forward.
Trait 5: Constructivist Democratic Learning.
Engaging students takes a deliberate process that should begin in their youngest years and extend through high school.
It should build on students’ previous knowledge and be imbued by their cultural norms.
In kindergarten learners can facilitate peer-to-peer conflict resolution, personal decision-making and democratic group learning experiences.
By grade four, five and six, students can conduct original research on their schools, complete regular self- and teacher-evaluations, and participate in building-wide decision-making activities.
By high school young people should have established clear and equitable relationships with adults throughout schools in order to participate in full student/adult partnerships.
Trait 6: Reciprocal Accountability.
The era of adults measuring student achievement without some form of mutual measurement is over.
When ratemyteachers dot come started mocking the power of students in 2007, teachers across the nation flipped out, finding their names and classrooms rated by anonymous users calling themselves students.
Educators still haven’t identified a way en masse to use tools like this as teaching opportunities, but there has been some headway.
While assessments of student behavior have often been focused on negative perspectives, schools are finding ways to acknowledge positive student behavior and learning through student-led conferencing.
Educators must continue to move forward with students as partners.
Trait 7: Full-Court Press.
All student voice – positive, negative and otherwise – must be allowed space and opportunity within schools
All student voice can be used towards teaching and learning. By embracing diverse and divergent student voice, educators can embrace the potential of learning led by students and learn new ways to relate to, teach, and encourage themselves and everyone in our communities.
Trait 8: Equity and Equality.
A common assumption among educators is that all student involvement should be actualized as complete equality.
Equity is often the just, fair and righteous route to take.
Equity is about fairness in schools, equality of access in learning, recognizing inequalities throughout education and taking steps to address them.
It is about changing school culture and structure to ensure equally accessible to all students.
Trait 9: Make Meaning from Living.
Curriculum should be based in every students’ experiences of living their daily lives.
Curriculum can also preparing students for tomorrow so that schools meet the purpose of enriching the present as well as enlightening the future.
This validates the ideas, experiences, wisdom and knowledge young people have.
Schools should ultimately positioning their voices as central throughout learning
This reinforces the depth and meaning of democracy, which will secure learning for life, and a commitment to democracy that is unparalleled.
Trait 10: Public Or Nothing At All.
Democracy is inherently about inclusion.
Private schools and charter schools can be blatantly antithetical to the democratic levers of public control over public schools, as they generally operate with privately elected boards of directors or fully autonomous presidents.
Admittedly, public schools generally behave as if they’re out of the purview of the masses; however, forceful, peaceful and powerful advocacy by students and parents will ultimately lead to stronger controls.
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. For that reason we have developed the Meaningful Student Involvement Learning Process.
The Meaningful Student Involvement 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; rather, 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.
The Meaningful Student Involvement Learning Process
Learn 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.
Learn about the educational 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. However, 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.
Learn about education reform. 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.
Learn 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.
Learn 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 Meaningful Student Involvement 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.