Critical Questions about Meaningful Student Involvement

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Since 2002, SoundOut has worked with more than 10,000 K-12 students and educators in schools across the United States and Canada. We have learned four huge lessons:

  • Unacknowledged capability: Students of all ages, identities, achievement levels, and social backgrounds are fully capable of becoming partners throughout education, but are rarely engaged in equitable partnerships that allow them to take action.
  • Untapped wisdom: Students have a lot to say about the schools they are attending and the education they’re receiving, but rarely feel like adults want to hear what they say.
  • Undelivered invitations: Students are almost never invited to participate in school governance, educational research, learning evaluations or substantive decision-making about classroom instruction, school improvement or educational leadership.
  • Unmet human resources: Adults are craving more human resources throughout schools, but rarely consider students as potential partners who could lighten the load and secure success.

This report documents dozens of cases of Meaningful Student Involvement and describes how a handful of students are engaged in planning, researching, teaching, evaluating, making decisions, or advocating for their own learning, as well as throughout the education system as a whole.

As we assess this comprehensive picture of student/adult partnerships, we are left wondering about how important Meaningful Student Involvement will become to the education system. We cannot be satisfied with tokenizing students, or simplistic attempts to listen to student voice. Instead, we want to transform all of learning, teaching and leadership.

Following are some critical questions about Meaningful Student Involvement for you to consider.

How should Meaningful Student Involvement factor into school improvement efforts, if at all?

We have not found evidence of schools planning school improvement that include Meaningful Student Involvement in any way, if at all. However, evidence shows that more educators than ever want to develop and sustain student engagement for students, and that teachers today are strongly committed to infusing student voice into their teaching.

However, getting to know individual students well is different than asking for their contributions to both the context and substance of their learning. The implications for student involvement reach beyond the students themselves to transformed teacher practice and school culture. Without the kind of intentional planning and focus that has gone into other aspects of small school design, the situation is not likely to change.

Who in the school responsible for Meaningful Student Involvement?

Student voice did not emerge as a theme in interviews with administrators or teachers. Even though the small schools are open to the idea of student participation, and indeed often included students in the early planning, processes and plans to incorporate and benefit from the inclusion of student voice in the newly formed small schools have not yet been widely discussed. We wonder where the impetus to include student voice in school decision making will come from.

How much Meaningful Student Involvement is appropriate?

There are many well-meaning, but poorly informed, programs that tell students they can do anything in schools. That’s ingenuous at best, as the power dynamic in public schools is that they are operated by adults for students. Turning over the keys to the building is simply not an option.

SoundOut does not advocate students taking over schools or teachers throwing out curriculum in favor of pop music. Instead, we are talking about students partnering with teachers, administrators and others throughout education in order to transform education. It remains unclear how much Meaningful Student Involvement can fully transform volatile and unstable schools, or affect the “brain drain” so quickly depleting rural schools. However, we do know that engaging students through Meaningful Student Involvement establishes a sense of belonging and fosters lifelong skills. Those are key to student engagement, which in turn benefits learning, teaching and leadership everywhere.

How will schools build the capacity of learners to be partners?

Students must be taught the skills and knowledge they need to know in order to become full and equitable partners throughout education. Students haven’t had the time or experience to know how to respond to challenging issues with reflection, or to know the depth, breadth and potential of public education. Research shows that students’ common first reaction to school improvement activities is resistance, which shows they had little or no role in planning and researching those activities.

However, merely listening to student voice falls short of Meaningful Student Involvement and cannot lead to student engagement. Adults throughout education need to increase the skills and knowledge among students, create structures to facilitate and sustain Meaningful Student Involvement, and deeply embrace the Principles of Student/Adult Partnerships throughout their work.

How can adults throughout education continually learn and deepen their learning in ways that foster Meaningful Student Involvement?

Like students, adults need to learn how to engage in student/adult partnerships. Teachers, administrators, counselors and others require new skills and knowledge in order to successfully support students as partners. This can help ensure authentic and genuine student engagement, and not mere tokenism or simple student voice.

Throughout the education system, students and adults represent distinct cultures and languages. Dialogue should focus on sharing ideas, critically addressing education and transforming learning, teaching and leadership instead of just pursuing answers and solutions. Adults in education must recognize and address the power imbalance between students and adults; suppress our tendencies to take charge over students; and overcome the fear of conflict. We must recognize students as resources for ideas, wisdom, and creativity regardless of their academic achievement. The goal is Meaningful Student Involvement, not listening to student voice.

What resources are available to support Meaningful Student Involvement that we haven’t shared on the SoundOut website?

When students are researchers, planners, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers and advocates, education must transform in order to embrace the Characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement. Intensive planning, structures for implementation, ongoing analytic evaluation, supplies and materials, professional development, and personal commitment are merely parts of what is required.

Because teachers, administrators, counselors, school board members are others are already heavily burdened with other aspects of school transformation, we wonder how additional resources can be tapped to support Meaningful Student Involvement. We wonder also what can be learned from the successes of other intentional approaches to infusing student/adult partnerships throughout schools, and how we can establish substantive bridges between our approach and theirs.

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