Impacts of Meaningful Student Involvement on Development

Beyond learning, there is a space in all schools where the development of social and emotional skills is key. Some schools continue to refer to this as child development or youth development, while others call this social/emotional learning. Mitra’s studies (2004; Serriere & Mitra, 2012; Mitra & Serriere, 2012) have found that a key outcome of what I describe as Meaningful Student Involvement was youth development. In particular, Mitra and her colleagues found the following attributes present as a result:

  • Agency: Acting or exerting influence and power in a given situation
  • Belonging: Developing meaningful relationships with other students and adults and having a role at the school
  • Competence: Developing new abilities and being appreciated for one’s talents (Mitra, 2004)
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Exploring them further, Mitra suggests that student voice increasing student agency by increasing their abilities to articulate opinions to others; constructing new student identities as change makers; and developing a greater sense of leadership. She says student voice fosters students’ sense of belonging by developing relationships with caring adults; improving interactions with teachers; and increasing students’ sense of attachment to their schools. Finally, she states that student competence is improved because student voice activities promote students “critiquing their environment; developing problem solving and facilitation skills; and getting along with others.” (Mitra, 2004)

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In a report on the well-respected and long-running Vermont Governor’s Institute on Public Issues and Youth Activism, researchers identified twelve developmental attributes that were enhanced through student-led action to improve education and communities. The Insitute recruits academically high performing students to foster their leadership development and community action. The attributes found by the researcher included intellectual rigor, self-education, critical analysis, personal voice, emotional nurturance, diversity acceptance, healthy expression of emotions, safety and appreciation, shared power, and the ability to use appropriate power. (Ungerleider & DiBenedetto, 1997))

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Another study reported that students experience increased responsibility for their own self-learning as well as their peers because of Meaningful Student Involvement. This was caused by increased student capacity for critical thinking and an overall reduction in disruptive behavior, all because of the process of engaging students as partners throughout education. (Ontario Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, 2007) The finding that students’ skills can be vitally employed in school improvement, but are habitually underutilized, is continually documented in a number of studies. (Fine & Weis, 2003; Nieto, 1994; Wilson & Corbett, 2001; Shultz & Cook-Sather, 2001)

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In my work focused on promoting student voice through SoundOut, I have identified the following skill building and knowledge-sharing areas becoming developed when schools are committed to Meaningful Student Involvement. I have found when developing plans to build Student/Adult Partnerships, it is vital to consider capacity building for everyone involved. However, I have also seen the following skills and knowledge grow through activities focused on other issues, but naturally nurturing of these areas. See earlier in Part Four for how skills and knowledge development relate. My book, The SoundOut Workshop Guide (Fletcher, 2015) shares key training activities for students focused on these areas and more.

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  • Self-Engagement: Instead of seeing engagement as just a result of action, Meaningful Student Involvement builds students’ abilities to self-engage in activities they care about.
  • Stereotypes: Students learn to identify what stereotypes are across differences, whether academic performance, age, race, gender, sexual identity, or otherwise. They also learn to embrace difference and engage diversity as a positive school for transformation.
  • Media Bias: Students examine all sorts of media for its biases and perspectives, and build their ability to interpret and monitor information constantly.
  • Learning about Learning: Having a basic understanding of why schools teach what they do the ways they do is a key to learning through Meaningful Student Involvement. All the skills and knowledge available about schools and education are irrelevant if students do not understand why and how they are doing what they are doing.
  • Being Authentic: Faced with opportunities to become “miniature adults” or assume other identities, Meaningful Student Involvement encourages students to learn who they authentically are and what they authentically care about throughout education.
  • Leading through Adapting: Being able to plan and adapt pathways to Meaningful Student Involvement is vital, and should reflect the needs and contexts where it’s happening.
  • Collaboration and Partnerships: Forming intentional partnerships requires skills in effective participation in groups, including both being involved and facilitating.
  • Decision-Making and Conflict Resolution: Meaningful Student Involvement supports positive, powerful opportunities for co-decision-making between students and adults.
  • Co-Learning: Students and adults need to learn to be deliberate co-learners by building their skills in collaboration and teamwork. Meaningful Student Involvement fosters co-learning skills through applied learning opportunities and reflection.
  • Learning about the Education System: Historically seen as the targets or subjects of the education system, Meaningful Student Involvement actively engages students as partners throughout the system. This requires students needing to learn what the education system is, how it operates, what the inputs and outcomes are, and other variable factors.
  • Critical Thinking: Increasing and honing the ability of students to be critical partners in learning, teaching and leading is key to creating new knowledge, which is a central outcome of Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • Language and Jargon: Applying diverse learned terminology, students are encouraged to embrace useful jargon and dismiss meaningless language.
  • Learning about Student Voice: Going beyond assuming that students have enough knowledge about themselves and how to express themselves, Meaningful Student Involvement builds students’ knowledge and skills to express their ideas, knowledge, action and outcomes throughout the education system.
  • Listening: As part of the Cycle of Engagement, students can become excellent listeners to each other, adults, younger students, and people throughout their educational communities.
  • Feedback Techniques: Learning to listen to and provide constructive feedback is a vital skill for Meaningful Student Involvement, especially while encouraging others to do the same with specific tools.
  • Learning about Meaningful Student Involvement: Students learn to see how, when, where, why and what they are involved in. They learn about roles for students as partners, equity and equality, and more at the center of Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • Power, Trust and Respect: Through meaningful involvement, students learn to identify others’ understanding of these key concepts and critically examine the role of power, trust and respect throughout education.
  • Action Planning: The importance of Meaningful Student Involvement is highlighted by the skills to know where to begin and how to develop learning-infused, education-oriented initiatives.
  • Problem Solving: Students learn how to name the different types of problems they face at school and understand the impact Meaningful Student Involvement can have on the way schools solve problems. They also learn which problems are theirs to solve alone and which they should solve with adults as partners.
  • Learning about School Improvement: Learning about different components of schools, student voice and their meaningful involvement is important. However, learning to apply that learning to making schools better for everyone is key. Students learn formal, informal, strategic and situational methods to make schools better for everyone, including other students.
  • Addressing Roadblocks: Students learn to look in-depth at education and see where language abilities, cultural disparities, academic abilities, age and other factors affect Meaningful Student Involvement. Applying meaningfulness throughout their learning experience is a result of this skill.
  • Letting Go and Taking Charge: Through Meaningful Student Involvement, students and adults learn to take responsibility for their roles. Understanding what roles, rights and responsibilities each group has is key, especially for creating agreements that lead to actionable outcomes.
  • Fostering Ideal Partnerships: Reaching equity between students and adults is an outcome of meaningful involvement that is central for everyone involved. Students learn to foster these ideal partnerships in practical ways through learning and action.
  • Reflection: Discovering different methods to reflect and examine their experiences through Meaningful Student Involvement, students gain the ability to make meaning from any activity in their lives.
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All of these skill and knowledge sets are important for taking action to transform schools through the Student/Adult Partnerships inherent in Meaningful Student Involvement.

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