School Culture as a Barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement

Culture is a less concrete, more inherent factor to engaging student voice throughout education. Many researchers say the culture of a school is its personality: Just like individual people, schools can be kind and accepting, rude and disrespectful, wise and guiding, and any other set of characteristics.

Parts of the Culture

Even more so, schools can be, and usually are, any combination of those characteristics. In this way, culture actually dictates structure; it is also obvious in the attitudes, actions, interactions, and relationships of individuals throughout education. To do this work, educators, administrators and adults throughout the education not only need to open up physical spaces but also the minds of their peers so they cannot only listen to student voice, but embrace the presence and power of Meaningful Student Involvement. (Cook-Sather, 2006; Elias, 2010; Chopra, 2014)

Kohn notes that school culture “may create a climate in which teachers do to children what is done to them.” He goes on,

“Classroom teachers frequently protest that they would love to open up the decision-making process but for the fact that a significant number of decisions are not theirs to give away or even to make themselves.” (Kohn, 1993)

Without substantive opportunities to contribute to whole school improvement efforts, teachers may feel stymied in their attempts to promote Meaningful Student Involvement. This is part of the school culture.

School culture is made by individuals in the building, including adults and students. The following chapter addresses each separately.

Part of the culture of schools is reflected in the ways adults relate to students, including how they get students involved. One of the frameworks of Meaningful Student Involvement examined earlier in this book was the Ladder of Student Involvement. Several of the top rungs were detailed earlier to show the highest aspects. However, following are some of the bottom rungs of the Ladder. They are detailed here because they generally reflect school culture and show us exactly how school culture can be a barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement.

Tokenizing Students

School culture might often promote tokenism. As soon as adults determine that students should be involved in something throughout education, whether classrooms, committees or clubs, they may be tokenizing students. Funneling, narrowing, focusing, or otherwise trimming the breadth, depth, or purpose of student involvement inherently poses the risk that student involvement does not genuinely reflect the attitudes, opinions, ideas, actions, knowledge, or beliefs of students. This can happen anytime adults ask students to become involved in specific ways or address a specific topic in education, including bullying, academic achievement, school transformation, or dancing on the roof. Any of this can be qualified as tokenizing students.

Tokenism happens because adults expect students to become involved the ways adults want them to, in the issues adults want them to, with the outcomes adults want. This can actually displace the authentic concerns, opinions, wisdom, ideas and knowledge students have about education, replacing it with conveniently chosen, adult-guided thinking or actions. It may not respect students for what they actually think or do, instead insisting that students only become involved in education in ways adults want, and speak or take action only on what adults want to hear about.

Decorating With Students

School culture can reflect roles for students as decorations. When adults make choices about schools and then use student surveys, speeches, ideals, and actions to shore up their choices, they are decorating with students. Posing students around adults at speaker’s daises, having student panels at education conferences, and putting students in suits to share their thoughts in front of school boards are some of the ways that adults use students as decorations.

This is misuse because it invalidates anything meaningful about student involvement. Instead, it only allows students to be props for adult beliefs, reinforcing the old adage that “Children are to be seen and not heard.” This old world thinking could not be more antithetical to Meaningful Student Involvement. Today, students have the ability to make their authentic voices known in dozens of ways across through technology and in real time. Adults never had that access when we were young. Yet we still treat them as if they do not. That disjuncture does not serve anyone, and is severely damaging our schools.

Manipulating Students

Another way school culture is a barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement is through manipulation. Adults force students to become involved. Faced with losing academic credit, losing acceptance of their peers, or losing the favor of adults in their lives, learners are sometimes forced by adults to share student voice. That pinching of students’ genuine interest in becoming involved is insidious, no matter how well-meaning it is. Making sure that students fit adults’ expectations for involvement shows students that the authentic ways they reveal their thoughts, beliefs, ideals, and wisdom aren’t the “right” ways to be heard. This can encourage them to change their minds in order to fit the molds presented in order to get the grade or be accepted.

Manipulation is plain wrong. It teaches students that involvement should not happen without direct reward or punishment. It demeans their basic humanity by robbing students of their innate opinions, inherent knowledge, powerful actions, and secure wisdom that as adults we can only benefit from. Instead, it positions them as consumers of schooling, as people who are incapable or undesiring of having their voices heard simply because they have a right and the ability to have their voices heard. Schools have the responsibility of being incubators of democratic society, and manipulating student involvement actively undermines that responsibility while taking away the rights of learners.

Denying Students

In the vast majority of schools today, the culture plainly denies students the opportunity to be meaningfully involved. It does this by openly silencing student voice, wholly dismissing student engagement as a concern, and roundly refuting involvement as a factor for concern, attention and action. Instead, school culture that denies students opportunities for meaningful involvement is the predominant reality today. Schools that do this do the following:

Schools that deny Meaningful Student Involvement are bound to continue failing, and will become more irrelevant than can be imagined. While they add computers, download the latest apps and send teachers to technology training in order to ensure they stay awake to the latest commercial trends for schools, the same buildings are dying inside as they suffocate the spirit of innovation, experimentation and power of students. Rather than simply being the leaders of tomorrow, students can transform the entirety of the education system today through Meaningful Student Involvement. Schools that deny this aren’t just failing students; they’re failing democracy.

These are some of the ways culture can be a barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement. However, there are other important factors that can inadvertently or intentionally block meaningfulness; see the related content below. Do you have wisdom, ideas and thoughts about school structure as a barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement? Please share them in the comments section below!

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