Place-Based Learning and Meaningful Student Involvement

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Place-based learning is an approach to learning, teaching and leadership in schools that engages the unique background, resources and outcomes of identifiable communities related to their own communities, cultures and natural environments. Meaningful Student Involvement can empower place-based learning to become highly relevant and significant in the lives of today’s learners.

What It Is

Rather than being a separate curriculum or program, place-based learning is similar to Meaningful Student involvement because it is a framework for teaching, learning and leadership that can be infused throughout education, including classrooms, principals’ offices and school boardrooms. Through Student/Adult Partnerships, students work with teachers, community members and other adults to learn from their community’s culture, history, natural environment, local economy, and issues and opportunities. Many years of research and practice show that even very young students can learn about their community. Academic work is tied to place is ways that matter both to students and to others in the community. This is authentic learning, and is often more rigorous than other approaches.

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Rural Schools and Meaningful Student Involvement

Rural schools face a growing number of challenges and opportunities unique to their circumstances. In many rural communities, schools are the center of activity and identity. Meaningful Student Involvement can provide unique opportunities to facilitate powerful transformation throughout those systems, and to sustain those communities.

What They Are

Rural schools are anywhere outside of cities and suburban areas. They often exist either as large consolidated schools or tiny one-room schoolhouses. Most are historical, but some are new. Issues in rural schools can include fewer resources for students and teachers; lack of access to professional development and student training opportunities; community isolation; students having the same teachers for multiple subjects and grade levels; and fewer extracurricular activities.

Where Meaningful Student Involvement Fits

By facilitating active, engaged and educational roles for students through Meaningful Student Involvement, the approach can be essential for retaining learners, graduating students and decreasing the brain drain in rural schools. Providing educators and administrators powerful, research-driven frameworks, Meaningful Student Involvement breaks traditional hierarchal cultures in schools by appropriately positioning students in relationship to adults. In turn, students can become enthusiastic, engaged learners, teachers and leaders in rural schools.

Through this authentic systems approach, schools can embrace local community culture outside of schools by creating new roles for students that empower them with substantial skills and knowledge. This happens by embracing the following characteristics:

  • Just as many rural communities form holistic bonds that support entire families, communities and cultures, schools should take schoolwide approaches to Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • Integrated as complete members of their homes and family businesses, rural students need to experience high levels of student authority that allow them to experience full Student/Adult Partnerships.
  • Interrelated strategies to infusing Meaningful Student Involvement echo the relationships rural students experience throughout their communities.
  • Identifying and maintaining sustainable structures of support show students their contributions are relevant beyond them.
  • Personal commitment needs to be instilled, fostered and supported throughout the education system in order to ensure Meaningful Student Involvement affects everyone involved and not just students.
  • When students experience strong learning connections between their involvement and their classrooms, it ensures a long term sense of belonging and variety.

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Literacy and Meaningful Student Involvement

classroom bannerLiteracy is at the heart of Meaningful Student Involvement. Literacy is more than simply reading; its understanding, interpreting acting on, assessing, and critiquing what’s been read, learned, reported, researched or promoted.

What It Is

For one hundred years, educational thought leaders from John Dewey to Paulo Freire encouraged teachers to consider the depth and breadth of literacy. Today, its widely accepted that everyone in society is affected by their levels of literacy in different areas, including their literacy in school knowledge; consumer consumption; social creation; family implementation; and cultural critical thinking. In schools, students experience varying amounts of true literacy education. Its been shown the amount of comprehensive literacy education are affected by the:

  • Political backgrounds of educators and politicians who make decisions for students
  • Socio-economic backgrounds of learners
  • Cultural influence over students’ families
  • and other factors.

According to UNESCO, “for individuals, families, and societies alike, it [literacy] is an instrument of empowerment to improve one’s health, one’s income, and one’s relationship with the world.”

2013LearningthruMSIHow It Works

Literacy affects every part of every person’s life from the moment they awake to the time they fall asleep, and even the hours in between. Their level of literacy is a humongous determining factor for how comfortable, successful and rewarding those hours are. From the Internet to text messaging; from advertising to packaging; from cultural traits to personal behaviors; from law enforcement to legal jurisdiction, all communication is driven by literacy. Additionally, all politics is driven by literacy and the ability to critically confront power and authority throughout life.

In highly literate communities, there is a constant, healthy and substantial exchange of ideas and debate. Illiteracy can breed exclusion and violence.

Where Meaningful Student Involvement Fits

With its learning cycle and outcomes firmly based in research and practice, Meaningful Student Involvement can provide useful frameworks for teachers to engage student voice beyond simplistic and tokenistic measures. It can help administrators facilitate further inclusion for students throughout the education system. Ultimately, it can reframe discourse around learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.

Rather than being a passive model for educators to simply implement in schools, Meaningful Student Involvement insists on literacy by positioning Student/Adult Partners in critical relationships with each other, with the frameworks, and with each other. The outcomes include highly personalized, high-ownership environments where students and adults co-facilitate each others’ personal growth. Educational literacy is a unique outcome of SoundOut’s frameworks; every school should include this as a goal of every students’ formal educational experience.

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Student Empowerment and Meaningful Student Involvement

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Student empowerment is any attitudinal, structural, and cultural activity, process or outcome where students of any age gain the ability, authority and agency to make decisions and implement changes in their own schools, learning and education, and in the education of other people, including fellow students of any age and adults throughout education. There are countless ways this can happen as well as many potential outcomes, all of which feature learning, teaching and leadership. Student empowerment happens in schools; child empowerment and youth empowerment happen outside of schools. 

How It Happens

Throughout our society, adults act as the apex (top) power holders, using adultism to enforce their power. This is true within schools, too, where adults are ultimately responsible for all activities, outcomes and processes. Student empowerment happens when adults share any amount of that power with students.

There are times when students can attempt to grasp the power of adults without adults sharing it willingly, too. However, these are fleeting because of adults ultimate grasp on power.

Student empowerment generally happens through student authorization and student action. Student authorization, which is part of the Cycle of Engagement, happens when students acquire the knowledge and positions they need in order to affect schools.

What Stops Empowerment

As reflected elsewhere on this site, there are many barriers to school transformation reflecting student empowerment. They include the culture of schools; structures within education; adults throughout the system; and students themselves. There are also many ways to overcome these barriers.

However, one of the barriers to student empowerment is the concept itself: By dispensing their power without discretion or well-informed intentions, well-meaning educators can actually do a moderate-to-severe disservice to students themselves. Placing students on a pedestal, the behind these actions is often that any power is better than no power, and that students are devoid of power within schools right now. However, that’s simply not the case, and learning about student empowerment before taking action can do a lot to improve students’ experiences with this approach.

What many educators are actually striving for is not student empowerment at all, but Meaningful Student Involvement.

Where Meaningful Student Involvement Fits

When student empowerment activities are most effective, they reflect 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 through deliberate teaching  focused on learning about learning, learning about the education system, learning about student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement, and learning about school improvement.

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Inquiry Based Learning and Meaningful Student Involvement

Iclassroom bannernquiry-based learning, or IBL, is an approach to teaching that can position Meaningful Student Involvement in the center of any topic, in any grade level. The essence of IBL is that it lets students work with a learning challenge until they fully understand it with learning activities and projects driving the process.

In classrooms where IBL is used, learning centers on challenging students to solve problems through problem-posing, experimenting, exploration, creation and communication. Instead of giving students a linear, straight path towards finding answers, IBL allows educators to guide, mentor and facilitate learning through well-designed challenges meant to engage students in identifying the tools or topics they need to learn to solve them.

You know you’re in an IBL classroom when there are:

  • Clear, deep and meaningful challenges facing students
  • Significant, sustained opportunities for student-to-student collaboration
  • Educators co-engaged in the learning process
  • Projects underway that address substantive issues

That last bullet point is where Meaningful Student Involvement can be infused tightly with IBL. Focused on real issues in education, IBL can a powerful driver for students to learn through involvement. Ensuring those projects meet real educational challenges ensures the transition from IBL being an average school method towards becoming a meaningful method for learning, teaching and leadership throughout the education system.


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Methods for Meaningful Student Involvement

Classroom learning and student involvement are connected by passion and purpose. By making student voice more substantial with the following methods, teachers can infuse meaningfulness into learning, teaching and leadership. 

Methods for Meaningful Student Involvement

This deliberate connection ties together the strategies for meaningful student involvement with the purpose of education. Using these methods for teaching and learning can all educators to thoroughly foster substantial Student/Adult Partnerships and signify the intention of adults to continue transforming learning as opportunities for learners themselves evolve.

No single classroom method, approach, style or ideology encapsulates Meaningful Student Involvement, and that’s why SoundOut promotes the broad conception. However, several different methods can be used to enhance, enrich, encourage and enliven student involvement throughout learning, teaching and leadership. When infused with Student/Adult Partnerships, these methods can add up to classrooms and schools that are more meaningful than ever before.


These are just some methods for Meaningful Student Involvement. What would you add to the list? Do you have any questions, concerns or ideas? Share them in the comments section!

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Career and Technical Education and Meaningful Student Involvement

In the summer of 2002, SoundOut presented a series of professional development sessions on Meaningful Student Involvement in Career and Technical Education in a Western Washington school district.

Scott LeDuc, a master teacher/trainer with SoundOut, and myself spent two days with teachers in Spanaway, Washington, covering this powerful integration of new roles for students as partners with lifelong learning and livelihood education.

Here are the descriptions from the district’s professional development catalog. Participants may attend both sessions, but it is not necessary to attend both because they are not sequential.

Engaging Students as Partners in CTE

This session introduced participants to SoundOut’s nationally-recognized “Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement.”

Participants explored the main elements, principles, key characteristics, and barriers to engaging students as partners in CTE. Participants used our popular “Strategies for Meaningful Student Involvement” and learn about our evaluation tools.

Throughout the session, participants examined real classroom case studies where students were powerfully engaged through Meaningful Student Involvement to meet 21st century learning goals through CTE. Hands-on and interactive activities, practical exercises, and meaningful examples allowed participants to draw on their own knowledge and experiences to enhance student engagement in their classrooms.

Integrating Student Engagement into CTE

Participants in this session explored the relationship of Meaningful Student Involvement to 21st century learning goals. Focused on SoundOut’s nationally-recognized “Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement” and 21st century skills, participants identified how to practically incorporate these skills into existing classroom approaches.

The session were very interactive, emphasizing classroom applications and shared knowledge. With Meaningful Student Involvement as a recognized high-quality standard in schools across the US and Canada, participants explored how to infuse practical standards into their classroom design and implementation.

By the end of this session, participants gained new abilities focused on teaching 21st Century Skills, discovered new avenues to promote positive, powerful student behavior, and learned effective ways to integrate feedback from students into classroom activities. They also began focused planning to apply this new knowledge.

As SoundOut moves further into CTE, we learned a great deal from these workshops. Scott’s experience as a CTE teacher for over a decade matched a passionately commitment to move the field forward. These workshops built on past CTE and STEM-related work we have done, including working in the fields of technology education, student leadership organizations, and others.

SoundOut has always been about real world and real life skills, and we look forward to connecting schools to the tools and training they need to bring students on board as partners in this field.

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Mindsets and Meaningful Student Involvement

mindset is the way someone thinks about something. A growing body of research and literature has shown that students’ mindsets determine educational effectiveness, school culture and much more. Mindsets affect student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement as well.

A Meaningful Mindset

By focusing on the intersection between mindset and strategy, educators can help students learn a practical framework for identifying opportunities so they can proceed from promising ideas to practical actions in schools.

Whether seeking to start a school improvement campaign or infuse a meaningful mindset into their current classrooms, SoundOut offers products and services that allow students to learn directly from the firsthand experience of students who’ve experienced meaningful involvement throughout education while immersing them in school improvement activities that share knowledge, build skills, and launch students into student/adult partnerships that transform learning, teaching and leadership and own their own education.

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Jean Piaget Quote

“The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.”

– Jean Piaget

George Wood Quote

Students often find themselves preached to about values instead of practicing them. That’s why our efforts have been to focus on practice rather than exhortation. Everything we do, including classroom teaching practices, school governance, students’ experience… out of school, assessment, even the organization of the school day, is done with an eye toward developing democratic community.

– George Wood (2000)