Following are articles written for SoundOut about a variety of topics related to Meaningful Student Involvement. These publications cover student voice, student engagement, student/adult partnerships and more.
When measuring Meaningful Student Involvement activities, its vital to examine the activities that make up what’s happening. Each activity can include many different parts. Here, SoundOut examines the culture of activities, the actions involved, the barriers in activities and the evaluation of activities.
Measuring the Culture of Meaningful Student Involvement
When assessing Meaningful Student Involvement its important to consider the effects on school culture. Engaging students as partners in school change should including creating the culture to support Meaningful Student Involvement for all students in all schools, all the time.
This culture should be reflected in a variety of ways. All students should feel safe to be meaningfully involved, which truly focuses on whether their involvement is equitable or not. Students should be identify in their own language and without coaching from adults how they are meaningfully involved, how they’re respected, and how they’re responded to by adults.
Involving students meaningfully should transform the attitudes and systems that underlay the culture of individual classrooms, whole school buildings and eventually, the entirety of the education system. This looks like Student/Adult Partnerships that are mutually supportive and accountable for both students and adults, whether in the classroom, board room, hallways, or legislatures. Meaningful Student Involvement changes can be apparent in school when students and adults address personal challenges and organizational barriers together, leading to healthier, more school democratic cultures where everyone can be engaged as partners.
Other ways school culture reflects Meaningful Student Involvement include, but are not limited to, educators maintaining a substantial focus on student involvement even when students appear to be disinterested; gradual or radical shifts in student-adult relationships to reflect higher perceptions of students and the elements of Student/Adult Partnerships introduced earlier in this book; and visually observable aspects, including relaxed conversations among students and adults about education and school improvement; verbal and written reflection shared among students and adults; and rituals reflecting Meaningful Student Involvement, including committee participation, Non-Violent Communication between students and adults; and student orientation programs led by students and adults.
When schools continually demonstrate meaningful involvement in research, planning, teaching, evaluation, decision-making and advocacy, their culture demonstrates what we are looking for. There will be regular and ongoing expectations for all members of the school community to hold meaningful involvement tantamount for all learners, as well as a commitment by building leadership to professional development and training opportunities that foster Student/Adult Partnerships. Additionally, the culture of education reflects Meaningful Student Involvement when discriminatory language against students is not tolerated; clear expectations and policies reflect a commitment to Student/Adult Partnerships, and a total commitment to the Cycle of Engagement is apparent throughout learning, teaching and leadership.
Measuring Action in Meaningful Student Involvement
Taking action is the crux of Meaningful Student Involvement. All action should start by students working with adults to determine what constitutes meaningful student involvement. Conscientious steps should be taken to ensure that student involvement is meaningful according to that initial work. Students should understand the intentions of the process, decision, or outcomes of Meaningful Student Involvement in general, as well as the particular activity at hand, and they should know who made the decisions about Meaningful Student Involvement and why they were made initially.
Throughout the course of action the process and are the results of Meaningful Student Involvement should be recorded. That recording should be reported in writing and distributed to both students and adults. The process should include a variety of steps, including having students work with adults to identify school issues, challenges, or problems, allowing students to identify their own possible solutions or goals in their school, and engaging students in working with adults to identify possible solutions or goals in their school.
Students should feel fully informed about issues that matter to them, and learn about issues that matter to the whole school they’re in, the larger community, where they live, and the entire nation. Project ideas and activities should be co-initiated by students and adults, as well.
There is a large role for students in formal school improvement. They can be involved in identifying the problems, challenges, or needs to be addressed by school improvement, as well as formulating the problem and analyzing the situation. They can co-create school improvement policy, participate in adopting school improvement policy, and be meaningfully involved in approving programs, services, and activities to implement school improvement. Students can be meaningfully involved in teaching adults about school improvement, monitoring school improvement, and evaluating the impact of school improvement. Rather than act in isolation, students should be meaningfully involved with adults and other community members in school improvement as well. (Counts, 1978)
The best action for Meaningful Student Involvement should always end in reflection. Afterwards, students who are involved should receive a written or verbal report on the outcomes of Meaningful Student Involvement.
Measuring Barriers in Meaningful Student Involvement
An essential measure for Meaningful Student Involvement is to deliberately acknowledge and conscientiously address the barriers to engaging students as partners throughout education. The first step in addressing barriers to Meaningful Student Involvement is to acknowledge they exist, and to name them as best as possible.
False and negative assumptions about students’ abilities to participate should be deliberately addressed by students and/or adults throughout all activities. All adults in the school should be clear about the class or school’s intent to foster Meaningful Student Involvement. An informal assessment should be made of whether adults throughout the learning environment, and a determination should be made whether adults provide good examples of Meaningful Student Involvement. Students’ experience and inexperience addressed with Meaningful Student Involvement should be determined as well.
Barriers can be addressed when students and adults identify and address negative experiences students and adults have had with student involvement, and steps should be taken to reduce the resistance from adults and students. In some circumstances, this can mean adding an equal or greater number of students to boards, committees and other decision-making activities throughout the education system that previously only engaged a few students. However, more than likely it means creating new avenues for student voice in places where only adults made decisions before. This can happen by creating student roles for every student in decision-making affecting individual students; it can also happen by creating roles for students in activities where adults made decisions for large groups of students.
When adults throughout education actively educate students about the education system, including focusing on specific functions and outcomes, Meaningful Student Involvement can happen and the barrier of obfuscation can be overcome. A climate should be fostered in every opportunity for student voice where students feel comfortable engaging in learning, whether through question-asking, interacting, or otherwise engaging in the topic at hand. Deliberate steps should be made to foster this climate, including acknowledgment of student schedules, learning styles, developmental abilities, and other relevant actions. If activities happen outside school and school time, planning should consider whether the location and times of meetings are convenient to students; determining if the times and dates of meetings are convenient for students; choosing locations that are accessible to students and public transportation; and other initiatives or changes going on in classes, local schools, districts, or state programs that will complement the goals and processes of Meaningful Student Involvement.
A major barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement is student credibility. If representative participation is required in an activity, steps should be taken to ensure student representatives are chosen so that they are credible among the students they are supposed to represent. Given the diversity of every school, this should include accounting for all sorts of student cultures, attitudes, beliefs and ideas. Adults should check and double check when they think a student is credible by working with students as partners to ensure credibility. Sometimes, it is appropriate to select a high achieving, popular student to represent their peers in a student involvement activity. However, there are other times when it is not meaningful for students or adults to have that same student representing students who may be low performing or acting in ways that are not appropriate for school.
Many adults are addressing student voice as giving students a say in what, when, where, how and why they learn. This is a misunderstanding of student voice and actually serves as a barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement. It positions adults as the arbitrators of student voice, placing the responsibility for students’ expressions about education on the shoulders of educators. In reality, students are constantly expressing themselves; the question is whether or not adults are willing to listen and act upon what students have to say. Listening to students’ needs, interests and concerns has had a big impact on school life and classroom practice; engaging students as partners in learning throughout the educational process and the entirety of the education system has an even larger impact. Overcoming the barriers presented by students, adults and schools is a key to moving in that direction.
Measuring Evaluation in Schools
Assessing outcomes should always be a part of Meaningful Student Involvement opportunities. Every opportunity focused on Meaningful Student Involvement should opportunities for formal and informal feedback from students. The events, opportunities, and numbers of students measured with regard to all the factors affected by the opportunity, as well as the levels, motivations, and impacts of students and adults who are involved or affected. The quantitative effects of Meaningful Student Involvement can be measured, monitored, and reported, including grades, attendance records, dropout rates, the number of student participants in a given activity, and other numerical effects of Meaningful Student Involvement.
Meaningful Student Involvement affects many people. Students other than those who are directly involved can provide substantial input when given the opportunity to be involved as independent evaluators in assessing action. Formal assessments of Meaningful Student Involvement completed by students and adults, and the summative impacts of Meaningful Student Involvement should be identified. The varying short- and long-term impacts may include short and long-term effects and impacts. The effects of Meaningful Student Involvement on classrooms may include the creation of new curriculum or programs, widespread engagement of student-led evaluation and all types of meaningful involvement, and more. All of these should be assessed for their presence, purpose and power.
Meaningful Student Involvement can impact school administration through the development of administrative support and structures. Professional development for school staff focused on Meaningful Student Involvement, including teachers and others, can be made mandatory or more made more available. Materials on engaging students as partners can be made widely available, too. One of the most effective measures of meaningfulness may be the amount of more appropriate, student-friendly policies, rules, or guidelines adapted in order to promote, ensure, and sustain Meaningful Student Involvement. Another structural development is the creation of more and more meaningful opportunities for all students to become involved. More accessible or convenient opportunities for students are part of that approach.
Developing this infrastructure requires new approaches to engaging students as partners. This can happen through the intentional recruitment and preparation of nontraditional and new student leaders. It can also happen with the intentional development of new social norms among the student body, between students and adults, and throughout the entirety of the school community. Meaningful Student Involvement should be assessed for those new approaches to relationships among students, between students and adults, and ultimately, between students, adults, and the education system as a whole.
The desires, dreams, and possibilities students envision for school should be acknowledged, documented and assessed throughout the opportunities, particularly those of students who are not traditionally engaged in conversations about school improvement. Reports focused on Meaningful Student Involvement should be created with multiple audiences in mind, including politicians, policy-makers and other officials, as well as educators, administrators and students themselves. Additionally, significant time should be spent reflecting on who is involved in opportunities. This means students and adults should work together to examine which students participate; why they were involved; what percentage of students in a school were involved, and so forth.
Engaging students themselves in reflecting on the nature of current student involvement in your school, as well as plans or implementations focused on Meaningful Student Involvement. These reflections should also be shared with everyone possible throughout the education system. Their reflections can including benefits and limitations of Meaningful Student Involvement in school planning, education research, formal teaching and capacity development, learning evaluation, systemic decision-making, and education advocacy. Exploring which opportunities students are meaningfully involved in and why those opportunities happen is essential to evaluating and assessing Meaningful Student Involvement. Students should facilitate capacity building activities for students and adults to increase their ability to become meaningfully involved.
Assessments should be conducted by adults, too. They should have opportunities to continuously increase their capacity to meaningfully involve students, and identify limitations and possibilities of Meaningful Student Involvement throughout education. There should also be opportunities for everyone, including students and adults, to assess what the levels of commitment to Meaningful Student Involvement are from various parties throughout the education system. This means that all sorts of students, administrators, teachers, support staff, parents, and other community members should be asked whether they are committed to Student/Adult Partnerships and Meaningful Student Involvement.
Looking across your current location in education, a specific evaluation should determine what opportunities for focused student voice, substantive student engagement, and Meaningful Student Involvement currently exist. Examining your policies, you should determine whether your classroom, individual school, local district, or state education agency has policies that can ensure or deter sustainable opportunities that meaningfully involve students throughout education. That same examination should determine whether your school or organization can compensate for the budget considerations affecting Meaningful Student Involvement. Ultimately, you should determine how far away your location is from one hundred percent Meaningful Student Involvement. Identify how many students experience meaningful opportunities and how frequently they experience them. When you have determined this percentage, you will know exactly how far you have to go.
There are many ways you can evaluate whether Meaningful Student Involvement exists and is recognizable. Simply allowing students to be involved is one way. Another way to determine existence is to examine classroom learning and determine what extent Meaningful Student Involvement is present in teaching activities. Acknowledging the classroom learning that happens through Meaningful Student Involvement should happen through students receiving credit. Other ways to identify meaningful involvement is by determining whether fiscal rewards, including stipends, scholarships, or salaries, are given to students who are involved, as well.
The quality of student involvement helps determine the meaningfulness. Sometimes, that quality is ensured through policy-making. When appropriate, schools should provide equitable or equal opportunities for students and adults to serve by establishing and enforcing substantive and appropriate terms of office, voting rights, or positions. Contingency plans should be developed to replace students whose terms, service, or job end early, and a conflict of interest policy for appropriate occasions. Policies that formally allow and encourage students to be involved in multiple activities without penalizing them are often necessary, as well as policies that give students appropriate access to adult allies who are involved including teachers, parents and support staff. Students who are involved should be allowed uninhibited access to information sources that allow them to be meaningfully involved, whether through the Internet, adults who are involved in decision-making, records, etc. Schools should also provide opportunities for students to continuously increase their capacity to be meaningfully involved through capacity building activities of all sorts.
One of the key measurements for Meaningful Student Involvement is that every student in every school has opportunities to systematically, intentionally learn about the structures, purposes, actions and outcomes of education. School should be assessed for whether they afford opportunities for students to expand their involvement in subsequent grade levels. Their learning about this should happen in a constructivist fashion, acknowledging what they know regardless of their grade level and expanding upon it through teaching, action, reflection and critical examination.
Students should be allowed and encouraged to address schoolwide issues, not only those that affect students. The language and concepts used in Meaningful Student Involvement opportunities should be adjusted or explained to students in order to create plainly accessible ideas for everyone involved. Students should also have opportunities to learn about different aspects of the activities they are involved in, whatever it may be focused on. If students are partnering with adults to create a classroom curriculum focused on local history, they should have opportunities to learn about curriculum design and delivery, as well as local history. This is true for any aspect of planning, research, teaching, evaluating, decision-making, or advocacy.
Measuring Infusion in Schools
A large measurement within Meaningful Student Involvement is the extent to which every student experiences Student/Adult Partnerships. While there is a starting point for all action, it is important for schools, agencies, or education programs to have a strategic plan for expanding Meaningful Student Involvement. Ultimately, every student in every school can experience meaningfulness, whether in their individual classroom experience or collective school wide experience, whether in special and specific district or state education agency opportunities, or in broad student organizing for education improvement. All of this should be assessed in order to determine the efficacy of approaches.
The amount of authority between students and adults should be measured. In almost every circumstance throughout schools, students are held accountable by adults. They are held accountable for their academic achievement, classroom performance, attendance, behavior, attitudes and increasingly, opportunities outside of school. However, adults are not held similarly accountable to students. In Meaningful Student Involvement, mutual accountability is essential for partnerships. Similarly, students should experience appropriately and equitably distributed amounts of authority. Considering the specific conditions for Meaningful Student Involvement when determining how much authority students has is important; however, that should not be the determining factor for whether students should have authority. Instead, every situation should be seen objectively for its potential, purpose, and outcomes. Authority—the ability to author one’s story—is something that should be enculturated and codified throughout education for every participant whether students or adults. That authority should be present throughout learning, teaching and leadership as exemplified by Meaningful Student Involvement in education planning, research, teaching, evaluation, decision-making, and advocacy.
Parents should learn about Meaningful Student Involvement too. Their role in supporting, encouraging, sustaining and expanding Student/Adult Partnerships should not be under-acknowledged. In addition to teaching parents, they should also have opportunities to become engaged partners as well.
Opportunities should be assessed for whether they obligate or otherwise compel students and adults to be meaningfully involved. This helps determine amounts of authenticity and generosity, as well as the amounts of time required to build ownership and investment by the participants in Meaningful Student Involvement. These obligations can happen through mandate by education leaders, grant requirements, or agreements between students and adults. They can happen through teacher mandate over students. When policy is set in place, rules are made, or other formalized, codified decisions are written, they can be compulsory as well.
Meaningful Student Involvement necessitates continuous capacity building for students and adults. This may happen through knowledge-sharing and skill building, as well as other means. It may mean providing opportunities for students and adults to co-learn about skills such as communication, time management, project planning, meeting facilitation, budget management, and other skills. It could also mean that all partners learn about school improvement; equity and diversity in education; curricular approaches; leadership issues in education, and other issues. These continuous capacity building opportunities could also focus on topics that are core to Meaningful Student Involvement, including student/adult relationship building; inquiry-based learning; service learning; project planning; curriculum development; teaching skills; evaluation techniques; decision-making methods; and advocacy skills.
With more and more people increasingly jumping on the bandwagons of student voice and student engagement, it is becoming increasingly important to define, refine and understand what it is that we’re talking about. It is equally important to critically examine the assumptions informing a lot of this conversation and action, as well as the implications, impacts and processes throughout.
A lot of well-meaning people are throwing around phrases without really understanding what they are talking about. People are using student voice as a synonym for student engagement. All the while, they are discussing activities that are the exclusive domain of either concept as if they were. That’s all problematic for a few reasons.
First, it is important to understand that I define student voice differently than most. After studying the concept for a state education agency and launching more than 50 projects nationwide on the topic, I have come to define student voice as any expression of any learner about anything related to education. That could mean a student speaking at a school board meeting, co-writing a curriculum with a teacher, or leading a community-wide forum on schools. But it can also mean students texting the answers to quizzes to each other during class; fighting in the hallways; or smoking behind the school building. All of these are expressions of learners relating to education. This puts bullying in the same league as student government; research in cahoots with graffiting; and dropping out in league with graduating. Each is an expression of student voice. Student voice doesn’t need adults to agree with it, incite it, define it, or appreciate it; it simply is what it is. All of these are expressions of learners relating to education. This puts bullying in the same league as student government; research in cahoots with graffitiing; and dropping out in league with graduating. Each is an expression of student voice. Student voice doesn’t need adults to agree with it, incite it, define it, or appreciate it; it simply is what it is.
The second thing to understand is that after a decade of examining student engagement and examining it in-depth, I came to define it as any sustained connection a learner experiences in the course of education. With that definition, we can understand how student engagement happens through healthy student/adult relationships, as well as through a positive school climate and meaningful coursework. We can also see how particular subjects, methods, attitudes and cultures can foster student engagement. This definition does not reject negative student engagement either, as students can be sustainably connected to stealing, drugs and alcohol, sex, skipping school, or other activities that are not socially acceptable that can occur within a school environment.
By these definitions, it is important to understand that neither student voice or student engagement are inherently positive or negative. Neither is exclusive to activities adults approve of, needs particular platforms in order to exist, or is the exclusive domain of one type of student or another.
However, looking across popularly shared activities, you might think otherwise. Many student voice programs appear homogenized and sanitized as the students who they put forward say things to adults just the ways adults want to hear them, when they want to hear them, and from students they want to listen to. Similarly, many activities designed to foster student engagement are simply those that net adults the results they want to see from students. The education media is regularly promoting classroom-based approaches that get students to do the things adults want them to with the results adults want to see. While this is one form of student engagement, it is not the only one.
The challenge with all this is that it diminishes, negates, and actually serves to silence and stifle authentic student voice. If students are constantly sharing their voices, why aren’t adults simply listening to what they are already saying? Is it that we actually do not want to hear what they are saying right now? It is as if we want to squeeze their genuine concerns into convenient, bite-sized and acceptable blurbs that fit within our agendas. If students are engaged in many things throughout the schooling experience, why aren’t we examining those things for the attributes of learning, teaching and leadership we hope to foster throughout schools? There is so much we can learn from students right now that we are simply ignoring because student voice and student engagement does not currently meet our expectations.
We can do better than this.
I began promoting Meaningful Student Involvement in earnest in 2003. Since then, I have partnered with students and educators around the country to implement this unified theory of student voice across the US and Canada. We’ve developed projects, promoted concepts, built agendas, and implemented policies. That leads me to propose that Meaningful Student Involvement is what so many students and adults are looking for. They want more than tokenized student voice and simplistic student engagement. They want deeper than superficial and more powerful than puff.
I hope you’ll learn more about Meaningful Student Involvement, and I hope this post helped you understand why I say that student voice ≠ student engagement.
A 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.
The purpose of schools is to support generation after generation of democratic culture in order to foster whole people, healthy society and a peaceful world. Meaningful Student Involvement is a step in that direction.
However, schools can go even further than meaningfulness.
Further Than Meaningfulness
When adults continuously sustain Student/Adult Partnerships in a classroom and throughout a school building, more happens, including student progression and evolution. As more people throughout the education system increasingly harbor realistic yet growing ambitions for students, it becomes vital for educators to embrace those ambitions in order to successfully facilitate new roles for all students. The goal of schools should be to harbor lifelong learner by graduating self-actualized learners into the world beyond the school building. That can happen at any age.
Recognizing the goal of self-actualized learners enables schools to see the full value of Meaningful Student Involvement creating opportunities for education to be highly successful, and rather than threatening schools, self-actualized learners should be treated as assets to the education system, inspiring others along the way.
In an era of increasingly unfettered technological access, the number of students who are actively choosing to transform their own educational experiences is growing every day. More than ever, students are getting on the Internet and zooming towards any information whenever they want it. Using devices and apps, they are collaborating and debating and pontificating and sharing with their peers in a co-driven experience focused on mutual benefit. Supported by parents who are intensely desiring a better life for their kids, many students today are literally reaching for the stars and beyond. They are calling all of society to be better, do better and become more than what we have ever imagined.
That reality is for the betterment of all of us. Despite the implications for democracy, these self-actualized learners are going beyond any boundaries that were established in the eons before they were born. They are seeing past the limitations and plainly ignoring the barriers previous generations stumbled towards and sometimes over. Students today are not doing this without fault, and they make mistakes. There is no romanticization here. There is, however, pure admiration of the evolving capacities of succeeding generations of students.
Beyond of these evolving capacities, we are witnessing the emergence of purely student-driven, student-led activities throughout education today. Generally speaking, they are not happening within the confines of the education system. However, students are still learning, teaching and leading change throughout education with their actions.
For instance, there are an increasing number of student-driven, student-led student voice advocacy groups around the world today. These are groups of students who are clearly informed by research and literature, but rather than citing it and building projects responsive to research findings, they are creating new pathways to change that do not involve laboring over philosophy and instead focus on action.
When student learning embodies, experiences and engages in the social and political underpinnings of their education, they are more than meaningfully involved.
Students understand their own selfhood, its uniqueness and its abilities
Students engage in the socio-political construction of their own selfhood
Students’ own their class location and self-construction in relationship to their class
Students deliberately engage with their class placement, self-driving their view of the world, the purpose of school, other students, their educators, their families and communities.
There are students who are working on their own to improve schools. One example is from Nikhil Goyal, a student-philosopher who wrote a book about school change when he was still in high school. His book, One Size Does Not Fit All, was published in 2012 and offer his prescription for school improvement. As a high school student, Goyal interviewed Howard Gardner, Seth Godin, Noam Chomsky, Diane Ravitch, and others, summarizing and expanding on their perceptions with his own call to reimagine school. Goyal is an self-actualized learner who is leading his peers and adults throughout society in new conversations about education reform.
The self-actualized learner is a student-philosopher. They shine a spotlight on the roles of students throughout the education system by passionately, actively moving them from being the passive recipients of adult-driven schools towards become passionately engaged and culturally relevant critical allies of the system. In his book, Goyal does not simply lob bombs into the foyer of the school building. Instead, he conscientiously dismantles the building brick by brick, and then systematically rebuilds it according to his own vision for learning, teaching and leadership. Surely, this demonstrates intellectual depth and courage on his part, particularly since he was still in high school when he did it. More importantly, though, Goyal opened portal for other students to do the same. His specific case cannot be said to quite constitute an example of Meaningful Student Involvement because he deliberately operated outside the confines of Student/Adult Partnerships, and completely outside of the formal structure of the education system. However, it does make him a prime candidate as a self-actualized learner, which in turn makes the role he is fulfilling central to Meaningful Student Involvement.
The challenge of the student-philosopher is related to the heart of Meaningful Student Involvement as well. Devoid the accountability necessitated by democratic interaction, the student-philosopher may feel free to lambast people who are accountable to democratic controls in ways that they, student-philosophers, are not. However, this is also the nature of democratic discourse, and something every student should have explicit and substantive exposure to and opportunities to participate in.
Student-Led High Schools
As shared throughout this website, there are stories emerging across the United States and Canada regarding students leading their high schools through Meaningful Student Involvement.
The challenge of student-led high schools is that, if not facilitated appropriately, they may assume student interest and ability in places where there is none. If this occurs and the attempt at Meaningful Student Involvement does not produce the results adults want to see or are comfortable with, this approach may actually enable adults to justly abandon all forms of student involvement. They tried it, it did not work and they move onto something else.
As more students emerge from the haze of adult-led learning, there is a growing urgency for responsive, empowering learning opportunities that meet the needs of learners where they are, instead of insisting they go to where adults want them to be. Since the advent of computers, many technologists have sought to put learning and teaching directly in the hands of young people specifically. Today, that is is becoming reality more and more.
First emphasized for recreation purposes, Internet-enabled devices are now being marketed explicitly for their learning possibilities and connectivity. Students are being encouraged by websites, nonprofits, and private businesses to engage in their own learning as leaders by exploring their interests, abilities and passions, and to use technology to learn far more than any school or teacher could possibly teacher them. In a time when everyone is more connected than ever before, it is no wonder why marketers are selling new devices to students.
More importantly, they are appealing to young people on the premise of learning. Meaningful Student Involvement aligns on this form of the self-actualized learner because both challenge the apparent irrelevance of schooling by situating students as the drivers of learning, teaching and leadership.
Meaningful Student Involvement can be challenged by online learning in a variety of ways. If this approach happens without community building and a commitment to the larger education system, the form of student empowerment and engagement that happens through online learning may serve to encourage self-centeredness and ultimately, narcissism. This can be rectified through Meaningful Student Involvement though, as students deliberately engage in the world beyond the Internet as well as learning through the Internet.
Student-Led Education Activism
Across North America and around the world student activists are calling for substantive and meaningful policy changes in ways unseen before. They are using sophisticated campaign-building techniques, leading community organizing efforts, and driving education leadership to rethink the absence of student voice throughout school decision-making apparatuses on every level of school and in each layer of the education system. These student-led efforts focus on everything highlighted throughout this book and more, sometimes partnering with adults and other times leaving adults out of the equation entirely. This approach aligns well with Meaningful Student Involvement because of its high place on the Ladder of Student Involvement and the significant ways students address the public mechanisms of the public school system.
In the United States, one example of student-led education activism comes from an organization I greatly admire called the Seattle Young Peoples Project, or SYPP.
One potential challenge of this approach to Meaningful Student Involvement is that it happens outside the parameters of formal learning and teaching in schools. Meaningful Student Involvement is not activism for the sake of action. Instead, it ensures that there is a purpose beyond this immediate moment. Engaging students in schools in the work of critiquing, improving, sustaining improvements and critiquing schools again is absolutely vital to the purpose of securing democracy and social justice for all students in every school all of the time.
Schools should always reflect that, and if student-led work of any kind does not reflect that, it is not meaningful.
That said, without the active engagement and ongoing allyship of adults within schools, the purpose of schools is failed. Meaningful Student Involvement of any kind becomes vital in order to ensure that the purpose can be realized. Many of the specific approaches advocated throughout this website are absolutely indebted to this purpose of schools.
We must consider approaches to Meaningful Student Involvement that are academically and developmentally appropriate for students of different abilities.
Student voice is always a force for changing the climate of a learning environment, good or otherwise. Students have back and forth exchanges throughout the course of a school day, checking in about each others’ emotions and ideas, experiences and knowledge about school, learning, teaching, classrooms, curricula, behaviors, attitudes, and more. Imagine this across a schoolwide population ranging from 250 to 2,500 students, and it becomes relatively easy to see how student voice informs school climate. Student voice also never stays the same, and it should never be static. As bell hooks wrote,
“The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself.” (hooks, 1994)
Unfortunately, it is the tendency of adults to fix student voice into one position. That alone makes it vital for educators to embrace Meaningful Student Involvement from the youngest ages to let students inform their pedagogy, school climate and culture, academic performance and achievement, and school improvement.
These opportunities also offer the potential to create and sustain collaborative learning communities where students, teachers, administrators, school staff and community advocates can continuously learn from each other. Acknowledging that this does not necessarily happen naturally in many classrooms, several “Skill Building Topics” are proposed. Topics are meant to serve as complementary building blocks that will enhance students’ and educators’ ability to experience Meaningful Student Involvement in a variety of settings.
Meaningful Student Involvement demands more than time from educators, more than money from administrators, and more than instantaneous results from students. Instead, Meaningful Student Involvement calls for efforts to improve the organization of schooling and the effectiveness of instruction to actively engage and authorize students to transform their learning communities. The attitudes of students, educators, parents and community members must also transform. All members of the learning community must see students as valid contributors to school improvement.
Many people benefit from Meaningful Student Involvement. The following section connects a variety of examples of Meaningful Student Involvement with the skills needed, and the possible learning connections with a variety of participants. This allows students and educators to identify their common purposes, and to create the space that both students and educators need to share knowledge, experiences and perspectives as both learners and teachers. In order to illustrate how meaningful involvement can happen throughout schools, each table presents a different grade level.
The following section also addresses adults specifically, illustrating how integral allies are to Meaningful Student Involvement. The suggested activities and topics described for all participant groups offer opportunities for reciprocal learning through leadership: that is, adults role-modeling for students, students role-modeling for other students, and students and adults learning from each other.
Meaningful Student Involvement encourages, fosters and sustains learning among adults—including teachers, principals, counselors and other education staff—as much as students themselves.
It requires educators, administrators, and other school staff to be introduced and sustained in their effort to engage students as partners throughout education. Active engagement for all learners is a goal of many educators; however, the ability to incorporate Meaningful Student Involvement is a learned disposition and skill. Meaningful Student Involvement also supports adults as they learn to engage the knowledge, perspectives, and experience of students in diverse education settings.
This is about culture change as much as structure change. A challenge of that is that schools aren’t isolated—they do not exist in a vacuum. No matter how educators treat a student inside one classroom, for one period, students still leave the classroom and school to return to communities where they are routinely excluded from decision-making and actions that affect them, and segregated from the adults around them.
Fostering Champions, Ambassadors and Advocates
One of the essential roles to beginning Meaningful Student Involvement is that of the champion to get started. The champion has to be an adult who can work with students as partners. That is because the role of the adult is inherently longer lasting than the role of any single student.
Thinking about where to start varies according to the role adults play within a school. Every adult in every school can have healthy, meaningful interactions with students. Janitors, media specialists, assistant principals, and coaches can forge meaningfulness by acting with respect, making meaningful investments in students, and committing to communicate clearly with students.
For teachers, curriculum is a great place to start. Building meaningfulness into a curricular approach so it embodies Meaningful Student Involvement allows teachers to reflect students’ daily personal lives and connects learning to real-world outcomes. Rather than assuming students have never experienced meaningfulness, teachers can help them plumb their school experience through critical reflection and meaningful connections.
Building administrators, school counselors, administrative staff, and other school support positions face a different picture. These professionals can strive to infusing the Cycle of Engagement from Part Three into every interaction they have with students. Building the Cycle into the routine of every adult in schools can change building culture. In turn, this contributes to transforming education. The most important thing any adult in schools can do is to envision students as partners, and then act that way.
Ways to Learn
There are a variety of ways adults can learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in action. Engaging students in planning by infusing students into classroom, club, and school planning is one avenue. Adults can learn about Student/Adult Partnerships, and how to listen to student feedback. When they are involved in researching schools with students, adults can help facilitate participatory action research focusing on classroom and school improvement. Through this they can learn about the Participatory Action Research process, and how students can lead assessment. Meaningful Student Involvement in teaching can help teachers learn to build students’ ability to self-teach and facilitate peer education. They can learn peer education techniques, and how to provide coaching to learners rather than traditional teaching.
Teachers facilitating authentic student-designed evaluation processes for themselves, peers, and adults in school learn evaluation methods and how to listen to student feedback. By meaningfully involving students in decision-making, adults can partner up with student groups to ensure consistent student positions on school improvement committees. This can help reinforce adults’ ability to facilitate large groups and plan large events outside the classroom. Adults in schools can learn advocacy and coalition building skills through Meaningful Student Involvement. Each of these activities can reinforce what Student/Adult Partnerships are and how they functionally operate.
Meaningful Student Involvement in high schools is experiential, intensive and offers direct connections between the school and the larger community. Many gains in youth development occur through conscientious, thoughtful student voice activities, particularly when Student/Adult Partnerships are formed. (Mitra, 2004)
Action may happen in longer duration than in elementary or middle school years. Students lead action and have full responsibility and authority in many activities with adults acting as coaches that guide students in a mostly self-directed process of inquiry and discovery. There are activities where students have been meaningfully involved in high schools, including specific skill building and important learning connections.
High School Students
When high school students are meaningfully involved in advocacy they can learn a variety of skills. For instance, advocating for a student-created district budget can help them learn about issues in education, group decision-making, and diversity awareness. It can reinforce skills such as writing, math, communications, and applied citizenship. Engaging students as partners in teaching by having them teach classroom courses can teach students about a variety of issues, including classroom planning, and reinforce subject knowledge about the they are topic they are teaching. The opportunity can also teach or reinforce their facilitation and presentation skills, evaluation skills, and overall communications skills.
Engaging high school students in education decision-making through full membership on school improvement committees is one way they can be meaningfully involved. This can teach them practical community building and about issues in education. The skills they can develop include conflict resolution, writing, statistical math, and the specific issue areas they are involved in addressing through school improvement. High school students can be engaged in facilitating training for teachers. This reinforces issue knowledge about whatever topic they are addressing, including diversity, youth issues, and community needs. Their skills in facilitation, communications, and writing can be developed further too.
With the range of decision-making opportunities for high school students to be meaningfully involved in, positions on teacher and principal hiring teams almost appear obvious. They can learn about group dynamics and issues in education, as well as practical considerations around hiring and firing. They also learn skills in collaboration and communication. When high school students are involved in advocacy, student-led forums and action planning can be a practical way to learn about issues in education and cultural dynamics among their peers. Their skills in facilitation, event planning, and communications can become more important than ever.
Student-led organizing provides opportunities for students to learn invaluable skills without parallel. For instance, high school students organizing an education conference for their peers and the larger community can help them learn about issues in education, event planning, issues in democratic governance and applied citizenship. They also learn concrete skills focused on communication.
Meaningful Student Involvement in middle schools is experiential and project-based, emphasizing teamwork and results for all students. These actions encourage students to take increasing levels of responsibility for improving their schools. They can also lay an essential foundation for successful high school and higher education experiences. (Zlotkowski, 2002)
The following activities detail where students have been meaningfully involved in middle schools, including specific skill building and learning connections. Additionally, activities in middle schools span a variety of core curriculum, extracurricular activities, assessments and other activities, transforming adults’ perspectives of student roles in schools. (Bryant, 2007)
Middle School Students
Meaningful Student Involvement for middle school students might begin with being engaged in education planning. For instance, full membership on school committees can facilitate student learning about school leadership, and teach them about issues in education. Their communication skills and applied citizenship skills can increase too. Engaging students as partners in education research can begin with teaching them research methods and show them the array of issues in education. They learn to assess data and design action projects, along the way learning skills in writing, data-focused math, communications, and specific issue areas that arise.
Meaningfully involving middle school students in teaching can mean student/adult co-teaching. Students can learn about classroom planning, facilitation, and self- and group evaluation skills. Their skills in writing and other forms of communication can be reinforced too. To engage students as partners in evaluation educators can use student-created school assessments in their classes. This can improve group decision-making and evaluation skills, as well as critical thinking, communications, and knowledge around specific subject areas.
Decision-making is an obvious area for a lot of meaningful involvement for middle school students. Whole school student forums led by students can teach facilitation and event planning skills. While they learn to identify issues in education for a variety of students, student partners can also improve their communication skills and their appreciation for diversity in action. Middle school students can learn about advocacy through school-focused service learning, which combines classroom learning goals with meaningful community service focused on education.
Students can learn project planning skills and how to identify issues in education, as well as skills in critical reflection, communications, and group leadership. When middle school students lead community organizing they can do almost anything, including designing their own school improvement agenda. Doing this can teach them about issues in education, group processes, and collaboration. They can also learn concrete skills in communication and applied citizenship.
Meaningful Student Involvement in elementary schools is experiential, tangible, and focused. Action is generally based in the classroom, where students work in small groups and gradually build their skills. (Thiessen, 2007) Meaningful Student Involvement requires specific skill building that can lead to important learning connections for young people. Following are generalized examples of activities where students have been meaningfully involved in elementary schools, and what they have learned.
Elementary School Students
Engaging students as partners in the elementary level can begin in kindergarten, gradually increasing in scope, purpose, intent, and outcomes throughout the fifth and sixth grades. Introducing students to education planning by installing them as members on school improvement committee is an excellent activity. Students can learn cooperative leadership and project planning skills. School improvement can introduce them to the depth of issues in education, and contribute to developing their communications, reading, and writing skills.
Through meaningful involvement in teaching, elementary students learn to co-design, deliver, and evaluate lesson plans. Their knowledge of learning styles, teaching skills, and evaluation methods can increase. Skills in writing, communication, and the specific subject area they are teaching can increase too.
There are several ways elementary students can participate in classroom evaluation. Student evaluation of themselves and their teachers teaches self-awareness and critical thinking skills, and reinforces their communication skills. Meaningful Student Involvement in evaluation through student-led parent teacher conferences is an increasingly popular way to engage students as partners in education. They learn to present their own learning through small group facilitation. This increases their communications skills, including writing, speaking, and reading.
In elementary school, engaging students as partners in decision-making can take the form of student-led classroom governance. This happens as students learning about creating consensus, teambuilding, and applied citizenship. They learn relational skills and communication through application, and understand how they are part of something larger than themselves. When these students are meaningfully involved in education advocacy, such as supporting the school library, they can learn active listening, problem solving, and communication skills.
Students in elementary schools can also experience Meaningful Student Involvement through school organizing. For instance, a student-led signature-collecting campaigns promoting their interests can help elementary students learn about creating petitions, as well as understanding the school system and democratic process. Their writing and relational skills increase while they have an applied experience in social studies.