Impacts of Meaningful Student Involvement on Learning

Understanding the impacts of Meaningful Student Involvement on learning is essential for infusing the approach throughout classrooms. This article explores why that’s so and how it can happen.


Impacting Everyone

When incorporated throughout learning and relationship-building in schools, it is more impactful on both students and adults. When it’s deeply brought into learning, relationships, practices, and policies, it will surely affect the culture of education. In turn, not only does it affect students and adults, but it affects the entire education system. It is only logical to assume that will produce the greatest number of outcomes. Stories throughout the rest of this book support that assumption. Meaningful Student Involvement can be a powerful and effective force for school improvement, increasing students’ commitment to their own achievement as well as to school goals and making schools, in turn, more responsive to the characteristics and needs of their students.

Meaningful Student Involvement does not force students to assume responsibility for every aspect of their learning and development. Instead, it assumes that educators are capable of facilitating students’ gradual assumption of responsibility. Through direct instruction, students build their knowledge of education, learning, teaching, leadership, student voice, the education system at large, school improvement, and Meaningful Student Involvement. Educators teach students about the functions of education research; school planning; classroom teaching; learning evaluations; systemic decision-making; and advocacy.


Collaborations at Heart

By establishing strategic Student/Adult Partnerships, educators can model and guide lifelong learning and determined action for school improvement. Mitra writes,

“[B]y assuming responsibilities and enacting decisions that have consequences for themselves and others… participating students develop a broad set of competencies that help them prepare for adulthood.” (2004)

They collaborate with learners in collegial learning communities, emphasizing every students’ ability to create positive change. They also give students plenty of opportunities for positive independent work that is deliberately chosen for its impact. This is not make-busy work or filler; instead, both students and adults understand that it is integral to the purpose of Meaningful Student Involvement. Again, adults deliberately model for students that they do this, too, as a course of their regular work in education as well as for the purpose of meaningfully involving learners. Finally, regular opportunities for reflection and sharing among students and between students and adults emphasize mutual learning and deep impacts. All of this can lead to deepened learning, which is the foundational aim of Meaningful Student Involvement.


You Might Like…

Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook written by Adam Fletcher published by CommonAction Publishing in 2017.

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)

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)

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))

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)

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.

 

  • 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.

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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Understanding Meaningfulness

Meaningfulness is an entirely subjective experience that varies almost entirely from person to person. We each make our own meaning in life all of the time, sometimes consciously and often unconsciously. The same is true of students.

Whether something is meaningful to anyone is affected by a number of things. Who we are individually, where we are at, and what we are doing all affect meaningfulness. This is our personal context. The people and places around us provide a cultural context that affects whether we see something as meaningful or not. The signs and language people use affects our perspective of meaningfulness, as do the media and technology at hand. Finally, biology and psychology affects our interpretation of whether something is meaningful to us.

Self-Determination in Schools

All that is to say that every student determines what is meaningful for themselves. In my studies, I have found that students in schools are largely responsive to a set of factors that allow them to determine whether something is meaningful for themselves. These factors include:

  • Purpose: Why are students involved?
  • Type: Which form of involvement is chosen?
  • Action: What specific ways does involvement happen?
  • Intent: What tare the driving reasons students are involved?
  • People: Who is involved?
  • Place: Where does involvement happen?
  • How: What are the avenues for involvement?

These questions emerge in a variety of research, especially the vital work of Michael Fielding, who asserts almost two dozen other questions as well. (Fielding, 2001) Through my projects, I have found the factors represented here are vital for personal, group and organizational examination by both students and educators. There is something more at the heart of this though.

In order to be meaningful, student involvement must challenge and re-define the ideas of power, control and authority throughout the education. Meaningful Student Involvement calls schools to a higher purpose. Students are positioned as generators of knowledge, co-makers of culture, and co-facilitators of learning. They are fully acknowledged as real partners to all adults throughout education through equitable treatment to adults in schools.

These are the roles students need to have in schools, and this is what makes involvement meaningful.

Student Voice and Choice Are Not Enough

There is an increasingly popular formula in the student empowerment movement that is undermining Student/Adult Partnerships. More and more, well-meaning educators and school leaders are talking about student voice and student choice, and implying that simply listening to student voice and giving students choices will lead to student empowerment. (Booth, 2013) Unfortunately, choice and voice are not enough to count as meaningful.

Instead, students need to understand that their voice happens in a context of something larger than themselves, and that their choices affect more than themselves alone. The context they should know is that their schooling affects them, their classroom and school, and the education system as a whole, our communities at large, and all of the democratic experiment we share and benefit from every day. Similarly, there are thousands of micro- and macro-level individual choices students make throughout the day. These choices affect themselves, their peers, the families, neighbors, public servants and all of society every single time they make them.

Meaningful Student Involvement provides the context and larger picture for all students in every classroom throughout every school in every community all around the world.

There are six expectations for all Student/Adult Partnerships that occur through the frameworks of Meaningful Student Involvement. All students and adults will:

  1. Assume responsibility for their education and can articulate the purpose of schools.
  2. Learn to be collaborative and act responsibility throughout their school and learning experiences.
  3. Communicate creatively and effectively with others in order to sustain meaningfulness.
  4. Demonstrate integrated, critical and applied learning through action and reflection.
  5. Examine and inquire consistently throughout their educative experiences.
  6. Through action, show depth, breadth and deep understanding about the focus of schooling.

Holding each other mutually accountable through these expectations is vital for students and adults. Pulling together broad student voice from a variety of peers, students apply the expectations throughout their daily learning, enabling them to practice real-world applications immediately in their schools. Educators link theory to practice by actively applying Meaningful Student Involvement in their daily classroom practice or administrative activities. Everyone throughout the school learns to bridge differences on purpose through recognizing each other in ways they may not otherwise. The capacity of the entire school community is increased as these frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement are infused throughout everyone’s mutual experiences. All of this challenges the habit of segregation among age groups that our schools have become accustomed to. It also combats the false competitions among students and between students and educators and builds mutuality through shared learning and community building.

Meaningful or Non-Meaningful Involvement

It is vital to understand when student involvement is and is not meaningful.

When is student involvement not meaningful?

  • Students are regarded as passive recipients in schools, or as empty vessels to be filled with adults’ knowledge.
  • Students view skills as something they are either born with or not, and adults do nothing to change that viewpoint.
  • The contributions of students are minimized or tokenized by adults by asking students to “rubber stamp” ideas developed by adults, or by inviting students to sit on committees without real power or responsibility.
  • Students and adults view challenges as something to avoid and something that reveals their lack of skills.
  • Student perspectives, experiences or knowledge are filtered with adult interpretations.
  • Students and adults avoid challenge and tend to give up easily when they meet it.
  • Students are given problems to solve without adult support or adequate training.
  • Adults see student involvement as a statement of their inadequacy and take it personally by getting defensive.
  • Students are trained in leadership skills without opportunities to take on real leadership roles in their school.
  • When they meet barriers or setbacks, students and adults blame each other and get discouraged.

When is student involvement meaningful?

  • Students are allies and partners with adults in improving schools.
  • Students and adults know that every school can always improve.
  • Students have the training and authority to create real solutions to the challenges that schools face in learning, teaching, and leadership.
  • Schools, including educators and administrators, are accountable to students themselves.
  • Student-adult partnerships are a major component of every sustainable, responsive, and systemic approach to transforming schools.
  • Students and adults know schools change through hard work
  • Schools persistently embrace challenges as opportunities to keep growing.
  • Students understand that effort is an essential tool that leads to them becoming more effective learners, and educators acknowledge effort duly.
  • Adults view involvement as a meaningful opportunity for students that is useful for them to identify areas for school improvement and as something to learn from.
  • Students and adults work together to understand setbacks and barriers as something to grow from and work harder towards next time.

Currently, some schools talk about students as consumers. This is not a meaningful approach, because it ultimately reduces learning to consumption, as if students simply need to show up and digest whatever adults give to them. In the same way that you go to the store, buy what you need, and leave, addressing students as consumers implies the conveyor belt approach to teaching, learning, and leadership in schools is okay, and as stagnant student achievement rates show worldwide, it is not. Engaging students as partners requires their meaningful involvement throughout the entirety of the education system, from research to planning, teaching to evaluation, decision-making to advocacy.

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Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook written by Adam Fletcher published by CommonAction Publishing in 2017.

Four Ways Adults Treat Students

Following are four basic ways that all adults throughout the education system treat students today. Further in this book I explore more ways in depth.

  • Students as Objects: Adults treat students as inanimate objects, exercising arbitrary and total control over them. All classes, programs and activities throughout education are done TO students.
  • Students as Recipients: After deciding what is best for students, adults determine needs, prescribe remedies, implement solutions and evaluate outcomes with little or no student input. All classes, programs and activities are FOR students.
  • Students as Resources: Adults see students as capable of sharing student voice, listening to students while they are planning, implementing and evaluating classes, programs and activities throughout the education system.
  • Student as Partners: Students and adults are actively engaged in equitable partnerships where they share authority, ability and accountability. (Innovation Center, 2005)

The last basic way is the foundation of Meaningful Student Involvement: Student/Adult Partnerships.

 

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Student/Adult Partnerships

Student/Adult Partnerships represent the transformation of learning, teaching and leadership throughout schools based on fostering and sustaining equitable, respectful relationships between all ages of learners and all adults, anywhere throughout the education system.

What They Are

The first framework for Meaningful Student Involvement is that of Student/Adult Partnerships. Their importance cannot be overstated. However, before understanding what they are, it is important to understand what Student/Adult Partnerships are not. (Oldfather, 1995) Student/Adult Partnerships are transformative, empowering, enlivening and engaging for everyone involved. They are built on the principles of trust, respect, communication, investment and involvement. They are not tokenistic, disenfranchising, equal or opportunistic.

What They Do

Following are several aspects of Student/Adult Partnerships:

Parts of Student/Adult Partnerships

Examples

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Social Justice and Meaningful Student Involvement

Social justice is effort specifically taken to rebalance the injustices faced by any group of people who are routinely, systematically and consistently disregarded and disrespected.

Reflections

Growing up, my family experienced situational poverty and occasional homelessness. In my teenage years, once we had settled in the Midwestern United States, I was hired by a neighborhood nonprofit to co-teach in a summer program for young people who lived in Omaha, Nebraska’s public housing projects. The program, called “You’re The Star!”, was developed alongside Augusto Boal’s notable approach called “Theatre of the Oppressed.” My director, Idu Maduli, became a lifelong inspiration whom I sought to mold my work with young people after.

Idu instilled in me many things, not the least of which being a love of learning and teaching. I developed a deep appreciation for the history of the predominately African American community where I eventually grew up for a decade. I also learned the elements of social justice from my work with Idu. Social justice, which is the deliberate empowerment of oppressed people within a system of intentional or coincidental injustice, can be fostered throughout education in many ways. (Banks, 1998 ) Through its focus on social justice, Meaningful Student Involvement holds multicultural education at its heart.

From my young efforts in social justice education, I transitioned to youth development programs with historically disengaged children and youth. Working in out-of-school learning programs in low-income communities and communities of color, the places I mentored, tutored and taught often reflected my own upbringing in a socially, economically and emotionally depressed community. However, I was enthralled to facilitate student empowerment outside and within the education system. In my first AmeriCorps term, I worked with Kurdish and Iraqi refugee students in the Midwest. For the first time, I observed the elements that made successful student learning, and discovered intersections leading to student empowerment. Since then I continued exploring the topic, and today, I understand that student empowerment is the attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby learners gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including students and adults. (Vavrus & Fletcher, 2006)

That centers student empowerment and social justice in the heart of Meaningful Student Involvement. I hold that the frameworks, considerations, concepts and applications explored throughout this book can affect every student in every school across every nation and around the world. As several others have posited, Student/Adult Partnerships are student empowerment and social justice in action. (Beane & Apple, 1995; Cervone & Cushman, 2002; Beaudoin, 2005; Mitra, 2006; Fielding, 2010; Beattie, 2012)

Considering my own background, it should come as no surprise that I merged my undergraduate studies in critical pedagogy with my graduate and professional studies focused on student voice. After studying works by Paulo Freire (Freire, 2004), Michelle Fine (Fine & Weis, 2003), bell hooks (hooks, 2014) and Peter McLaren (McLaren, 2003), Henry Giroux (Giroux, 2013) and others, I began examining some of my basic assumptions about student voice. I explored the reasons why student voice is so frequently qualified by adults, and saw how adults selectively choose which students to listen to and which to ignore, consciously and unconsciously. Looking for the faces of the low-income young people and youth of color I worked with throughout my career, I saw very few of them being invited to share their voices. Yet, as these young people (myself included) got in fights, cheated on tests, vandalized classrooms and dropped out of school, I also heard them call out. This was reinforced by other critical literature, too. (McDermott, 1998; Rubin & Silva, 2003; Cook-Sather, 2007)

However, it was my mentor Henry Giroux whose definition of voice resolved these differences for me. According to McLaren, Giroux says voice “refers to the multifaceted and interlocking set of meanings through which students actively engage in a dialogue with one another.” (McLaren, 2003)

Together, McLaren and Giroux built an early understanding of the potential for student voice to affect social justice in education. (Giroux & McLaren, 1982) Wanting to simplify and expand common understanding of student voice, I believe it is important to hold the intent of Giroux’s definition by holding a lot of different ideas and critical conceptions inside of the term. In my 2014 publication, The Guide to Student Voice, I wrote, “student voice is any expression of any learner, anywhere, anytime related to education.” (Fletcher, 2014) I continue to share that explanation and explore it throughout my work.

Social justice and student voice meet at the intersection of Meaningful Student Involvement, providing powerful, positive and purpose-filled opportunities for historically disengaged students to drive active, substantive and transformative change throughout education. Who can ask for more?

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Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement

Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement (c) 2015 SoundOut.

Meaningful Student Involvement is not a stand-alone activity. Educators and school leaders commit to fostering Student/Adult Partnerships that transform the hearts and minds of school communities through initiatives that concentrate on the well-defined need to integrate roles for Meaningful Student Involvement throughout education. Taking a whole systems approach to addressing that challenge, individual classrooms, whole buildings, or entire districts emphasize new designs, materials, processes, tools, policies, or any combination, in order to address multiple problems surrounding student engagement and student voice. These strategies should be integrated, dealing with key issues throughout the school community.

The graphic above illustrates the systems approach of Meaningful Student Involvement. It reflects three spheres of activity where I have seen and worked with schools as they integrate students as partners throughout education. They are the Core Sphere, which illustrates the places where Meaningful Student Involvement happens; the Nesting Sphere, which shows which activities I have consistently found foster Meaningful Student Involvement throughout the education system; and the Surrounding Sphere that emphasizes the elements of the education system that hold the keys to transformation.

This conceptualization is intended to represent two commitments: The first, a commitment to aligning Meaningful Student Involvement with systems thinking, and second, a commitment to demonstrating practical, pragmatic ways to move theory into action.

There are three Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement that should be recognized.


Core Sphere: Locations

The Core Sphere of Meaningful Student Involvement is comprised of several locations for where students can be engaged as partners in learning, teaching and leadership. While I have identified specific activities throughout the school where student voice happens, this specific sphere reflects a larger systemic approach to integrating students as partners throughout the education system. There are six sections in the Core Sphere that show where Student/Adult Partnerships are formed and affected.

Classroom Pedagogy

This is the crux of teaching, learning, and assessment in all schools. Teachers study, practice, and critically examine pedagogy, often identifying places where student voice can strengthen their practice. Pedagogy includes curriculum and informal assessments, as well as teaching styles and learning tools including technology and textbooks. Meaningful Student Involvement should be reflected in the ways teachers teach, classrooms are managed, and learning is assessed, starting in classroom and rippling throughout the entirety of the system. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in classroom pedagogy.)

School Environment

The environment for teaching, learning and leadership throughout schools is determined by many factors including relationships, relevance, rigor and responsibility. The environment includes relationships between students, including bullying and peer helpers, as well as student-teacher relationships, and relationships between every adult throughout education. Meaningful Student Involvement informs all relationships between students and adults throughout schools and the education system, from school counselors to principals to district staff to the state school board. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in the school environment.)

Extracurricular Activities

Student government, clubs, sports, and any other activity not directed by classroom learning happens in extracurricular activities. Extracurricular activities include anytime a student spends in school when they are not earning credits, including clubs, sports and student government, as well as cafeteria time, library usage, theater and more. The efficacy of out-of-classroom learning should be deeply informed by Meaningful Student Involvement by embracing students as active drivers of activities, opportunities and outcomes through extracurricular functions of all kinds. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in extracurricular activities.)

Education Leadership

Building principals, local and state boards of education, district and state education agency staff, and federal politicians fall into this category. Meaningful Student Involvement should be infused through equitable partnerships with education leaders, and should not negate, deny or otherwise silence any students. Leadership activities include building administration, teacher committees, district policy-making including school boards, state administration including grant administration, professional standards, building assessments, program reviews, and formal assessments of student learning. Decision-making efficacy, ongoing relevance and empowered outcomes can all happen through Meaningful Student Involvement throughout these processes. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in education leadership.)

Formal School Improvement

Every K-12 public school must strive to constantly improve, innovate and transform in order to meet the needs of today’s students and tomorrow’s society. This includes data-driven assessments of school performance; qualitative evidence of student and adults’ opinions about school achievement; analysis and data; prioritization of issues according to research-demonstrated outcomes; whole school planning; student/adult partnered implementation; and ongoing monitoring by students and adults that re-informs the process of assessments. In order to do this, Meaningful Student Involvement is infused throughout formal school improvement plans and actions by integrating students as partners. This process can lead students and educators towards powerful outcomes for all learners. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in school improvement.)

Public Action for School Transformation

Students around the world are asserting themselves into local, state, national and international dialogues about education transformation and other essential conversations about schools. They are doing this by engaging as public citizens who are leading student organizing, participating in community-led school transformation and other active protest movements. Meaningful Student Involvement can be an engine of this action, serving to embrace and empower students through deep learning and substantive outcomes that sustain their roles throughout time. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in public action for school transformation.)

The six components of the core sphere hold almost all activities that occur throughout education. That is because every adult throughout the education system can benefit from Meaningful Student Involvement. When adults throughout the education system realize and enact that, more and more students will have room to become meaningfully involved.

From here, it becomes vital to understand that Meaningful Student Involvement cannot happen within a silo or simply through one channel. Instead, when understood as needing nesting, the Core Sphere is seen as a poignant place to begin—not end.


Nesting Sphere: Actions

The Nesting Sphere of Meaningful Student Involvement is made of the roles through which research and practice consistently demonstrate positive, powerful outcomes. I call it the Nesting Sphere because these activities hold the Core Sphere intact by nurturing Student/Adult Partnerships in action, rather than just in concept. Meaningful Student Involvement is both conceptual and practical, and not simply an either/or dichotomy.

These six roles form a typology that can be infused throughout schools on both personal/individual levels, and the community/collective levels. They can be seen as both a progression through a linear continuum of action, and as a hodgepodge from a variety of perspectives that depend on where you are looking from. I identified them in my initial research on student involvement almost fifteen years ago. They are meant to reflect the vast majority of the times students said involvement mattered most to them.

I expand on each of these greatly further in the book; this section is merely an introduction.

Students Planning Education

When you are observing the second sphere, the first role you should understand is student as planner. Students of all ages are capable of planning a variety of activities throughout education. Any student can participate in planning on personal and community levels in activities that affect just them, or ones that affect everyone throughout a school district or beyond. The possibilities of students as planners align well with the first sphere, as each of those locations requires planning of some sort. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in planning education.)

Students Researching Schools

The second role has to do with examining any component of education, from why it happens to how it’s delivered, and all points in between. This research can be practical, where Student/Adult Partnerships examine what is happening throughout education and why it is happening. Practical research generally includes questionnaires, surveys, interviews, observations and/or discussion groups. Students researching schools can also focus on theoretical research, where they read research archives, published academic journals and other sources to device their own theories about learning, teaching and leadership. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in school research.)

Students Teaching Classes

The arch of time has consistently shown that French philosopher Joseph Joubert was right when he philosophized that, “To teach is to learn twice.” When students teach students, when students teach adults and when students teach themselves, they learn far more effectively than through any other approach. Whether focused on building skills or sharing knowledge, students can devise their own lessons plans or partner with teachers; they can deliver curriculum and facilitate coursework; they can co-teach, tutor, or self-lead learning. This is not just some students, either: it is every student. Every student has the capacity to teach and learn from themselves and other students. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in teaching.)

Students Evaluating Education

Stepping into roles as evaluators shows students they have substantive perspectives that others students and adults need and want to know. Students are already evaluating their schools every single day by showing up metaphorically and practically. Given opportunities to systematize and expand on those evaluations, they can help inform practical action and transform stagnate learning into active, dynamic and meaningful involvement for themselves and their peers. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in evaluating education.)

Students Making Decisions

Research has consistently shown that students want more opportunities to be involved in making substantive decisions about what happens to them in schools. Confronted with individual choices daily, students also want systemic decision-making opportunities that move beyond the A/B binary and towards the complex, real-world decisions made so often by adults for them. This can happen on every level throughout the education system, and effectively engage every single student as partners in the process. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in education decision-making.)

Students Advocating For Education

When they are first confronted with the picture of students advocating for education, many adults automatically assume there is no one better to stand up for schools than the beneficiaries. However, the challenge of this is that students often do not understand themselves to be benefiting from schools. Learning about things that matter to them and discovering ways to stand up for what they believe in is a lifelong skill that will enrich everyone, especially students in schools. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in education advocacy.)

This six roles can wrap around the hearts of students and adults alike, weaving through their imaginations the possibilities and hopes of learning, teaching and leadership throughout schools. Concentrated by their alignment with a place in Core Sphere, these roles can invigorate and enhance the meaning of student involvement wherever it happens. However, they become truly enriched when viewed from the perspective of the Surrounding Sphere.


Surrounding Sphere: Realms

The outer sphere of Meaningful Student Involvement are the realms for transformation. Individually, each of these reflects a different way that summarizes the major areas of action. Collectively, they form a distinct pathway for students, classroom teachers, school leaders, education agency officials, and others throughout the education system as well as community partners. This sphere seeks to infuse student voice with power, purpose and belonging throughout the entirety of the education system, but does so by showing the main drivers in each location throughout schools. Each of these realms can become apparent to anyone who is observing them, when they know to look for them. Students can see the culture of schools in their everyday interactions with peers and adults; teachers can see the structure of schools in their pedagogy and practice throughout the day; leaders can see the attitudes of individuals in every location and activity throughout the system.

Culture

Apparent throughout the everyday functioning of the education system, culture is made of the beliefs, habits values, visions, norms, systems, and symbols within a specific and definable school community. Culture is shown in the ways people talk with each other; the nonverbal communication they use; the clothing they wear and the ways they decorate themselves, and more. The physical places throughout school systems reflect the culture of education, whether considering the hallways, classrooms, cafeterias, student commons, principals’ offices, school boardroom, or other places. If a space is highly formal, it might demonstrate a culture of tradition and determination. If a space is decorated with student art and graffiti, it might represent informality and looseness.

The culture of schools is reflected in student involvement. It is important to understand that culture is in the eye of the beholder also. If a classroom is filled with slouching, bored-looking students who are sloppily dressed and mumbling to each other, an adult may assume that the teacher is ineffectual and the students are disengaged. However, listening to student voice could show these same students are reclining comfortably while deeply engrossed in brainstorming and problem-solving a classroom issue.

Similarly, vandalism and bullying in schools is also an indication of whether students feel meaningfully involved or not. If Meaningful Student Involvement is apparent in school culture, bullying will be mitigated. All students of all ages are well capable of expressing themselves and their opinions, experiences and ideas in schools and about education in healthy and positive ways, given substantive opportunities to do that. Without those opportunities, students are left to identify ways to express themselves. While these may take the form of articles in the school newspaper or impassioned speeches at school board meetings, Meaningful Student Involvement these do not make. Instead, these are temporary and constrained expressions. So are vandalism and bullying in schools.

The culture of a school that has embedded Meaningful Student Involvement is distinctly reflective of that reality. The elements of Student/Adult Partnerships become increasingly obvious in every relationship between every student and each adult within a school building, and beyond that into the entire education system they belong to. The key characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement appear eventually will appear with such frequency in classrooms, hallways and throughout schools that they will be indistinguishable from the school culture. Needless to say, the very perspectives of adults will have transformed wholly, and every student in every school will be seen as a partner. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in school culture.)

Structure

Where culture reflects the intangible, yet observable components of Meaningful Student Involvement, the structure of schools is made of the named activities, policies, strategies, processes, allocation, coordination, and supervision of people throughout an education system. The structure of the education system has traditionally appeared rigid, inflexible and hardened to the realities and needs of modern society. With compartmentalization of jobs throughout these old-fashioned structures, teachers were responsible merely for teaching the subjects they are responsible for; principals were responsible for managing their teachers; and others throughout the education system were similarly divided by purpose and outcomes. This worked in a society that treasured conformity and uniformity over creativity and entrepreneurship. However, coordination and communication between different players in these education systems was limited, and the real needs of students were wholly ignored. Standardized curriculum and assessments were the norm, and a fixation on efficiency increased classroom sizes while allowing a large percentage of students to dropout and/or be funneled through the school-to-prison pipeline. Regardless of their position in schools, students were always seen as the passive recipients of adult-driven planning, research, teaching, evaluation, decision-making and advocacy in schools.

An emerging structure in schools is focused on smaller learning environments. This approach allows more specialization to meet student needs or desires by giving educators more leeway to make decisions for themselves. A large urban school that once had 5,000 students might be split into four small schools, each one focusing on a different learning area, including a liberal arts school, a social good school, a technology and engineering school, and a performing arts school. This approach works to foster Meaningful Student Involvement rapidly and specifically among different populations of students. However, it can be expensive and limited by a district’s size or budget. Additionally, since there are no guarantees, these smaller schools can also use a traditional structure on their scale.

A third type of school structure overlays both of the previous types of structures—traditional and small schools—within a single school building. This can allow educators to act as experts in their own fields of teaching and leadership, while allowing students to experience Meaningful Student Involvement in teaching, learning and leadership. Without deliberate facilitation and high-level coordination by school leaders, struggles can emerge among students who are experiencing meaningful involvement, and there can be distinct senses of challenge and competition between the meaningfully involved and those who do not experience that meaningfulness. These challenges can be met though, as according Student/Adult Partnerships can nurture wide-ranging student engagement, while the structure of the school maintains its alignment with the school improvement planning process.  (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in education structure.)

Attitude

Attitude is made of the opinions, actions, knowledge and beliefs of individuals. The attitudes within an education-oriented environment are made of every individual within those environments. Attitudes determine the outlook a person has on the world around them, and as such they influence the course and outcomes of all teaching, learning and leadership throughout the education system. Attitudes belong to all layers of a person’s identity, whether it is their role in schools as a student, teacher, paraprofessional, janitor, school board member, or bus driver; as a member of a racial or ethnic group; whether a person is an English Language Learner, is fluent in multiple languages, or is a non-English speaker; and whether a person identifies as poor, working class, low-income, middle income or high income. Self-perceptions of academic achievement drive students’ attitudes, while adults in schools perceptions of professional efficacy drive their attitudes as well.

Student attitudes affect every component of their school day and educational experience. This includes their social standing, academic achievement, classroom and out-of-classroom behavior, as well as Meaningful Student Involvement. If a student has an attitude that allows for them to be in a partnership with adults throughout the education system, they will be much more effective than the student who is limited to believing they must resist Student/Adult Partnerships. Similarly, adult attitudes affect every component of Meaningful Student Involvement.

If students look around a classroom and do not see themselves, they will not have attitudes that will lead towards Meaningful Student Involvement. If adults throughout an education setting constantly use diminutive and limiting language about students or simply do not discuss students at all, they cannot foster Meaningful Student Involvement. When students feel threatened with punishment for expressing their perspectives, wisdom, ideas, criticisms and knowledge about schools and education at large, they cannot be meaningfully involved. If teachers constantly experience disengaged and apathetic students, they may not attempt to meaningfully involve learners in their classrooms. Students and adults need to work together to identify what attitudes look like when they reflect Meaningful Student Involvement. Planning for action should center on fostering the proper attitudes for Meaningful Student Involvement. (Learn about Meaningful Student Involvement in individual attitudes.)


Summary

These three components form the surrounding sphere of Meaningful Student Involvement. They form the container that the core sphere and nesting sphere rest inside of. Without addressing these components, the other spheres will not and cannot be meaningful. I expand on these components in depth later in this book.

Each of these spheres is wholly interactive with the others, and provides a view into the heart of Meaningful Student Involvement.


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Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook written by Adam Fletcher published by CommonAction Publishing in 2017.

Rationale for Students on School Boards

This is the SoundOut Students On School Boards Toolkit by Adam Fletcher. It includes research, examples and more. SoundOut offers professional development and training! For more information contact us.

What difference can it make if students are on school boards? There are a lot of reasons to have students on school boards. This article summarizes some of the research supporting students on school boards!

Reasons for Students on School Boards

  • Academic Achievement. Meaningfully involving students on school boards can ensure student engagement, which raises academic achievement.
  • Respect. Students have valid opinions, knowledge, ideas, and experiences that school boards can benefit from.
  • Authenticity. Having students on school boards can help ensure that adults know what is actually happening in schools right now.
  • Justice. “Anything about us without us is not for us.” Schools can put democracy into action with students on school boards.
  • Real LearningEngaging students on school boards may be one of the most powerful ways to teach students about democracy in society.
  • Better TeachingStudent involvement throughout the leadership process of schools can show teachers school boards are committed to teaching and the sustainability of school.
  • Effective School ImprovementEngaging students on school boards can significantly improve the effectiveness of school improvement measures in school.
  • Youth DevelopmentStudents can become more effective learners when they are engaged on school boards, and in processes of decision-making affecting them throughout their lives.
  • School Culture.The attitudes, policies, and structures of schools may change when students are on school boards.
  • Embracing DiversityEmbracing a diversity of perspectives can make student voice the most significant tool in the school leadership toolbox.
  • The “Bottom Line”.Students on school boards can help schools save money while meeting the rigorous demands facing public education systems.
  • IntegrityEducators and school leaders have an ethical responsibility to engage students as partners throughout education, particularly in the decision-making that affects them every single day.

MAYBE the most important factor to engaging students on school boards is that it just feels right. Voters, teachers, administrators, parents, board members, businesspeople, higher education… Each of these has a stake in school board decision-making. Students have a major stake, too, and it is time to acknowledge it.

Students on School Boards Toolkit

Students on School Boards in Canada

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School Boards of the Future by Adam Fletcher

Definitions of Student Voice

SoundOut defines student voice as any expression of any learner about anything, any where, anytime related to learning, schools or education.

For many years, researchers and practitioners defined student voice according to their own intentions for the activities and outcomes. It was often along the lines of student agency and purpose in education, or otherwise a movement towards action and increased abilities for learners. (Mockler & Groundwater-Smith, 2015) This chapter explores different meanings and understandings of student voice, and presents my own definition of the term.

Across the Field

Mitra wrote that student voice is, “the focus on the design, facilitation and improvement of learning.” Similarly, a high school principal in Seattle suggested, “[Student voice is] the active opportunity for students to express their opinions and make decisions regarding the planning, implementation, and evaluation of their learning experiences.” (Rogers, 2004) One of my longtime allies, Dr. Dennis Harper of the international nonprofit organization GenYes, built a classroom program specifically designed to empower students. In a paper about the topic he wrote, “Student voice is giving students the ability to influence learning to include policies, programs, contexts and principles.” (Harper, 2000)

Researchers have taken the concept in many directions, identifying many implications, ideas and avenues for student voice. One suggested that student voice is “literal, metaphorical, and political”. (Britzman, 1992) This allows us to understand several things: What a student says counts as student voice; What a student does is student voice, and; The meanings behind what students say and do are student voice.

SoundOut’s Definition

In 2004, SoundOut began defining student voice as “the individual and collective perspective and actions of young people within the context of learning and education.” (SoundOut, 2004) After working with the schools I had, I discovered this could include, but is not limited to, active or passive participation, knowledge, voting, wisdom, activism, beliefs, service, opinions, leadership, and ideas. Student voice reflects identity, and comes from a person’s experiences, ideals, and knowledge. As my experiences working to promote student voice expanded, I found that any person who participates in a process of learning, including every single student in every classroom in any grade, has a voice that should be engaged in schools. That means that student voice is for pre-kindergarten students, elementary students, junior high and middle school students, and high school students. It can also come from students of color, low-income students, low-achieving students, high-performing students, ESL/ELL students, special needs students, and gifted students.

Continuing my examination of student voice, I found a variety of literature suggesting that student voice has locations throughout the curriculum (Grace M. , 1999), culture (Mitra, 2003), climate (Libbey, 2004; Galloway, Pope, & Osberg, 2007) the entire education community (Fielding, 2001), and when appropriately dismantling the school/community binary, throughout life in general (Alvermann & Eakle, 2007). Armed with that knowledge, my own experience showed me that since every adult working in education effectively has authority over students, every adult effectively has an ethical responsibility to listen to student voice. (Freire, 1998; Mitra, Frick, & Crawford, 2011) That includes classroom teachers, building leaders, school support staff, school board members, district and state school leaders education agency officials, education policy-makers, curriculum makers, education researchers, and politicians. (Joselowsky F. , 2007) My experience with student voice left my disenchanted though, as many adults seemed pleased to simply listen to student voice and then talk about student voice, reading reports and sitting around fishbowl-style conversations between students. They were not obligated to do anything with student voice, and as much research has shown, this is the norm in this topic. (Mockler & Groundwater-Smith, 2015)

When brought together, these understandings of student voice cast a massive net over a lot of different assumptions, presumptions and biases. The challenge of all of these different perspectives is that none of them holds all the others, and because of that, all of them exclude something else.

More Definitions

Here are some ways others have defined the term.

“[Student voice is] the active opportunity for students to express their opinions and make decisions regarding the planning, implementation, and evaluation of their learning experiences.”

– Rogers, A. (2005). Student voice: Bridges to learning. Seattle: University of Washington.

“Student voice is giving students the ability to influence learning to include policies, programs, contexts and principles.”

– Harper, D. (2000). Students as Change Agents: The Generation Y Model. Olympia, WA: Generation Y.

“Student voice is formed of the unique perspective of the young people in our schools. It is formed in the same ways that adult voice is; that is, experience and education help students create opinions, ideas, and beliefs to which they give their voice.”

– Fletcher, A. (2004) “Broadening the bounds of involvement: Transforming schools with student voice.”

“The concept of voice spans literal, metaphorical, and political terrains: in its literal sense, voice represents the speech and perspectives of the speaker; metaphorically, voice spans inflection, tone, accent, style, and the qualities and feelings conveyed by the speaker’s words; and politically, a commitment to voice attests to the right of speaking and being represented.”

– Britzman, D. (1989). ‘Who has the floor? Curriculum teaching and the English student teacher’s struggle for voice’, in Curriculum Inquiry, 19(2), 143-162.

“Student voice refers to the values, opinions, beliefs, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds of individual students and groups of students in a school, and to instructional approaches and techniques that are based on student choices, interests, passions, and ambitions.”

The Glossary of Education Reform (2013).

I hope all these definitions of student voice help you understand the depth, breadth and potential of young people in schools. Please share other definitions — including your own — in the comments section below!

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Measuring the People in Meaningful Student Involvement

Whenever educators, students, researchers, advocates or parents are considering if an opportunity for involvement is meaningful, its essential to measure the people. When we consider the people, SoundOut examines motivation, student readiness and adult readiness, among other factors.


Motivation

When we think about the outcomes of Meaningful Student Involvement, it’s important to identify the original motivation for action. Perhaps the first step is the most important, that the purpose of student involvement is clearly defined. It can be important to identify who declared that purpose, and whether their intention was known to everyone involved. Meaningful Student Involvement should matter in the classroom, throughout the school, and across your district.

The process of fostering Meaningful Student Involvement at your school affects how it is received. Different people who can foster the engagement of students as partners include students from the individual school who requested it, elected officials such as the school board or mayor, teachers, school leaders such as superintendents, principals, or other administrators. Identifying whether Meaningful Student Involvement was a district/state/federal policy directive can be important, and considering whether it was a response to internal or external challenges facing students in schools.

Motivation for Meaningful Student Involvement may include the expected or delivered outcomes of the action for students; teachers, principals, or other adults; building culture; the larger community, or; the entire education system. It might also include the history of student involvement in the individual school or district, positive or negative.

The final motivation to measure is whether Meaningful Student Involvement is part of a larger strategy, policy, or campaign focused on school improvement. Formalization is frequently one of the main political and professional motivations behind school change of all kinds.


Student Readiness

Ensuring Student Readiness for Meaningful Student Involvement is essential. This can include enhancing the capacity of students to be involved through building skills and sharing knowledge. It can also be through strategic positioning and sustainable Student/Adult Partnerships.

The first component of student readiness for Meaningful Student Involvement could be to determine whether students where involved in negotiating, advocating, or deciding there was a need for engaging students as partners in their school. It is not a requirement that they were; however, if they were, there may be more student readiness. The next step should reflect how students are be made aware of educators’ intentions for their involvement. Measuring student readiness should show that students deliberately reflect on their learning through involvement, schools, the education system, school improvement, and student voice as a whole.

Meaningful Student Involvement should reflect what steps have been taken to ensure that the level of involvement is appropriate to the knowledge and ability of the students involved. The developmental needs of students should be taken into account, and skill building learning opportunities focused on the task at hand, i.e. preparing agendas and taking minutes, formal decision-making, problem-solving, action planning, evaluation, task completion, budgeting, self-management, curriculum design, research, community organizing, etc. should be available throughout the course of involvement. Advanced leadership skills should be intentionally taught to students, including how to create teams, depersonalize conflict, and how to learn from the process as well as outcomes. Students should be prepared for routines involved in the activities they are involved in.

Knowledge-acquisition opportunities should link learning with the task at hand, such as school improvement, supportive learning environments, equity and diversity awareness, standards-based learning, etc. should be available too. Students should learn about the politics and personalities involved, the bureaucratic structures and policy constraints of the education system, and the reasons why students (and other groups) have been excluded from decisions. Also, informal conversations should happen to explain potential underlying reasons for personal conflict at meetings.

In addition to students’ leadership development, basic self-image and confidence of students should be built according to students’ experience, ability, and exposure. Activities should also deliberately provide opportunities for varying levels of engagement from students as well.

 


Adult Readiness

Students who schools work for often become adults who work for schools. The discrepancy between their experiences in academic success, social popularity, and student leadership do not prepare them to meaningful involve students. Ensuring adult readiness for Meaningful Student Involvement means taking time in order to critically reflect on our experiences as students and look at how we’ve behaved towards students as adults in schools.

Adults should be aware of what motivates students to be involved, and what students’ experiences of being involved have been. Adults should become fully informed about the issues, policies, programs, services, and/or activities that affect students. Becoming clear on what the need for student involvement is, adults should know who created or advocated for Meaningful Student Involvement—students, adults, or both. Adults should feel fully informed about Meaningful Student Involvement, student voice, and the possibilities and limitations of students’ roles in the activity at hand. Adults should be aware of how many adults are involved in ensuring student involvement in the activity. They should also be aware of how often adults advocate on behalf of students as partners to other adults in the system to persuade them to listen to students by listening to them, returning emails or phone calls, etc. On the flip side, they should be aware of which adults are not in favor of Meaningful Student Involvement, and how they resist, refuse, or deny student voice.

When it comes to promoting Meaningful Student Involvement, adults should consider whether adults promote the activities in a way that is fun or pleasant; gives positive recognition to Meaningful Student Involvement; and demonstrates adult trust in students. Promoting activities should not marginalize students to a limited role or set of issues in the school, and should show that adults allow students to make mistakes in the course of being involved. All activities should genuinely provide time to listen to students as part of the activities.

When considering readiness, adults should be prepared through training to provide emotional support for Meaningful Student Involvement by paying attention to students’ feelings, demonstrating appropriate levels of caring about their personal issues, helping students with their challenges and problems related to Meaningful Student Involvement, and discussing sensitive topics with students.

Meaningful Student Involvement should create space for adults to offer support for students through suggestions, feedback, critical questions, and other responses to student voice. Students should have a range of options to stimulate their ideas while adults are capable of helping students organize their activities and co-facilitate when appropriate. Adults should be provided timely information, and be presented information in real, concrete terms. (Read more about this subject in Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook.)


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Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook written by Adam Fletcher published by CommonAction Publishing in 2017.