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.

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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

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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?
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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.

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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.

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


Student Voice and Choice Are Not Enough

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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 Un-Meaningful Involvement

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

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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.
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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.

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