Students As Partners In Learning: Adam Fletcher Talks About Meaningful Student Involvement

©2008 Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2008 edition of Education Northwest and online at

Adam Fletcher knows what it’s like to have his “voice” stifled. As a high school student from the wrong side of the tracks in Omaha, he tried to convince his principal and teachers to let him organize a schoolwide Earth Day recycling effort. Repeatedly rebuffed, he did it anyway and was rewarded with a two-day suspension. Fletcher, who admits he had a “challenging” secondary school career, later channeled his activism into founding a series of nonprofits—SoundOut, The Freechild Project, and the now-defunct Common Action. From Seattle to New York to Boston, he coaches schools and districts on how to partner with students for school change. Over a cup of herbal tea at an Olympia, Washington, cafe, Fletcher talked to Northwest Education about meaningful student involvement and engagement.

Q: First of all, how do you differentiate student involvement from student engagement?
Involvement is a mechanism for learning, instead of an emotional reaction like engagement. I can involve you, but I cannot make you feel engaged—that’s your choice. “Meaningful” is the key word here: Meaningful involvement leads to that engagement, without assuming the student already feels that way. [Involvement] is an avenue rather than an outcome itself.

When you think of meaningful student involvement, what does it look like?
Meaningful, effective, and successful student involvement has to be authentic in the same way we talk about authentic curriculum or assessment. It’s relevant, has tangible outcomes, and foreseeable needs. I generally break it down to six key characteristics:
  • A schoolwide approach, in which student voice isn’t just limited to one activity, one day, one time. It’s seen as being part of the entire school environment.
  • High levels of student authority, meaning students have the opportunity to not only say what they feel, but adults validate their ideas and authorize them to act.
  • Interrelated strategies, which goes back to schoolwide approaches; students are part of ongoing school improvement through learning, teaching, and leadership activities.
  • Sustainable structures of support, so student involvement isn’t just a flash in the pan; also, sustainability is all about reaching beyond the student body and bringing in the whole community.
  • Personal commitment, which means educators and students aren’t just involved because it’s an academic requirement or because their friends do it; there’s an internal drive or motivation.
  • Strong learning connections, which build a learning component into student involvement.

How much of this depends on having strong leadership and how do you get over the fact that—as with many school reforms—when the leader leaves, the program dies?
I’ll be really frank with you. One of the dilemmas of student involvement is that it’s about culture change as much as structure change. Those two have to happen in sync. The other dilemma is that schools aren’t isolated—they don’t exist in a vacuum. So, no matter how we’re treating a student inside one classroom, for one period, we still have a community where young people are often excluded. That much said, one of the keys to sustainability is that student involvement does require a change agent to get started. And, the champion has to be an adult, working with young people. That’s because the role of the adult is inherently longer lasting than the role of any single student. The places where I’ve seen long-term meaningful involvement is where it’s become as systematized as possible. It’s not just a singular event, but part of the policy of the school.

If it’s not possible to embed student involvement long-term in the structure and culture of the school, what can an individual do right now?
For teachers, curriculum is a great place to start. You can build meaningfulness into your curricular approach so it embodies what you’re looking for from student involvement as a whole and so it reflects your students’ daily personal lives and connects to real-world outcomes. Classroom management is another great opportunity. Meaningful involvement there can be taken from a constructivist bent. So, rather than assuming your students have never experienced meaningfulness, you can help them plumb their school experience by saying, “Hey, where has geography ever meant anything to you? When has math ever meant anything to you? What has that looked like for you, and how can we incorporate those ways into our class?”
If you’re a building administrator or a school counselor, it becomes a different picture. You have to build in that cycle of listen, validate, authorize, mobilize, and reflect. If we build that into all the different school roles, that’s how school culture changes. The most important thing anyone in schools can do is to envision students as partners, and then act that way.
Obviously school improvement is a big issue today under No Child Left Behind. What do you see as the student’s role in helping to design and implement school improvement efforts?
The student has to be a full partner, and I’m not just speaking about this in a theoretical way. One of the things research does show, emphatically, is that the success of school improvement has to be borne out on the shoulders of students. Students have to illustrate school success: We know schools are improving when students demonstrate the outcomes we seek, particularly when academic achievement turns around. The other thing we know—from Fred Newmann’s research on engagement—is that the student has to be engaged in learning for that academic achievement to come to fruition. So, the ultimate role of the student in school improvement is as the partner.
Currently, some schools talk about students as consumers. I think addressing the role of student as consumer is really cynical because it reduces the learning to consumption: You come to the store, buy what you need, and leave. Meaningful involvement calls for a higher purpose for schools. Let’s see students as generators of knowledge, co-makers of culture, and co-facilitators of learning. These are the roles students need to have in school improvement, and we need to see them as full partners throughout the process.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!