Student voice is not enough. Hundreds of studies, thousands of projects and dozens of advocates are calling for more and more student voice without saying plainly what schools really need. The answer is not student voice.
Meaningful Involvement Matters
When I began my research and projects focused in schools 15 years ago, few people were talking about student voice or student engagement in any substantive ways. There was some research that was spread across the spectrum and generally disconnected over disciplines (education leadership, ed psych and curriculum) as well as geography.
Right away though, I drew on my experience in community-based youth engagement advocacy to determine that simply asking for schools to listen to student voice wasn’t enough. Unfortunately, even the most well-intended teacher and high-minded student cannot navigate the school system deftly enough to actually create systemic change without intentional, deliberate and substantial opportunities to do that. Listening to student voice is not what that is.
I developed Meaningful Student Involvement as an approach specifically to help educators navigate the brave to world of student voice and student engagement that started to emerge in the 2000s.
As time as carried on, I have been unable to teach everyone, everywhere the tenets of my approach. Despite working with almost 500 K-12 schools across the United States and Canada, the expectations adults have for students are so utterly low that we believe that students simply showing up to participate in these conversations is better than nothing at all – even if we have to tell them what to say!
Seducing Student Voice
Unfortunately, the reality is that it is better for student’s to muffle their voices on their own rather than be tokenized, hijacked or otherwise manipulated by adults within or outside of education to say what adults want them to.
Alas, having their voices solicited, manipulated or used by educators, advocates or politicians is a seductive experience for many young people. We live in a society that values overt leadership, active engagement and explicit expressions over personal leadership, passive connectedness or subtle yet sustained engagement. Because of that, the student who says, “Listen to me, listen to me!” is always going to get more attention than those who don’t.
Unfortunately, without confronting this reality, student voice will actually help the situation get worse, not better. Student voice will only continue to perpetuate our previous expectations of student leaders, and as such is only a continuation of the norm: Students who are involved will become more involved, and those who are will only become more more disengaged.
The Solution to Student Voice
Rather than creating exceptional experiences for exceptional students to become engaged in sharing student voice in exceptional ways, there is a solution to student voice perpetuating the wrong things.
To the chagrin of some, I would never suggest that the whole school system has to be demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. Instead, I recognize the need to work with what we have and move it towards what it could become.
From my study of students who have actually transformed schools, I believe that all programs must adopt a form of the following strategy:
- Deepened focus: Rather than simply promoting student voice, all organizations must focus on meaningful student involvement, which focuses student engagement through student/adult partnerships in order to transform schools and communities.
- Broadened application: Organizations and programs must use a three-prong approach to transforming the entirety of the education. Those three prongs are changing attitudes, transforming cultures, and reforming the structures of education.
- Systemwide infusion: Rather than being satisfied with making headway in one area of schools, programs for meaningful student involvement should gather the entirety of the education system as their target of transformation. That doesn’t mean not to start in one place, it just means to keep the rest of the situation in mind while taking action.
- Strong learning connections: Students are constantly learning, and any program for meaningful student involvement will have learning at its core. Adults in the education system should work to infuse student voice into classrooms by ensuring students get credits for their engagement throughout the education system.
- Sustainable structures of support: Get sustainable by seeking, building and reforming policies and procedures to foster meaningful student involvement throughout the educational system.
- Make friends and build family: Students should be infused throughout ongoing, sustainable school improvement activities in the form of learning, teaching, and leadership throughout schools, districts, states and every single school improvement activity. Every school should be in a continuous mode of improvement; every single improvement effort should seek nothing less than to engage students.
Those six characteristics are at the core of meaningful student involvement, and they represent the real potential of student voice. They solve student voice.