There are fascinating intersections between brain research and Meaningful Student Involvement. Luckily, they are becoming clearer with time and more commitment from researchers.
Brain research routinely shows that even the youngest of students have the capacity to participate in critical deconstruction of the learning activities, teaching styles, and curriculum content they’re taught. Research also shows that given increased opportunities to exercise responsibility, children and youth increase their capabilities to exercise their rights.
This effectively shows that its really not a case of whether students are ready to be engaged in fixing schools; instead, its whether adults are actually capable of engaging them in doing so.
Students of all ages and capabilities are being engaged as partners with adults in improving schools increasingly throughout schools.
Research shows a variety of brain issues are affected positively by Meaningful Student Involvement, including student ownership, student agency, motivation and more. This means that when paired with student/adult partnerships, a variety of strategies can greatly enhance classrooms and schools.
As I continue rebuilding the SoundOut website, I’m going to keep making these findings more explicit and obvious. I hope this will create a compelling, unstoppable narrative that education leaders, politicians and parents cannot deny.
There are many reasons why Meaningful Student Involvement should be at the center of education reform today. Brain research shows yet another.
Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook by Adam Fletcher
To say that schools are changing right now is a gross understatement.
Between technological, social and cultural transformations happening right now across the U.S., there are new trends becoming apparent everywhere, schools included. This paper puts the massive changes happening throughout the education system into context to help readers understand what’s happening, and why its happening.
Lots have said it, many see it, but few have called it out: for a century, our education system has revolved around ego. As we become an evermore interdependent and transparent society, this is inherently at odds with the future. This article explores the former EGOsystem of education and identifies an emerging ECOsystem taking its place. It also shows what the future might look like.
An EGOsystem of Education
When I first started working in education 15 years ago, I discovered quickly that educators in schools are most often the ones who school worked well for. After barely graduating from high school and taking eight years to get my BA, it was glaringly obvious to me that I was surrounded by former star students and others whose learning styles, socio-economic statuses and cultural backgrounds were being perpetuated by the system. This formula generally holds true for politicians who make educational policies as well as social service staff who support student success outside of schools.
These students often go on to work in schools as teachers and administrators; in districts as administrators; and in state education agencies as program directors, assessment officials and curriculum experts. They are successful in their careers, embraced by their institutions, and generally, reveling in the ways things are. If they are aware of how things are going for students who are most often failed by schools, they see these learners from a position of noblesse oblige, looking down on them from on high.
The system that created these workers has engendered particular school cultures that ensured succeeding generations of familiarity. Despite technology and social changes of many sorts, in many schools, learners who time travel from a century ago can find similar patterns of teaching, classroom management and testing. This is because the education system revolves around the ego, which is a person’s sense of self-importance or self-esteem.
Four Phases of Transition
Educators have relied on fulfilling their sense of self-importance and building their self-esteem through their work for more than 100 years. Through my studies, I have seen four phases in America’s education system.
1) The Control Phase
Initially relying on a high control environments, schools were initially places where teachers controlled students. The Control Phase looked like this:
Teachers could literally physically abuse students for not complying with their every intention.
Students who innately complied with teachers were awarded with increased amounts of autonomy and access to learning opportunities.
Educators sought to wrangle authority from communities and parents by illegitimating self-education and learning from life.
Education policymakers make child labor illegal at the same time legal and cultural systems were created to ensure government authority over learning and teaching.
The Control phase radically dismantled community-based and home-based learning opportunities, secured the function of a controlled curriculum, and imposed the meaning of grades and scores on students.
Voters supported this model enough to enable schools to emerge as a dominant force in society.
The Control Phase relied on the EGO of educators, as it enabled teachers to control large groups of students with minimal enforcement.
Administrators were able to control massive groups of students with few teachers, and were capable of ensuring teachers success through compliance.
The Control Phase served to break down the EGO of students in order to ensure students would learn what educators wanted them to. Academic honor societies were available only to the highest achieving students and student governments were almost nonexistent.
This phase displaced young people from their positions in communities, positioning them as dependents of schools for their learning. It attempted to strip students of self-leadership in order to secure the role of adults as leaders in learning and teaching.
All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools dependent on control. This phase evolved towards the Competition Phase. People who benefited from the Control Phase of American education saw the transition towards the Competitive Phase as logical, predictable and favorable progress.
2) The Competition Phase
With time, schools became high command environments that relied less on forcefulness and abrasion and more on leveraging authority for outcomes. During the Command Phase, schools looked like this:
Students were compelled to participate in classes because of government orders and nothing further.
The Competition Phase sought to essentialize schools by making graduation diplomas requirements for workplaces.
Conversely, during this phase post-high school opportunities were minimalized for non-graduates.
Voters initially supported this approach because they saw that when more people succeeded at schooling, more people succeeded in their careers; more successful careers led to more successful communities, which led to better schools.
In the Competition Phase, pragmatic acceptance reigns as students, educators, administrators, policymakers, politicians, parents and voters become acclimated and accustomed to the EGOsystem that has formed within the education system.
As schools became judged for their success according to graduation rates, students EGOs were recognized as helping motivate academic vigilance. This phase saw the widespread prevalence of honor societies and student governments in order to satiate those EGOs.
With the decreased emphasis on teacher EGO in the classroom, this phase saw the emergence of powerful teacher unions that ensured the authority of educators.
Student connections outside classrooms were ignored or seen as irrelevant to teaching, learning and leadership in schools.
This phase positioned students as the subjects of teachers, securing the hierarchal relationship between adults and students in schools.
All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools reliant on competition. This phase evolved towards the Connection Phase. People who thrived in the Competition Phase were threatened by the transition towards the next phase and saw it as the devolution of schools.
3) The Connection Phase
When social change insisted, schools modified their approach to include connection between students, among educators, within the curriculum and throughout the education system. During the Connection Phase, schools looked like this:
Rigorous demands imposed on schools coupled with decreased school funding led to increased attempts to ensure community connections with schools.
Cross-curricular approaches to teaching and learning were recognized as essential in some areas.
Student connections outside classrooms were recognized and mass amounts of homework were assigned to utilize out-of-school time.
Students work and family responsibilities outside school time were dismissed.
The EGO of students becomes central with honor rolls, honor societies, extracurricular clubs and other student voice and student leadership clubs being perceived as elite or otherwise disconnected from mainstream student populations.
The EGO of educators is struggling due to having diminished authority throughout the education system.
In the Connection Phase, placing self above all others is the norm. opportunists have the most authority as they maximize connectivity in order to ensure their personal gain.
The EGO of education policymakers is peaked from their increased authority over educational outcomes and avenues.
The EGO of education textbook, assessment, preparation and advocacy organizations is peaked from their influence on education policymakers.
Voters become resentful from subsequent generations going through failed phases of American education and stop supporting schools with levies and pro-public school advocacy.
This phase fosters a sense of independence with an awareness of the larger whole.
All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools contingent on connection. This phase evolved towards the Collaboration Phase. People who benefited from this phase saw the emergence of the Collaboration Phase as a relief from the pressure of connection and competition.
4) The Collaboration Phase
Today, we’re in the midst of moving from EGOsystems towards ECOsystems of education. This movement is happening through collaboration fostered by technology, social change and other evolution that holds great possibilities.
Connectivity is recognized as key to successful learning, teaching and leadership with all partners recognized for their potential, purpose and power.
Students are recognized as full partners in learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.
While technology was initially frowned upon, connections among students outside of school time became an imposition on classrooms. Educators were essentially required to recognize student connections outside of schools and the effects they have within schools.
In the Collaboration Phase, placing self above others is becoming increasingly unacceptable as more people identify with the whole.
Students who work and have family responsibilities are recognized for the legitimacy and authority of their learning outside school time, and receive high amounts of support to ensure their successful academic growth.
Academic learning, liberal arts and community living skills are recognized with equitable authority throughout the lives of young people.
The EGO-driven era of education ends as learning is recognized and embraced as a community-wide, lifelong endeavor for all people everywhere all of the time. This leads to the ECOsystem of education.
Voters reinvest in education because of the re-asserted vitality of schools in the health and well-being of democratic society.
This phase nurtures a sense of increasing interdependence with strong awareness of the effect of individuals on others.
All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools revolving around collaboration. This phase is currently evolving and emerging. Everyone in society should benefit from the emergence of the Collaboration Phase and will embrace the ongoing evolution of learning, teaching and leadership.
The emerging ECOsystem of education is harder to see than previous phases. From my work in schools and throughout communities over the last 15 years, I have seen some aspects of it becoming apparent. Following is an exploration of some patterns that are becoming apparent.
An ECOsystem of Education
Right now, there’s a new picture of schools that is coming into focus. Across the horizon of testing, standardization and the school-to-prison pipeline are learning, teaching and leadership opportunities for all people everywhere in which love prevails and pessimism stops. With beautiful balance between critical thinking, cultural uplifting and participatory infrastructure, learning mirrors life in a balanced, holistic way that honors difference, embraces hopefulness and builds through equitable partnerships among everyone involved, regardless of their ages.
When considering the ECOsystem of education, its important to remember what constitutes an ecology. An ECOsystem consists of the interdependent and interacting components of a learner’s environment. There are living elements like teachers and other students throughout, and non-living elements like the building, computers and textbooks. Air and light cycles through an ECOsystem, as well as talking, music and paper ripping. Material elements also cycle through an ecosystem via cafeterias, heating plants, and other pathways.
As the ECOsystem of education continues to emerge, we will need new guideposts to know where we’re at. In the 300+ schools I have consulted over the last decade, the following three trends represent the new realities in education. These can serve as guideposts to ensure students, educators, administrators and others are on the right track to ensure the healthy, whole, successful and sustainable transition underway.
While more students opt to learn from home, more schools rely on BYOD and tablets-as-textbooks, and classrooms integrate more with communities, schools will have fewer and fewer options for retaining students in desk chairs. Instead, they will be forced to embrace disruptive learning technologies of all sorts, including experiential education, service learning and integrate CTE that positions elementary and middle school students in applicable, pragmatic problem-centered learning to address real world challenges.
With more adults actively infusing throughout the school day as both co-learners and co-leaders with students who are transforming communities, the role of student will be actively redefined. No longer the plaything of classroom tyrants, students will be recognized for their essential role in the American democracy as the foundation and implementation of lifelong civic identity and engagement. Students of all ages will freely co-learn, co-teach and co-lead communities in quintessential learning communities that are infused with vigor, vim and vitality.
By actively taking control of the things they want to learn, students are actively moving from being the passive recipients of teaching towards becoming active partners in learning and leadership. Each individual student will develop and implement their own course of learning from their youngest years in schools. Learning about their roles as active learning partners, they will also assume more responsibility throughout their communities for teaching their elders. In turn, today’s teachers will continue towards become learning coaches and facilitators to the willing. Students will gain full authority through true interdependence, and communities will become fully integrated throughout their local education systems.
The effect of dispersed learning and teaching are already rippling throughout the education system. Technology is actively pushing students out of the forced irrelevance of age- and interest segregated classrooms and towards their broader communities, while schools have to reach deeper towards their local communities in order to cover budgets. This is drawing students towards meeting real community needs through authentic leadership and away from falsely important student governments. In turn, this is forcing schools to reconsider engaging those students in educational leadership. In the ECOsystem of schools, education uses all members of the community in order to drive, transform and sustain learning. Students become researchers, planners, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers and advocates throughout communities, which in turn recognize their legitimacy as contributing members of society.
This rekindles community investment in education, which further enriches the educational environment. Racial inequities are eagerly addressed by communities, and the school-to-prison pipeline is dismantled. Every student creates their own learning plan with strategic systems of learning supporting their implementation. Restorative justice engenders new cultures of respect, trust and ability throughout schools, while nutrition, school buildings, athletics and other activities become safe supports for learning and teaching. All of this happens through new leading.
As schools move forward through the phases, a natural ECOsystem of learning will emerge. There is a growing awareness of this transformation. Some people see a complete destruction of traditional, EGO-driven schools, while others see an ongoing evolution towards ECOsystems of learning, teaching and leadership. If we deliberately identify the systems supporting education, we can make this shift intentionally.
As the entirety of the system moves forward, there will be resistance and denial. People who’ve upheld the first and second phases will resist the inevitably of this transformation, while others who’ve embraced the third and fourth phases might actually deny the need for the system to move forward. Those who resist and deny are actually representing the EGOsystem of education that has become entrenched by the powers that benefit most from the EGOsystem. However, truncated by the inevitable transformation fostered by ongoing social change, its inevitable for the EGOsystem to die.
In order to move it forward, its important for educators, students and others to make an honest assessment of where their own personal expectations lay; where their schools’ realities are; and what the gap is between those two areas. Schools will never do more than we are willing to do in them. If a person is young, then its imperative to establish genuine expectations for their own experience. This comes through reflection and critical thinking. If a person is older, its vital to engage in critical self-analysis as well as self-engagement in a project for school improvement. For anyone, its important to get active. Research what exists right now. Work with others to plan for alternatives. Teach people about options, no matter what age you are or they are. Evaluate and critically examine what exists, what could exist and what the gap is between those two spaces. Get involved in decision-making wherever there’s an opportunity, including on committees, in forums and in other spaces. Finally, everyone must advocate for the future of schools and the emerging ECOsystem of education. This has to be brought forth on purpose, and the only way to do that is to encourage individuals, organizations and communities to move towards the ECOsystem on purpose. Advocate for that.
Learning is a beautiful, nature and evolutionary approach towards expanding our human potential. The ECOsystem of education moves us towards powerful possibilities for all students everywhere all the time. You should come with.
Recently I was discussing the latest developments happening in the mainstream education conversation today. Student voice is bubbling up more and more frequently across the radar, with folks ranging from curriculum writers to test makers talking about it. Of course, educators continue to share their thoughts on social media, along with students themselves. This is all very powerful, and a wonderful development to finally see emerge after more than a dozen years on the national circuit promoting student voice throughout education.
Increasingly though, I’m concerned about the direction that student voice is taking. It seems most conversations are intent on tokenizing student voice, minimizing the roles students can play in schools. Last year I released a book called The Guide to Student Voice in order to help shift this conversation and move it towards a more holistic, powerful picture of what students can do.
Today, I’m pleased to announce the re-release of the SoundOut Program. Based on a curriculum I developed in 2007, today the SoundOut Program has operated in more than 25 districts across the U.S. and Canada, and has been adapted in Australia, Brazil and the U.K. too. With my new promotion, I’m glad to bundle the curriculum itself in several new ways, featuring new elements and activities, and building new relationships with districts and state agencies around the world.
In November 2014, the Centro de Estudos e Pesquisas em Educação, Cultura e Ação Comunitária (Center for Studies and Research in Education, Culture and Community Action), or CENPEC, hosted me for a weeklong visit to São Paulo, Brazil. As a longtime consultant focused on youth engagement, I have become accustomed to touring across the North America to teach, speak and work with all kinds of diverse communities. However, nothing I have ever done paralleled this trip. Over the course of eight days, I spoke to eight different groups, workshopped with more than 300 youth and adults, was interviewed by several newspapers and television stations, and met with countless educators, activists and policymakers from across Brazil.
CENPEC is a nonprofit organization based in Brazil. Its main goal is to develop initiatives towards improving the quality of public education and promoting civic participation. Focused on public schools, public educational spaces in general and public policymaking, CENPEC challenges inequality and promotes social inclusion. Much of its work focuses on assisting the Brazilian government to build innovative policies for youth, in and out of school. Lilian Kelian, who works with CENPEC, found me from my writing. Here is a little more of that story.
My learning began as I left Seattle, with Lilian as a kind and patient teacher for the rest of my journey.
During my appearances in São Paulo, I shared experiences and lessons I have learned through the course of my career. I facilitated workshops on youth/adult partnerships for young people and adults there with Programa Jovens Urbanos, a cultural program working in three cities across Brazil. Using interactive activities and working with an excellent translator, I found it challenging to explore the concepts of equity and equality between children, youth and adults. However, the enthusiasm of the youth and adult participants carried me and we had more than a few breakthroughs. The young people shared experiences from their own lives that sounded similar to what I’ve heard in my work across the United States and Canada: Whether inadvertently or on purpose, adults consistently use demeaning language, act in discriminatory ways, and generally treat children and youth in demeaning ways throughout our communities. These participants taught me that the effects of this are felt in schools, at cultural centers, throughout communities, and across Brazilian society.
To say that São Paulo is an enormous city doesn’t quite do it justice. There are 20,000,000 residents of the city, which makes it 2.5 times the size of New York City. Descending into the city, the skyscrapers seem to roll on and on in a never-ending quest for space. After a rushed beginning to my time there, midweek my life slowed down when I was taken on a tour. We went to a low-income suburb on the outskirts called Campo Limpo. The first organization I was introduced to was at the Casa da Mulher da Criança, which houses União Popular Mulheres. Built in a small house, I was shown an education center, a drop-in center for children, a textile center for women in the community, a professional kitchen, a computer lab in partnership with the Agencia Popular Solano Trindade, and a small office for a community bank called Union Sampaio. All of this was crammed into a humble space, and as it was carefully explained to me, it was all driven by the local community—not by government mandate or driven by government funding. I was astonished to meet a community center that was actually driven by the community it served! I also got to explore another cultural center, this one packed with active programming for young people that was happening while I was there. It included a program styled after Theatre of the Oppressed, capoeira and a few other activities. While I was at this second organization, I got to meet a group of youth who worked as program staff in this center. Harkening back to my own experience as a young person, it was energizing to find resonance with young people doing similar work more than 20 years later halfway around the world.
I met many organizations during the week. One of the most impactful experiences I had was learning about The Tree School. The Tree School is one of the most dynamic, engaging educational projects I have ever learned about. Focused on decolonizing knowledge, The Tree School was founded by two organizations: Campus in Camps, an experimental educational program based in Bethlehem’s Dheisheh refugee camp in Palestine, and Brazilian-based art collective Contrafilé. As I learned about this school, I learned the history of the baobob tree in Brazil and the potential for fully consensual schools that are based on non-hierarchical relationships between adults, children and youth. This will definitely expand my work in school transformation that I began with SoundOut. You can learn more about The Tree School from this pdf.
My last presentation was at the Seminário Internacional: Educação + Participação = Educação Integral. In this session I was credited with introducing the nation of Brazil to the concept of adultism, which is bias towards adults. Expanding on the ways adultism happens throughout society, I drilled in on schools and youth work directly, exposing some of the ugly assumptions that underlie our well-meaning but poorly informed intentions to teach children and youth. I was paired for this session with Marcus Faustini, an education activist and community organizer from Rio de Janeiro. Talking in-depth about his passionate work with youth in Rio’s flavelas, the audience laughed, gasped and clapped in both of our talks, but for different reasons. I quickly understood that Marcus and I were brothers following different roads towards a common goal, and I admired him, too.
At this same event, I was reminded by one of my hosts about the other time I’d visited Brazil. In 2004, I was invited to present at a conference focused on developing youth polices across the country, on the local, state and federal levels. She explained to me that I had left an impression then as my reports on North American youth policy had been used nationwide to inform the creation of youth involvement policies. I was told that because of my work a decade ago, youth councils, youth voice training programs and other activities are now the norm in several large cities, and they are expanding in more rural areas now. As a consultant, I am used to posing questions and challenging norms to which I don’t get to see outcomes. Suddenly, I was confronted by stories that what I had done a decade earlier made a difference. If that weren’t rewarding enough, the conference moderator announced at the end of the Seminário Internacional that what I shared this time would inform policy and practice for at least another decade. More than gratifying, that it was humbling to think that a philanthropic foundation would invest in me to travel 8,000 miles to teach my philosophies and practices in another language in hopes I would inform work to improve a nation’s educational practices. But to have that investment affirmed at the end of my work there was wholly empowering for me, personally and professionally.
The whole trip affected me this deeply. I felt a deep political affinity to many of the people I met there, an affinity that restored some of the faith I’d lost in the concept of Community. The self-defeating anarchism and alienating capitalistic tendencies I am surrounded by and part of here in the Pacific Northwest frequently exhaust me. In my consulting practice I take great pleasure at working in different parts of the US and Canada, if only because I meet people equally committed to democracy building and genuine social transformation. However, in Brazil that went to a whole different level where I felt a political communion with peers that I haven’t felt in a long time. Restorative experiences are good for anyone’s soul, and mine felt at home.
Learning about some of the radical political action in Brazil re-centered my viewpoint on what people within communities can do to improve conditions for themselves and others. The real meaning of social change soaked through the stories of the cultural centers I visited, the activist art I saw, and the evolutionary practices I saw underway with children, youth and communities. Mostly though, the whole trip reminded me that I am skilled, knowledgeable and valuable to people and communities. I had to travel halfway around the world to see that, and to have that affect me deeply. I am still learning right now, and estimate that I will for a long while.
Instead of another run-of-the-mill jaunt to help summon change across the country, this trip took me to South America in order to take me deeper inside myself. At this point in my career, I can’t imagine a more powerful, positive and restorative experience. Now to get back to work and make something of myself!
Are you a student, a K-12 educator, education administrator, school advocate, concerned parent, a nonprofit partner, or somebody else in the community who is concerned about schools? Following is a list of resources I’ve created focused on schools. Let me know what you think in the comments section below!
A lot of people have shared with me their challenge with Meaningful Student Involvement. As a matter of fact, I have spent more than a decade hearing it. There are many different ways people perceive my proposal that all students everywhere can partner with all adults throughout every location in education all of the time. Today I want to address this argument:
It frequently sounds as if adults support enforcing the historical rigid patriarchy of schools regarding the delivery and reception of education. As school achievement continues showing us, we cannot continue to propagate the kind of top-down learning that relies on adults as knowledge-keepers and students as empty vessels. Instead, we must transform with the times.
Students today are being raised in an era of increasing accountability and transparency. Between the Internet and changing social norms, young people are being raised to question authority, challenge ineptitude, and demand mutuality and respect. I believe schools can embrace these new norms by infusing them throughout the curriculum and culture of education. That is what Meaningful Student Involvement is intended to do by integrating students as partners throughout the education system.
Instead of “burdening” them with anything, thousands of examples from around the world show us that Meaningful Student Involvement builds the capacity of students in countless ways. Not the least of these ways is their ability to participate in the building, ownership, and critical reception of their learning.
Society needs a more empowering future, Isabel, not less. Meaningful Student Involvement is a way towards this future for all students, everywhere, all the time. Is there a more significant goal schools can have today?
We hear it all the time: American schools are terrible and only getting worse. For more than 25 years, the country has been massaging the egos of educators, administrators, and politicians who think they know what’s best for young people and our country. Bill Gates and countless rich people have tried throwing money at solutions they want to see. Yet none of this has seriously improved our schools, and in some cases, its only made the situation worse.
In the meantime, there are more young people than ever before who are working steadily, progressively to fix schools today. They’re partnering with educators, community members, businesses, and others to move school reform forward and actually achieving real outcomes. Student engagement in school improvement has been shown to have powerful effects on every aspect of learning, teaching, and leadership in education.
Past the hype, beyond the media, and without biased research, evidence shows that when students improve schools, they are creating lasting changes, saving schools real money, and improving learning experiences for themselves, their peers, and younger students.
Five Ways Students Are Improving Schools
Students Are Leading Research. In elementary, middle, and high schools across the nation, students researching education. Among countless subjects, they’re discovering student learning styles, identifying best practices in classrooms, and exploring structural changes in learning. First grader students in Cheney, Washington, helped teachers develop curriculum in their classroom to make learning more meaningful for both students and educators.
Students Are Planning Education. Budgeting, calendaring, hiring and firing, curriculum designing, and many other activities are happening throughout schools with students as partners. Students are also involved in some district and state education agency activities, and helping elected officials plan more effective schools. In Anne Arundel County, Maryland, students have been voting members of the district level board of education for 25 years. In the same district, every advisory, curriculum, study committee and special force task includes students.
Students Are Teaching Courses. In all grade levels, students are taking the reigns of pedagogy by facilitating learning for their peers and younger students. They’re also teaching adults! Students are increasingly being engaged as essential teaching partners, and the outcomes are changing learning for everyone involved. In Olympia, Washington, there is a program that gives students classroom credit in return for helping teachers learn how to use complicated hardware and software in classrooms.
Students Are Evaluating Everything. Examining their own learning, identifying teachers’ strengths and challenges, exploring curriculum and climate in schools, and looking at ways schools can improve in strategic ways are all ways that students are driving school improvement in their own schools and throughout education. High school students in Poughkeepsie, New York researched their districts budget crises, conducted a student survey on the next years budge, and then analyzed the data and submitted it to the board which used it in its decision-making process. The board adopted it and saved more than $50,000 the next year.
Students Are Making Systemic Decisions. Joining school boards as full-voting members, forming student advisory committees for principals and superintendents, and getting onto important committees at the building, district, and state levels, more students are participating in systemic decision-making than ever before. In Stuart, Ohio, students at the local high school have and equal vote in faculty hiring decisions, choosing curriculum, and class offerings.
Between these five categories of action, deep change is happening. However, beyond the expectations of adults, students are working further still to improve their schools. Students advocating for education changes are organizing their peers and larger communities to create powerful, effective agendas that consistently and determinedly transform schools.
In order to broaden, deepen, and sustain these activities there needs to be a systemic, intentional pathway to engage all students as partners throughout the education system. More than a decade ago, I combed research and practice happening nationally and internationally to identify my Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement. Since then, these tools have been used around the world to promote these activities, and to build further beyond many peoples’s expectations. As I’ve written before, Meaningful Student Involvement is, “the process of engaging students as partners in every facet of school change for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community, and democracy.”
6 Steps To Engage Students As Partners in Fixing Schools
Here are some steps anyone can take to engage students as partners in improving schools.
Teach students about learning. Learning is no longer the mystery it once was. We now know that there are different learning styles, multiple learning supports and a variety of ways to demonstrate learning. In order to be meaningfully involved, students must understand those different aspects as well.
Teach students about the educational system. The complexities of schools are not known to many adults. Theoretical and moral debates, funding streams and the rigors of student assessment are overwhelming to many administrators, as well as teachers and parents. However, in order for students to be meaningfully involved in schools, they must have at least a basic knowledge of what is being done to them and for them, if not with them.
Teach students about education reform. There are many practical avenues for students to learn about formal and informal school improvement measures, particularly by becoming meaningfully involved within those activities. Sometimes there is no better avenue for understanding than through active engagement in the subject matter, and school improvement may be one of those areas.
Teach students about student voice. While it seems intuitive to understand the voices that we are born with, unfortunately many students seems to lack that knowledge. Whether through submissive consumerism, oppressive social conditions or the internalization of popular conceptions of youth, many students today do not believe they have anything worth saying, or any action worth contributing towards making their schools better places for everyone involved. Even if a student does understand their voice, it is essential to expand that understanding and gain new abilities to be able to become meaningfully involved.
Teach students about meaningful student involvement. While meaningful student involvement is not “rocket science”, it does challenge many students. After so many years of being subjected to passive or cynical treatment, many students are leery or resistant towards substantive engagement in schools. Educating students about meaningful student involvement means increasing their capacity to participate by focusing on the skills and knowledge they need. Only in this way can they be effective partners, and fully realize the possibilities for education today and in the future.
Another great advantage today is that several other organizations are working in earnest to promote ideas related to Meaningful Student Involvement. Aside from my program called SoundOut, there are groups like UP for Learning in Vermont, the Student Voice Matters website, and Student Voice Live!, an annual gathering of students talking about school improvement. Evidence supporting this work is growing too. The work of researchers like Dana Mitra and Alison Cook-Sather in the US, Michael Fielding and Julia Flutter in Europe, and the penultimate advocate Roger Holdsworth in Australia is moving all of this further faster than anyone could have anticipated.
Whatever your opinion about schools today, the case is clear that we must engage students as partners. What are you going to do?
Adam Fletcher is the author of several booksand a consultant who has worked with more than 200 K-12 schools and districts in more than 25 states and Canada. Sign up for his newsletter by visiting adamfletcher.net.
Student Voice is any expression of any learner anywhere, all the time, about anything related to learning, schools, and education. It doesn’t depend on adult approval, it doesn’t need specific spaces or energies, and is always present wherever students are. The question generally is whether adults in education want to hear what’s being said.
If a student is talking in front of a group sharing their beliefs or experience, ideas or knowledge, they’re sharing student voice. The same can be true of leadership, community service, and teambuilding activities, as well as many other formal school activities. However, students who cut themselves are sharing student voice, just like student graffiti artists, students who text answers during tests, and gang members. The question isn’t whether they’re sharing student voice, because they always are – the question is whether adults in education want to hear what’s being said.
This leads to the phenomenon of adult-driven student voice.
Characteristics of Adult-Driven Student Voice
Adult-Driven Student Voice is when adults motivate, inspire, inform, encapsulate, and generally make student voice become convenient for adults. Here are five characteristics of adult-driven student voice.
WHO: Students who adults want to hear from are selected to share their voices. All students are equal members of the schools they attend, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. However, adult-driven student voice selects specific students who may not jostle adults’ opinions or ideas to share student voice.
WHAT: Students say what adults want. They usually echoing or parroting adult beliefs, ideas, knowledge, and/or experience. If they share their own, adults largely agree with what students have said.
WHEN: The calendar is determined by adults for students. Students are listened to when adults have the interest or ability to hear them, and not necessarily when students want to be heard.
WHERE: Student voice happens in places adults want it to be shared. Whether on a graffiti wall in a forgotten alley downtown, in a boxing gym for teenagers, in debate class, or at a city-run forum for students to share their opinions about something, student voice happens where adults approve of.
WHY: Adults solicit student voice about specific issues. Students have a variety of perspectives about all kinds of subjects. However, adult-driven youth voice allows only perspectives on issues that are important to adults or that adults pick for students. If students move outside adult-driven boundaries, they are either re-directed or expected to stop sharing their voices.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the above characteristics. However, this article isn’t meant to share those judgments; instead, I want to encourage you to think for yourself about what matters and why it matters. After you’ve done that, visit SoundOut to find tools, examples, and other resources to help you with student voice.
Since I began researching roles for students throughout education and society more than a decade ago, I’ve found a plethora of student voice haters. These folks are most frequently adults who are longtimers in education before they are “brave” enough to speak out against students.
Their basic belief is always the same: Students don’t know what’s best for them; Educators do. That is, adults in general, educators at large, the academy specifically, and/or the teachers who teach students directly. Their argument is always the same: As the unknowledgable, inept, and incapable recipients of Education’s largess, students have nothing of value to contribute to their learning, to teaching, or to leadership in schools.
Recent articles reflect these positions. In a new piece on Slate, a college professor named Rebecca Schuman wrote a scathing deconstruction of the value of student evaluations of professors. Basically denying the value of their contributions as humans towards society, Schuman emphasized that students are basically flies on horse poop, ranting in a really hipster-ish fashion that, “Ostensibly, [student evaluations of teachers] give us valuable feedback on our teaching effectiveness, factor importantly into our career trajectories, and provide accountability to the institution that employs us. None of this, however, is true.” She goes on to degrade everything of value in any student evaluation ever, insisting that professorial knowledge trumps student input every single time no matter what.
Schuman’s narrow thinking is indicative of many educators today. Seeing students as tabula rasa, many teachers and professors inside traditional education systems frequently dismiss the value of student voice, juxtaposing their perspectives against students in an A/B dichotomy of Us vs. Them.
A few weeks ago, a reporter for The Atlantic magazine named Jacoba Urist contacted me for an article she was writing about the ongoing Los Angeles student protests led by the powerhouse Innercity Struggle. We talked for 45 minutes about a range of issues, and I sent her a copy of my Guide to Students on School Boards.
Jacoba wrote a piece called “Should Students Sit on School Boards?,” essentially propping up the idea with several professors’ opinions, along with my perspective as an advocate. With few opposition perspectives in the article, it was essentially a cheerleading piece. However, it was in the comments (which, btw, are not the same as SETs) that things got ugly—as they often do.
From basic adultism through advanced antipathy towards youth, commenters on the article reflected the blatant disdain that is obvious in so many student voice deniers’ words. They routinely doubt the maturity, effectiveness, and value of student voice. They question the authenticity of student knowledge, the potential of student learning, and the perspectives of students as the recipients of adult-driven education systems. They also rally to the power of adults, calling for increased adult control over students amid smackdowns on student voice.
These denials of student voice represent the narrow self-interest of so many Educators today. Unfortunately, their closed-mindedness is undermining the American education system. Students who grow up in oppressive educational environments grow up to become adults who are disaffected voters, routinely voting down education levies, pro-democracy elected officials, and other bastions of the once indefatigable American Democracy.
I can hear the haters right now, dismissing these brash future voters for expressing their wills against the wills and whims of educators today. Oligarchy be damned: Educators love meritocracy!
Congrats, student voice deniers, for destroying education and democracy for everyone. Surely you have to feel good about that when you go to bed at night, or head off to school in the morning. Good job.