Command and Control Schools

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Today, I toured a middle school in the region where I live. Listening to an adult school leader explaining the school to me, I heard several the cues that routinely concern me:

  • “Our students don’t have problems”
  • “We don’t allow students to have social time”
  • “There is routine homework in every class, every day, all year long”
  • “We maintain strong communication with parents”
  • “We have a strong culture of respect for adults here”

These are all signs of a “Command-and-Control School.” These are highly structured, highly demanding and highly adultcentric places featuring rote memorization, rigid adherence to standardized curriculum and gross overcommitment to testing and assessment.

Command-and-Control Schools…

  1. Regard students are problems that need to be solved;
  2. Think adults have all the answers to solve students-as-problems;
  3. Don’t see students as full humans with rights and responsibilities;
  4. Disagree with the ability of parents and students to be equitable educational partners

I raise these issues because they are the antithesis of Meaningful Student Involvement. When I began studying schools for signs of student voice in 2000, it took me several years to discern the patterns in which students said learning mattered to them. However, when they came forward, I identified these Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement as the keys to moving education forward. They centered on the notion that schools must become places that actively engage students as equitable partners with adults throughout learning, teaching and leadership across the entirety of the education system.

 

Meaningful Student Involvement Schools…

  • Treat students as the problem-solvers of global, local and personal problems today and in the future;
  • Foster equitable student/adult partnerships that position everyone, everywhere, all the time as active learners, teachers and leaders, regardless of their age;
  • Engage every student as a full human with unique abilities, challenges, opportunities and knowledge;
  • Support the entire ability of students and parents to become engaged throughout the entire education system.

 

What To Listen For

I know I’ve found a school that’s on-point when I hear the antithesis of what I heard today:

  • “Our students meet challenges head on with adults who empower and support them”
  • “Our teachers work with students pace teaching to meet every student’s learning needs”
  • “Students actively engaged in learning throughout their lives, and schools support them where and how they choose to do that”
  • “We engage students and parents as equitable partners everywhere, all the time”
  • “We have a strong culture of mutual respect among students, between students and teachers, and throughout our learning environment”

When I hear those things, I hear meaningfulness.

I have been writing about whole school approaches to Meaningful Student Involvement lately – I’d love to hear what you think.

 

Transformative Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement

Continuing to Learn from Meaningful Student Involvement

Transformative Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement
Want to learn more about this? Send me an email for an exclusive article! adam@soundout.org

Since 2002, working through SoundOut, I have worked with more than 10,000 K-12 students and educators in schools across the United States and Canada.

Over the last year, I have been a bit consumed by writing the Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook. Its my complete compendium of what I have learned about engaging students as partners throughout the education system.

In my reflections, I have found four themes constantly emerge from my projects. These are lessons for me that I will continue to teach people into the future.

  • Unacknowledged capability: Students of all ages, identities, achievement levels, and social backgrounds are fully capable of becoming partners throughout education, but are rarely engaged in equitable partnerships that allow them to take action.
  • Untapped wisdom: Students have a lot to say about the schools they are attending and the education they’re receiving, but rarely feel like adults want to hear what they say.
  • Undelivered invitations: Students are almost never invited to participate in school governance, educational research, learning evaluations or substantive decision-making about classroom instruction, school improvement or educational leadership.
  • Unmet human resources: Adults are craving more human resources throughout schools, but rarely consider students as potential partners who could lighten the load and secure success.

I have tried hard to document dozens of cases of Meaningful Student Involvement and describe how handfuls of students are engaged in planning, researching, teaching, evaluating, making decisions, and advocating for their own learning, as well as throughout the education system as a whole. In each case, these lessons shine through. They also shown through my own projects in dozens of states and a few countries. Its a consistent pattern, yet fraught with hope.

As I assess my big ole picture of student/adult partnerships, I am left wondering about how important Meaningful Student Involvement will become to the education system. We cannot be satisfied with tokenizing students, or simplistic attempts to listen to student voice. Instead, we want to transform all of learning, teaching and leadership.

Onward we go!

Don’t Let Students Be Misunderstood

All educators are well-meaning in their intentions for students. Nobody wants students to fail, no matter how poorly they are paid, how discriminatory they may be, or how brief/long they’ve worked in schools, there is no teacher, administrator, support staff or other adult in schools who overtly wants students to fail.

Adults in schools genuinely want students to get good jobs and have successful lives. They create activities and opportunities, programs and entire organizations that intend to promote students success, in ways that many adults define it: Future-oriented, success equates to having good educations, nuclear families, and successful employment, which means a great paycheck and a powerful position.

Students who don’t aspire to that vision of success are looked upon suspiciously. They are given labels and stigmatized constantly, and their version of success is frowned upon by adults. These students are given many descriptions, and are oftentimes said to be:

  • Deficient in basic literacy and numeracy skills
  • Disconnected or at-risk of disconnecting from home and/or school
  • Facing disabilities
  • Coming from low-income families
  • Experiencing past, present, or chronic homelessness
  • Living in foster care or transitioning out of foster care
  • Experiencing pregnancy or parenting
  • Having a criminal record
  • Being court involved
  • Being gang involved
  • Experiencing substance abuse

 

Unfortunately, these descriptions show how we’re misunderstanding students.

3 Ways to REALLY Understand Students

If we are serious about student engagement, we have to understand what really disengages them right now. Here are three ways to REALLY understand students.

  1. Understand that ALL Students ARE Engaged in Learning Right Now—We Just Don’t Recognize That. With so many different avenues for educational engagement, including production, innovation, distribution, consumption, deconstruction and re-invention, the overwhelmingly vast majority of students are engaged in the learning right now. However, adults aren’t acknowledging how this is happening.
  2. Understand that Students are Engaged in Other Activities—We Simply Don’t Validate Their Importance. Even if they’ve dropped out, left home, or play video games all day, students are engaged in all kinds of things that are educational. They can be engaged in friendships, skateboarding, fashion, music, video gaming, cars and anything else in which they have a sustained connection. Because of that, they can also be engaged in things adults see as negative, like drugs, alcohol, sex and vandalism. If adults want students to become engaged in learning, we have to present them with something of equal or greater value to become engaged in—after we learn what they are currently engaged in.
  3. Understand that Students have been Taught to be Disengaged—And We Are Responsible for That, Too. Through television, at school, in their family lives, and throughout our communities, students are routinely taught to be disengaged. Parents and teachers constantly make decisions for students without students while politicians and business owners choose what students need without them, as well. However, a magic day comes when adults insist students automatically become engaged in what adults want them to. When that doesn’t happen we become frustrated and confused. Its no wonder why—imagine what its like for students themselves!

These are three ways to REALLY understand students. If you want to engage students in schools, it is important to understand these ways, because every students experiences some part of them right now.

Why It Matters

When faced with students who fit the descriptions above, adults in a variety of roles make immediate decisions based on them. They decide what students’ behaviors, attitudes, ideas and beliefs are without ever talking directly with them. In many cases, employers, teachers, social workers and others decide these students are disengaged. Because of that, they brush past them in interviews, ignore them in classes, or release them from services that might be vital to these students.

Student disengagement is often presented as a viral disease that sweeps through particular populations of students, like those listed above. This is especially true when talking about high school, where disengagement leads to students becoming “failed learners”. This view is often presented with research by its side, including claims that student engagement in the economy is determined by the income levels of families of origin more than other effects. However, correlation is not causation, and a lot of this research is presented from a lopsided perspective.

How To Change It

If we really want to address student disengagement in schools, we have to really understand students. Here are three ways to do that.

  • Acknowledge Student Engagement in Learning Right Now. Look at these seven parts of learning: Innovation, Creation, Development, Distribution, Consumption, Deconstruction, and Re-invention. Every single student is engaged in at least one of these parts right now. Alas, schools might not value their learning engagement, but that doesn’t mean students aren’t educationally engaged. Students are educationally engaged if they are writing apps for cell phones; reading magazines during school; running a lawn mowing business; knitting scarves for their friends; buying the latest songs online; recycling soda cans to save the planet; or taking apart old TVs and rebuilding them into something else. If you want to change your understanding of students, start seeing how they’re engaged in learning right now.
  • Validate the Importance of Every Form of Student Engagement. If you aren’t happy with the ways students are engaged in learning right now, try seeing the other things they’re sustainably connected to right now. Learning is woven throughout their lives, and every kind of student engagement benefits every part of the education. That means if students are sustainably connected to sports, they’re learning; if they’re engaged in comic books, they’re learning; if they’re deeply committed to learning about any topic, they’re learning. If you want to understand students, validate the importance of every form of student engagement.
  • Acknowledge You are Responsible for the Problem, and can be Part of the Solution. No generation has created the challenges it faces, and none is solely responsible for creating the solutions. However, if more people are going to understand students, we need to recognize that each of us is partly responsible for this challenge—and for the solution. This isn’t some grandiose charge, either. Its an earnest call for practical, meaningful action throughout schools right now. You have to take that responsibility in order for things to be different.

These are important considerations for educators to keep in mind when they are trying to help students graduate; learn about social issues; train students to do a particular job; teach life skills to students; make policies and regulations for students; and much more. They should be kept in mind by programs, classes, organizations, curriculum writers, and others who promote student engagement.

When we work from these places, we will see dramatic improvements in student engagement. That includes better classroom outcomes, learning goals, lifetime prospects, and much more. If we fail to acknowledge these realities, a different future is waiting than anything that’s been anticipated.

A Renewed SoundOut Program

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Challenging Student Voice

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.

Re-Launch!

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.

Features now include:

  • Lesson plans for classes, programs and events
  • Professional development
  • Evaluations
  • Technical assistance
  • And more!

Let’s move student voice further! Check out the SoundOut Program and learn how!

Questions to Evaluate Student Voice

Following are reflection questions focused on student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement. Find resources to challenge these barriers at SoundOut.org.

 

Questions to Evaluate Student Voice

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  1. Are barriers to student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement being addressed?
  2. What steps are taken to ensure that student voice is meaningful?
  3. Do students understand the intentions of the process, decision, or outcomes?
  4. Do students know who made the decisions about their engagement and why they were made?
  5. Is the input of students recorded, reported in writing, and distributed?
  6. Do students receive a report (verbal or in writing) on the decisions made in the light of their input?
  7. Were false and negative assumptions about students’ abilities to participate deliberately addressed by students and/or adults?
  8. Are all adults clear about the class or school’s intent to foster Meaningful Student Involvement?
  9. Do adults support Meaningful Student Involvement?
  10. Do adults provide good examples of being personally and systemically engaged?
  11. How was students’ inexperience addressed?
  12. Did students work on issues that they clearly identify as important?
  13. Did students participating start with short-term goals and activities?
  14. Have students and adults identified and, when possible, corrected negative experiences students have had in participation?
  15. What steps were taken to reduce the resistance from adults?
  16. Has there been a written policy statement developed from the governing body?
  17. Has there been a memo/document from the school leader stating their support, encouragement, and commitment to aningful Student Involvement?
  18. Has the principal or superintendent introduced Meaningful Student Involvement at a meeting?
  19. Have there been social events organized to increase positive interactions between students and adults?
  20. Have joint workshops with students and adults been held?
  21. Has a plan been put in place to bring students into the mainstream, core activities of the class or school?
  22. Have steps been taken to help students fit into adult structures?
  23. Have students been placed on an adult decision-making body with support from a designated adult?
  24. Does someone meet with students before meetings to help them clarify their objectives for the meeting?
  25. Do students feel comfortable about asking for clarification?
  26. What steps have been taken to make the location and times of meetings convenient to students?
    1. Consulting with the students involved about times/dates of meetings
    2. Choosing locations that are accessible to students and public transportation
  27. Are there any other initiatives or changes going on in the class or school (new programs, restructuring, etc.) that will compete for attention with the goals and processes of Meaningful Student Involvement?
  28. How are the student members selected so that they are credible to the student body?
  29. How do you know that they are credible?

 

These are some basic questions that can be useful to initiatives that are focused on student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement. There are no absolutely right answers to ever question, because these activities are gradual and take time to unfold. Ones that appear far ahead can collapse onto themselves and fall back to the lowest common denominator.

 

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For more information, order a copy of The Guide to Student Voice by Adam Fletcher at http://www.amazon.com/The-Guide-Student-Voice-Edition/dp/0692217320

Student Voice Is Not The Same As Student Engagement

Student Voice ≠ Student Engagement. Learn more at SoundOut.org

With more and more people increasingly jumping on the bandwagons of student voice and student engagement, it is becoming increasingly important to define, refine and understand what it is that we’re talking about. It is equally important to critically examine the assumptions informing a lot of this conversation and action, as well as the implications, impacts and processes throughout.

A lot of well-meaning people are throwing around phrases without really understanding what they are talking about. People are using student voice as a synonym for student engagement. All the while, they are discussing activities that are the exclusive domain of either concept as if they were. That’s all problematic for a few reasons…

 

 

Want to read more?

Order SoundOut Student Voice Series #2: Student Voice and Student Engagement by Adam Fletcher.

 

 

Adults Ignoring Reality

One of the most powerful experiences in my career has been to be part of the emerging Student Voice movement. After rattling around the US and Canada promoting student voice for a decade, in 2012 I heard from several different young people and adults that they were starting campaigns to promote Student Voice. Some of them burnt out quick, but a few have kept going. Joining the ranks of the long-timers, these campaigns have had tremendous impacts on K-12 schools across the nation, and its been exciting to be part of.

One of the greatest concerns that I’ve developed, though, has been the homogenization of Student Voice. It was something I feared when I wrote the Meaningful Student Involvement Idea Guide back in 2002. When adults start listening to students, they routinely and almost inevitably whitewash those voices and gloms them into one convenient, predictable and easy script. Suddenly, all Student Voice is the same, with adults hearing students saying the same thing in the same ways, no matter what their backgrounds, experiences, or ideas actually all.

There are a lot of problems with that, not the least of which being that its inauthentic and dishonest. Maybe the worst thing to happen is that it robs students of their diversity, which no other place in society does.

With adults ignoring reality, it becomes vital for a counternarrative to emerge. Something has to balance out the stereotyping and invalidity this Student Voice represents.

 

10 Questions for Authentic Student Voice

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to see whether you’re ignoring reality:

  1. Do your Student Voice activities engage students who are not traditional student leaders?
  2. Are some of the responses you receive about Student Voice surprising or upsetting to you?
  3. Have any of your Student Voice activity participants ever failed a class? Gotten in-school suspension? Been suspended from school?
  4. Are there more ways to listen to Student Voice than simply talking and listening?
  5. Do the adult allies in your Student Voice activities reflect the diversity of your school’s student body?
  6. Are students’ hesitant to talk in your Student Voice activities?
  7. Do Student Voice activities routinely discuss diversity, difference, stereotypes, or other daily realities of students?
  8. Can students share things that adults might not agree with?
  9. Do students actually share things adults do not agree with or appreciate?
  10. Can students do things, or are their actual voices all that should be heard?

 

Resources

If your school genuinely values Student Voice, it is essential to make space for all students to be heard no matter what they have to say. Its also important to understand that Student Voice is any expression of Any Student about Anything related to School. You can find more information about how to engage diverse students at SoundOut.org.

SoundOut advertisement

 

Adults Abdicating Responsibility

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:

“If adults abdicate their roles as leaders, then students may need to fix schools… but they should not be burdened with fixing the system.”

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?

Students Have To Fix Schools

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.

Moving Forward

These aren’t the easiest steps in the world, as many adults and even educators haven’t taken these steps for themselves. However, in these years I have worked hard to share some of the things I have learned and written a number of materials designed to help. Here is a simple list of ways students can improve schools, and a separate list of ways adults can support students fixing schools. I’ve written a number of publications, too, including the Meaningful Student Involvement Guide to Students as Partners in Schools, the SoundOut Student Voice Curriculum, and my latest and easiest-to-read book, The Guide to Student VoiceI also have dozens of free publications available on my website.

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 books and 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.