Command and Control Schools

4th+grade

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.

 

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.