SoundOut is an
expert assistance program focused on promoting
Student Voice and Meaningful Student Involvement
We work with K-12
schools, districts, state and provincial education
agencies, and nonprofit education organizations
across the United States and Canada.
Help Us Help Ourselves:
Creating Supportive Learning Environments With
"The essence of the
demand for freedom is the need of conditions which will enable
an individual to make his own special contribution to a group
interest, and to partake of its activities in such ways that
social guidance shall be a matter of his own mental attitude,
and not a mere authoritative dictation of his acts." - John Dewey
Meaningful student involvement can
support school change many ways, especially in creating supportive
learning environments. Along with state education agencies across the
United States, the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public
Instruction has identified supportive learning environments as one of the
nine primary characteristics of successful schools. Despite the
negative implications of how conservative administrators define
"supportive learning environment," (picture metal detectors, police in the
hallways, random locker checks), there are potential benefits of said
place. As the Learning First Alliance detailed in its guide to safe
and supportive schools, one cannot easily separate the necessity of
student involvement in creating the most beneficial learning environments
for learning. The purpose of this article is to delineate the
meaningfulness of that student involvement.
Defining meaningful student involvement
When considering student involvement in the past,
educators often cite the classroom and extracurricular activities as
opportunities enough for participation. When considering the role of
students in creating safe and supportive learning environments, meaningful
student involvement implies something more.
By attaching the adjective meaningful to student
involvement, educators and administrators must explore the depth and
potential of that participation and the possibilities for enriching it.
An exploration of how to
involve students meaningfully must be undertaken in every school;
however, examining the meaningfulness of current student involvement is
vital to moving towards meaningful student involvement.
In order to define what makes an activity meaningful,
students, educators, and administrators can explore what current activity
is. (No activity is meaningless; that is, where one might be
intended to empower and engage students, others might be intended to
pacify or placate students.) Are students reading morning
announcements meaningful involvement? Is a teacher allowing a student to
volunteer in the school library meaningful? Can students meaningfully lead
schoolyard cleaning crews? Is the student hall monitor’s role meaningful?
While each of these roles has its place in schools, it is important to
note that none of these roles can be deemed meaningful without adult AND
student consent. Where adults might view any opportunity for student
decision-making as meaningful, students might disagree, and vice-versa.
In fact, some of these positions might be demeaning and belittling to
Dimensions of Meaningful Student Involvement
After working in schools for several years I identified
several dimensions to meaningful student involvement. These
dimensions reflect the discussions I've had with students, teachers and
administrators, opportunities to directly observe education
decision-making, and research from schools across the United States and
Canada. The use of the word “dimensions” is meant to mirror
professor James Banks’ writing on multicultural education, where he
intends to allow space for growth. I intend the same. Also,
The following dimensions are completely interactive dimensions that are
reliant upon one another. Each exists throughout MSI in varying
Equality - Meaningful student involvement
engages students as equal partners with educators, administrators, and
other adults in school change.
Quality - Meaningful student involvement
addresses an important educational issue, validates student voice through
action, and articulates its goals and design clearly.
Learning – Meaningful student involvement
develops complex learning and thinking skills for students. Students
should be able to articulate the goals of the opportunity and their
connection to student learning. Indicators might include one or more of
the following objectives:
Equity – Meaningful student involvement
contributes to educational excellence for all.
Infusion – Meaningful student involvement
promotes deep, coherent system-wide organizational change, and lasting,
personal attitudinal change.
Evidence – Meaningful student involvement has
measurable evidence for its achievements for at least one criterion among
Dimensions C, D, E (Learning, Equity, and Infusion).
While there is no clear-cut picture that exactly states
what meaningful student involvement is, every case claiming meaningfulness
should meet these six dimensions in varying orders. Educators and students
must consider each environment for involvement unique and on a situational
basis; therefore, no two classrooms, schools, boards, or other
implementations for meaningful student involvement will be identical.
In the past, the most progressive educators have sought
out student voice. There have been many teaching methods and school
management styles that involve students, even if they came without the
emphasis or power that is necessary for meaningful student involvement. A
1996 survey by the National School Board Association found that fifty
school districts across the United States included student representation
in their board meetings. Initially it would appear as if this were a
successful implementation of student involvement.
However, upon further examination
we find that many of these opportunities involvement are tokenistic or use
students as decoration. The majority of these boards had one student
representative, instead of two or three among boards of 15-20 adults.
While student bodies elected most student representatives, facts were not
available on whether those elected were representative of the majority
student body, either by race, academic achievement, or other standards.
Finally, none of these students were given a vote in any of the matters of
the school board.
By denying these student
representatives the primary tool of decision-making on school boards,
these adults served to negate the voice of students and encouraged their
use as merely a “stamp of approval.” This perpetuates the old forms
of student involvement, and negate the need for meaning and purpose in
The Philosopher’s Stone
Supportive learning environments see the student as a
community learner. Many educational theorists have illustrated the
necessity of this understanding, including John Dewey and George Counts.
John Dewey’s approach was through advocating techniques in schools for
restoring or developing a sense of community in an era during which
industrialization, science, technology and urbanization were destroying
community as known throughout the United States. In George Counts’
treatise on education, Dare the School Build a New Social Order, Counts
wholly dispels the isolation of students from community life. Writing
against so-called child centered education he says,
Place the child in a world of his own and you take from
him the most powerful incentives to growth and achievement. Perhaps one of
the greatest tragedies of contemporary society lies in the fact that the
child is becoming increasingly isolated from the serious activities of
adults… Until school and society are bound together by common purposes the
program of education will lack both meaning and vitality.
The implications of these great philosophers’ opinions
weigh heavily upon the roles of students in education today, as our modern
communities become tighter in hyperspace and grow further apart in real
time. The absence of connectivity between schools and students as
community members is an inherent flaw in the course of modern schooling;
by engaging students throughout education we can assert the roles that
Dewey and Counts advocated for students in the larger community that
surrounds their schools and their lives.
Students Learning By Creating
Supportive Learning Environments
The classroom offers a foundation throughout the
educational experience that other forms of meaningful student involvement
should stand upon and build from. Schools must be committed to meaningful
student involvement as a practice, and then allow educators and students
to create the ways of infusing the idea throughout school. In the earliest
grades students might be rule-makers and experience self-determination in
learning; towards the end of their high school years classrooms can be
solely for reflection on real-world experience. Here are some meaningful
ways to involve students in the classroom.
Self-directed student learning - The idea of students leading their
in-class learning is not new, and many models have been created to
encourage student autonomy and partnered guidance from teachers. Whether
working alone or in small groups, students are given an outcome to work
towards by teachers. The method by which they get to that outcome is not
Applied learning in all courses
- With the hands-on, practical
application of classroom lessons and curricula in school-based
decision-making, students engaged in research, planning, instruction, and
evaluation will have an investment in their learning that is unparalleled
throughout much of their early lives.
Student-led parent-teacher conferences
- Although the format
varies, the concept of student-led conferences remains the same from
school to school: the student is in charge of the academic conference with
parents, and works with the teacher to present their academic learning.
Students evaluating teachers, classes and schools
- This practice,
when appropriately applied to a classroom, acknowledges student voice
while providing a useful measure from which teachers can grow. Students
are in the unique position to rate their own increase in knowledge, as
well as changed motivation.
Students teaching students
- While much has been said about
cross-age tutoring and mentoring, few schools have pursued the idea of
students as teachers. The Summerbridge Program has explored this concept
in summer school settings, and exclaim that these programs help close the
achievement gap, provide powerful role models to children of color,
emphasize reciprocal investment in schools, and demonstrates the rewards
and challenges of teaching to the young teachers.
Students designing curriculum
- The Learning-Centered
Curriculum-Making Project has helped hundreds of students make learning
experiences more cohesive and purposeful. When the curriculum was
completed, and the course taught, teachers found that all students
answered the guiding questions and successfully completed their
Students Leading By Creating
Supportive Learning Environments
The role of meaningful student involvement in
educational decision-making is not merely a question of whether or not to
organize a democratic school, although many traits are similar. So where
are there opportunities for meaningful student involvement in educational
Students as grant administrators - While it might seem like a
far-fetched idea in schools many schools, districts, and state education
agencies that are modifying it and reporting good results. One
administrator with a student grant reader recently said, “Having a student
involved helps reminds adults why we’re doing the work, and it keeps us
focused on that. The students also help us think in new ways that we might
not have without them.”
Students as researchers - Many classroom teachers have adopted
participatory action research, or PAR, methods in their curriculum to
great success. In PAR students examine problems that they are affected by,
either as perpetuators or recipients. This way they able to voice their
concerns over problems such as school effectiveness, intimidation by other
students, and making the curriculum more interesting.
Students as school board members
- In Anne Arundel County, Maryland
students serve as full members of the Board of Education and sit on every
advisory, curriculum, study committee and task force in the district.
There are student-led focus groups, forums and other school-wide
activities to regularly solicit student voice. Throughout 25 years of Anne
Arundel County’s student involvement efforts, students have saved the
district thousands of dollars through their innovative thinking, and have
regularly improved the entire school district.
With the student firmly placed in the role of community member and
learner, educators can see the importance of applied and contextual
teaching methods. By introducing students to real-world decision-making
opportunities, students will begin to understand the vital importance of
their education in a community context, one that will reaffirm the
significance of schools.
Anderman L. & Midgley, C. (1998).
Motivation and Middle School Students. ED 421281.
From The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1889-1901, Volume 1.
Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Dare the School Build a New Social Order. New York: John Day Co.
SoundOut has worked in more than 100 K-12 schools and districts
across the United States and around the world. Learn more
and for more information