|Help Us Help Ourselves: Developing Supportive Learning Environments with Students
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However, upon further examination we find that this involvement is tokenistic. 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.”
Experience and Research
When exploring student governments at the local school level, we again find tokenism at its roots. While detailed earlier, many local schoolteachers agree with empowering student governments. Writing in Principal Leadership , Minnesota school teacher Rick Theisen said
[Student government] is an opportunity for students to practice their civic skills in a real community - their school community, as real as any other, but with the advantage of committed educators who are dedicated to teaching students civic skills that they can take with them when they graduate. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity to have a positive effect on the future shape of our democracy.
Educators can have that positive effect throughout schools, not just in student government. A student whose school participation is extended from class time and lunchroom congregation, and into the depths of the classroom, the boardroom and the community will experience an unparalleled empowerment.
Supportive learning environments embrace students in several ways, including the common acknowledgement by adults and students of learning happening in places other than the classroom. The Learning First Alliance is a national group of education associations that has promoted student involvement in several of the core elements of safe and supportive learning communities. In their booklet Every Child Learning: A Summary of Safe and Supportive Schools they’ve identified respectful, supportive relationships between students and adults in schools, and frequent opportunities for student participation, collaboration, service, and self-direction as vital to a supportive school environment. They also wrote,
The objective of creating a supportive learning community ought to be that everyone involved – staff, parents, and especially students – feels a strong sense of belonging in school… Students themselves – their relations with each other and with adults in the school – are key to the motivation, attitudes, and interpersonal behavior, and are the single greatest influence on school climate.
Research has shown that students’ perceptions of their educational experiences generally influence their motivation more than the actual, objective reality of those experiences. Therefore it is vital to develop a common understanding between students, staff and parents of meaningful student involvement throughout education.
When educators support students’ perception through authentic involvement they avoid the pitfall that is inherent in perceived power situations: the potential for failure. While the common vision is necessary in supportive learning environments, it’s vital to establish common applications for meaningful student involvement.
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.
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