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Help Us Help Ourselves: Developing Supportive Learning Environments with Students Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Adam Fletcher, United States Mar 13, 2002
Education   Opinions
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For Jennifer & Michael

"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 in Democracy and Education

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 (OSPI) has identified supportive learning environments as one of the nine primary characteristics of successful schools. While there are some negative perceptions from educational critics about what a supportive learning environment looks like (e.g. metal detectors, police in the hallways, teachers carrying handguns, etc.), one cannot easily dispel the necessity of meaningful student involvement within a supportive learning environment.

Defining meaningful student involvement:

When considering student involvement in the past, educators often cite the classroom and extracurricular activities as opportunities enough for participation. Meaningful student involvement implies something more.

By attaching the adjective meaningful to student involvement, we must explore the depth and potential of that participation and the possibilities for extending it. An exploration of what meaningful student involvement is and how it can be implemented must be answered; however, examining the meaningfulness of student involvement is integral to moving to the next level of student involvement.

In order to define what makes an activity meaningful, we might explore what a non-meaningful activity is. 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 is meaningful in-and-of-itself. In fact, some of these positions might be demeaning.

Four Criteria

After working in education for five years, in both local schools and in state education administration, I have developed a set of criteria for meaningful student involvement throughout education. These criteria are the outcome of my discussions with hundreds of teachers and students across the United States and Canada and they directly reflect my commitment to transforming education in our schools today. The four criteria for meaningful student involvement in education are particularly demanding.

1. Dedicated purpose. All participants in the process of meaningful student involvement including students, teachers, administrators and parents, stand firmly behind the practice of actively engaging all students throughout education for the purpose of increasing academic achievement, developing supporting supportive learning environments, and promoting lifelong learning, civic engagement and active democracy for all people.

2. Shared goals and intentional outcomes. All participants are viewed as partners and as such, have shared goals and common understandings of outcomes, including intentional academic, social and developmental objectives. These must be made on a situational basis, include strong student voice, and account for the possibilities of the students and adults who are expected to meet those outcomes.

3. Sustainable roles. As students move through grade levels, positions are created, nurtured, and students’ voices are continually engaged. Roles aren’t dependent upon particular students in order for their existence, as adults empower ALL students to serve their schools and communities.

4. Ensured authenticity. Adults exhibit the sincere desire to involve students meaningfully, absent the element of noblesse oblige. Students and adults become dedicated to service and leadership. All participants honestly value the diverse, unique, and empowered experiences and knowledge of students and adults in education.

While there is no clear-cut picture that exactly states what meaningful student involvement is, every case claiming meaningfulness should meet these four criteria 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 in 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.

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