Student Voice and Student Engagement as Trojan Horses

Introduction

I have a number of concerns about how I am seeing “student voice” and “student engagement” used in K-12 schools, education administration, and other settings that should benefit students to share their voices. One set of concerns I have I’m calling “Trojan Horse Strategies”. I call them this because in this approach educators and advocates give students a carrot by listening to their voices, and then these same adults turn around and blatantly use student voice and student engagement to forward their political agendas without concern for what students are genuinely seeking.

The scariest part of the Trojan Horse Strategies is they are being used a lot more in the name of “student voice” and “student engagement”. Too many schools, governments, and organizations are manipulating student voice to fit into their adult-driven, anti-authentic approaches to promoting particular education reform agendas. Here is a low-down of what some Trojan Horse Strategies look like.

Trojan Horse Strategy #1: Adults as Parasites

By using the phrases “student voice” and “student engagement”, educators, leaders, and advocates are implying their interest in listening to the unfettered opinions, ideas, experiences, and wisdom of students. However, their approach is similar to that of many companies that market to young people: Listening for profit. That’s what many educators, leaders, and advocates hope to receive from student voice and student engagement programs: Profit. By continually uplifting the education reform agendas of adults and couching them in “student voice” and “student engagement”, many people literally maintain or develop funding for their schools, or their versions of school reform. They continue to maintain or develop funding opportunities for their schools by using “student voice” and “student engagement”. If that sounds greedy and parasitic, that’s because it is.

Trojan Horse Strategy #2: Adults Maintaining Authority

Most “student voice” and “student engagement” programs use anti-transparent responses to young people. This merely perpetuates the modus operandi of schools, which is to do to and for students, rather than to work with students. I conceptualized Meaningful Student Involvement precisely for the purpose of distinguishing this difference. Meaningful Student Involvement is contingent on student-adult partnerships throughout the education system. The approach advocated for by the vast majority of “student voice” and “student engagement” programs is adult-dictated, adult-agenda oriented, and ultimately will only benefit adults. These “student voice” and “student engagement” programs actually reinforce adult authority, which is antithetical to Meaningful Student Involvement.

Trojan Horse Strategy #3: The Student Voice Vacuum

Ultimately, the approach of using “student voice” and “student engagement” to reinforce adults’ preconceptions is the same for students as yelling into an empty well. Students speak into a vacuum where they don’t know the outcomes of their contributions to educators, leaders, and advocates, and there is little or no accountability. Adults listen only when “student voice” and “student engagement” are needed, and engage students only when adults see it as necessary. Otherwise, there is little or no substantive student presence. The goal of all student engagement activities anywhere in schools should be to build the capacity of students to cause change within the education systems and communities to which they belong. Many “student voice” and “student engagement” programs actually negate students’ abilities to cause that change by capturing “student voice” and “student engagement” and putting it into the hands of adults. This disengages, taking away the little authority that authentic “student voice” and “student engagement” should have. It alienates students from the process of whole school reform, and ultimately serves to extinguish any level of interest students may have in the first place.

Outcomes

The point of Meaningful Student Involvement is to re-engage students in their health of their schools and the education system. As they stand today, the vast majority of “student voice” and “student engagement” programs only serve to help students learn about their lack of power, and reinforces the belief that the roles of young people throughout society are determined for them, and they simply need to accept what is coming down the line.

These three approaches to “student voice” and “student engagement” have brought our schools to where they are now. By manipulating, tokenizing, and exploiting individual students’ perspectives on any given topic in education, entire generations of young people have been disengaged from school reform. This is not what I am about, and that is what is wrong with many “student voice” and “student engagement” programs today.

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