Students as Agents of Change in School Communities

Sharon M. Ravitch, Ph.D., Research Co-Director, Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives

These remarks were delivered at the outset of the 2014 Roundtable, held at The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania on April 27th. They framed an opening panel of students from member schools discussing the impact of their experiences conducting Youth Participatory Action Research at their schools.

Good evening, everyone. My name is Sharon Ravitch. I am one of the two research co-directors of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives and am also a faculty member at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. I am what is considered an applied methodologist and am particularly interested in what we call action-oriented research: research that changes organizations and the lives of individuals within and beyond them.

It’s my real pleasure to be here. It’s always such a pleasure to see so many students and faculty members and Heads of School together. We’re grateful for your interest, we’re grateful that it feels relevant to you, and we’re really happy to partner with you in our shared community of practice: an inquiry community considering issues that are central to education and to our lives. So with that said, I want to take a couple of moments and talk about the theme of this year’s Roundtable.

Our theme this year is Students As Agents of Change in School Communities. I want to spend a moment first defining some key parts of that. What does it mean to be an agent of change? In the field of social psychology, the term “agency” refers in large part to the ability to take responsibility for ourselves and those around us and to make things happen. To be ‘agentic’, to have agency, means that we have a power to affect things. Students As Agents of Change in School Communities speaks to this idea and provides the sense of the faith that your school leaders have placed in those of you participating on your school research teams: faith in the importance of your voices and your experiences and faith in your ability to make those central in the life of your schools. That’s not a small thing.

The history of education in the United States, like in many countries around the world, suggests that students generally don’t have much agency in their schools. Students are more commonly seen as passive recipients of learning while the adults around you are seen as the ones responsible to distill knowledge and deposit it into your minds. Paulo Freire, a seminal educational theorist, has described that model as “the banking model of education” in which students are imagined to be “empty vessels” and teachers are positioned as givers of knowledge, filling those empty vessels.

To reframe this way of thinking about learning (and teaching), to reframe the notion of students as passive recipients and to shift the paradigm to one where students are imagined and approached as actual change agents, and as generators of knowledge and action that support your own learning and development as people, is an enormous shift in how we think about education. It’s quite significant and says a lot about the Heads of your schools and the faculty with whom you work. It says that they have the belief that you are responsible enough and mature enough and savvy enough to deserve those voices, to deserve a say in your own education. As partners to your schools in this work, we at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania think a lot about students and have long been concerned that how schools often function to silence and marginalize student voices.

We have a special opportunity in these schools and with our Center to shift those older models of education and to create what I think of as a social movement: a movement to centralize students in your own educational processes. I think about this ambition broadly for the field of education, I think about it for our Center, and I think about it for my own children and their schooling experiences. What does it mean for students to really engage – actively and passionately – in your own educational process?

One of the things that we’re thinking about a great deal has to do with the impact of our model – on students, faculty, schools themselves, and beyond. Impact is a word that’s thrown around a lot: How does that impact you? What is the effect of stimulus A on response B and outcome C? We are interested in understanding the impact of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, of the kinds of work that each of you are doing in your schools. We’re interested in understanding the impact of what you’re doing beyond the here-and-now moment of how it feels to you or how you experience it (though of course we care very much about that as well). How does it impact each individual who participates in CSBGL? How does it impact your schools? How does it impact the broader school community? So not just the folks who are on your campus every day but the parents, the board members, the other folks who are a part of your school community though you might not see them all the time; the independent school sector. What might these various stakeholders and groups be able to learn from a model that centralizes students’ voices? And finally, we are interested to know whether our model can impact educational policy and practice as a field. What are the possible impacts there?

So there are five levels of impact that I’ve distilled: participating individuals, schools, broader school communities, the independent school sector, and then the educational sphere more broadly. We are interested in understanding these potential impacts from a stakeholder-driven perspective. Everyone mentioned is engaged in the process of trying to build, maintain, and facilitate positive educational experiences for students. What we really need to grasp – where the field of education is as a whole right now – is how to unpack what impact actually means in complex, real-time, human terms: what it looks like, feels like, and how to assess it.

From my perspective as a research methodologist, what we need to do is not just have quantitative metrics, performance scores, retention scores, and things like that. We need what we call qualitative data: the kind of data that comes from listening to people very carefully and engaging with their perspectives, actually asking participants how they experience the impact of what we are doing together. How do you see impact for yourself? How do you see impact for your school? We are very interested in building a way to do that better, more fully. And we are interested in working within and across our member schools, with all of you, to build a model for doing that together. The only way to do what I am talking about here, we believe, is together, as a community of practice, in a way that is co-constructed and therefore sustainable. This talk is a framing and an invitation. I thank you for your engagement and for your thought partnership in this process.