Making Students Partners Rather Than Pawns in the Change Process

By Helen Beattie, Martha Rich
February 24, 2017

What if we had a window into the thoughts and beliefs of students experiencing the transition to a student-centered model?  How would the insights inform our strategies to support young people through this paradigm shift?  How might students, themselves, be advocates for these changes?

Some believe that it is the adults who are reluctant to respond to school redesign, given a natural tendency to stay the course; that students will “jump on board” as soon as adults lead the way. However, recent Vermont data charting students’ mental models—commonly held beliefs about education and learning—suggest otherwise.

Understanding how young people view school change can shape our strategies to support them through this paradigm shift, and mobilize them to be partners and advocates for school redesign and their own learning.

Since 2013, UP for Learning has been spearheading an initiative called “Communicating School Redesign” (CSR) in Vermont. Teams of youth and adults from 15 schools around the state invest a year to “build public understanding and support for school redesign.”  They focus on messaging new state legislation: flexible pathways to graduation, personalized learning plans, and proficiency-based assessment systems. In CSR’s project-based credit-bearing course structure, youth and adults work side-by-side to learn communications theory, effective dialogue facilitation methods, and the skills and dispositions of authentic youth-adult partnership.

CSR teams begin by mapping mental models of education and learning among key stakeholders. They use a quantitative survey and the “Public Understanding Self-Assessment” rubric to compare the perspectives of faculty, students, and community constituents.  The resulting data informs strategies for their local communications action plans.

Over four years, we have repeatedly seen those strategies begin to focus on student perceptions about education and learning. The reason is the striking gap between students’ actual mental models and the premises that undergird student-centered redesign. Far from embracing the new practices, students often appear in the survey data as proponents of traditional, teacher-centered approaches.

CSR survey results come from 1,598 students in four Vermont high schools this current school year. These findings are consistent with survey results over the past three years, comprising a total of 15 schools (22% of Vermont high schools) and 3,986 students.

Consider the challenges of implementing student-centered learning practices given this mental model data:

Concepts of Learning:
  • 52% of students agreed that lecturing produces the highest retention of academic content.
  • 48% of students agreed with the idea that students involved in hands-on learning opportunities do not perform well in traditional settings [indicating negative stereotypes of alternative pathways].
  • 31% of students believed that the ability to learn is largely fixed at birth but can be influenced somewhat by the environment. An additional 5% believe intelligence is fixed (did not suggest environmental influence).
  • 32% of students “somewhat agreed” that they have the capacity to design and direct their own learning with the support of adults, and 19% disagreed with this statement.
  • 67% of students identified grades as essential to motivate learning.

These survey responses indicate a preference for known patterns, a kind of natural conservatism rooted in the schooling they know. For example, when test scores and grades have been a primary extrinsic motivating force in a student’s life, it is not surprising to see a lack of mental models based on intrinsic motivation for learning. However, we know that this shift is essential to succeed in a proficiency-based system.

These findings help explain frequent reports of student resistance to student-centered practice implementation, a natural response to the unknown of a paradigm shift. There have been widespread anecdotal reports of either an adversarial or apathetic stance, feeling themselves to be pawns in yet another adult-driven agenda. No matter how much it’s touted as the antithesis of that intention, youth can react with anger, anxiety, and fear. This can slow or even derail implementation.  Therefore, it is critical to engage students as partners in the change process, helping them shift their mental models: their conception of learning, beliefs about themselves as learners, and sources of motivation.

There is no one better positioned than students themselves to instigate these shifts. With some training and support, they can engage their peers in adopting new mental models and advancing change.  They do this best in authentic partnership with adults who are ready to adopt new roles themselves. Students rally when asked to contribute to their educational design, and they provide formative insights otherwise inaccessible to adults. In all UP for Learning programs, we have repeatedly witnessed the impact of student-led dialogue­­—but have found it particularly powerful in Communicating School Redesign work, as evidenced by a school dialogue day and student congress.

When students become partners in the change process, they can act as powerful catalysts.  They shift mental models through example, inspire new levels of innovation, and accelerate progress.  If we truly trust them to be right at the center of change—part of the transition instead of simply awaiting its outcome—they’ll be our best allies and strongest advocates.

Gandhi once noted that, “The means are the ends in action.”  In order for youth to be full partners in student-centered practice, they must also be full partners in the school redesign process.

Helen-Beattie-portrait Helen Beattie is the Executive Director of UP for Learning and the co-Founder and Director of Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together. As a licensed School Psychologist and Educational Consultant, she has specialized in strategies to engage youth in school change efforts, using survey data as a tool.




MarthaMartha Rich is a Leadership Team Member at UP for Learning. She was a school leader at Thetford Academy (TA), for 21 years, where she worked to build a culture of trust for students.  As a national facilitator with the School Reform Initiative, Martha helped TA and other schools develop strong professional communities based on shared responsibility for learning.




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