Importance of Youth Engagement

Youth can be compelling agents of change. Engaging them in the reform process supports all the goals of student-centered learning and positions them as powerful messengers to share your school’s change story.

Toolkit_spectrumofyouthAs young people become shapers of their own learning, they also can and should play a critical role in building public understanding for change, and in engaging others in the change process. This shift lies at the heart of moving from adult-directed to student-centered learning.

Young people must be involved in its design. In almost every context, the concept of integrating the major stakeholders involved in the work at hand is accepted as the key to success. Integrating young people into the school change process will ensure that the educational decisions that are made make sense for all stakeholders, including the perspective of the very ones it is intended to serve.

 There’s a radical – and wonderful – new idea here…that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world…” – Deborah Meier  

Engagement enriches students in many ways. A young person’s rightful role as a valued and responsible citizen is affirmed when they take their place at the school change table. They are no longer learning about democracy as an abstract concept, but rather, living it as a basic human right. Being able to affect change in one’s own life and the lives of others renews hope – both for the youth themselves, and for the adults that surround them.  

Toolkit_trench_democracyImproved Academic Success

Engaging young people in the change process also increases academic success.  As Eric Toshalis and Michael Nakkula, two experts on youth motivation and engagement, have said: “Fostering student voice—empowering youth to express their opinions and influence their educational experiences so that they feel they have a stake in the outcomes—is one of the most powerful tools schools have to increase learning.” Sadly, as students progress through the grades, gaining both the desire and capacity to have input in their learning, traditional school structures offer fewer opportunities to do so. According to a 2013 survey by the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations, opportunities for expressing personal voice in decision-making plummets from 61% at the beginning of middle school to 37% by 12th grade.

When students are transformed from being “objects” to being “inventors” in their schools and communities, they can extend that new way of being to become ambassadors for change. Ideally, youth and adults should be sitting at the table together, as partners in the change process and in communicating that change.

The “messenger” matters when building public understanding and support for change. Students can be the “unanticipated messenger” in school change efforts – a powerful and largely untapped role.  When young people address community groups, teachers or their peers on behalf of change, people often unlock their defenses.  They remind us that, across generations, we share the deepest of desires regarding education, thereby opening the door for change.


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