Meaningful Ākonga Involvement

By Diana Wilkes

In this article Dr Gabrielle Wall clarifies what meaningful student involvement is, why it is important, and suggests ideas for how to do this in our schools.

Schools and kura are often looking for ways to involve and engage ākonga, but it can be difficult to do so meaningfully and without being tokenistic. Schools may consider innovative ways of involving ākonga and incorporating their perspectives into the day-to-day running of the school. Beyond getting helpful feedback, this can add to their sense of citizenship and leadership and open exciting new avenues for them.

Involving ākonga in education can become routine with variable results for school and kura. While there are no quick fixes for getting meaningful involvement, in this article I will advocate for innovative ways that schools might improve current involvement and make these opportunities more meaningful for ākonga.

A concept of meaningful student involvement

When I consider meaningful involvement, I think it largely requires educators to engage ākonga in the operations and processes of their school or kura, moving beyond just gathering ākonga voice. Gathering voice is still important as we need oversight of what ākonga think and their priorities for their school and education. Meaningful involvement, however, harnesses opportunities for ākonga to actively participate in shaping the school experience, empowering them as partners throughout the learning environment and the areas that affect or interest them.

Meaningful involvement also means shifting away from tokenistic forms of involvement. To ask for input and commitment from ākonga but not follow through on this involvement disempowers them as decision-makers. They become passive recipients rather than active participants in their learning. Authentically and meaningfully involving ākonga requires us to engage with their feedback, knowledge and participation. It requires that this be incorporated it into teaching and learning structures and the operation of the school where possible, making these links transparent to ākonga.

Why meaningfully involve ākonga?

There are a few reasons to meaningfully involve our ākonga in the ways schools and kura operate. Meaningful involvement opens opportunities for ākonga to participate in the democratic process of school and take charge of their own learning. It may help ākonga develop critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and leadership.

Another thing I’ve frequently come upon when helping schools with community engagement processes is the different, unique viewpoints that ākonga bring that often contrast with those of school staff and whānau. For example, I helped with a strategic planning cycle at a school that found very different perspectives from ākonga who felt groups of people were poorly represented despite the school’s focus on inclusive practice. Some staff and whānau disagreed, but it took engaging with ākonga to understand that some of them felt they weren’t listened to or understood, which exacerbated their experience of bullying and discrimination. In this case, workshopping with ākonga to understand what is needed would result in much more significant change than what would be possible leaving the decision-making exclusively to the adults.

Ways to involve ākonga beyond gathering voice

As I outlined earlier, gathering voice is important. Meaningfully using that voice and engaging with ākonga requires taking things a step further. Here are a few ways we might be able to reach more meaningful involvement:

1. Student-led conferences

In conferences, ākonga have the opportunity to compile and showcase their work to school staff and the wider community, including their whānau and peers. They may take ownership of their learning and voice their perspectives to a wider audience. For example, ākonga may present their work on a topic of importance to them that may influence the perspectives of others and initiate positive change.

2. Student councils and leadership groups

Extra-curricular groups can be an effective means of enacting change and having ākonga meaningfully involved. Student councils and sub-committees play significant roles in school governance and decision-making. For example, an environment sub-committee may influence school resources, events, policies, etc. This gives them oversight over school processes as they see their work evoke meaningful change.

3. Service learning

This involves ākonga working in service in their school or kura and the wider community. This can include working with community groups, charities, and environmental work, such as clean ups, etc. These learning experiences allow ākonga to be meaningfully involved in their community, enact positive change, and gain important life skills that will help them in future learning and work.

4. Student-led projects

Ākonga leading projects can be an effective tool for developing their research, planning, problem-solving, and leadership skills. These projects may cover a range of activities or issues that are important or of interest to ākonga and allow them to apply their learning in a way that enacts meaningful change.

5. Workshopping and engagement

Engagement events with ākonga can workshop ideas with them beyond just gathering voice. This allows them to problem solve and communicate their ideas and solutions. In the example earlier, I discussed a strategic planning cycle that had ākonga expressing dissatisfaction with inclusion. Workshopping allows us to not only gather voice, but probe ideas and use this to shape meaningful change that ākonga can have ownership of.

6. Supporting ākonga-student professional relationships

I advocate for combining both formal and informal involvement. Senior leaders and kaiako might consider starting conversations with ākonga in areas where they might be able to have some involvement and influence. They can learn through these relationships the ways that schools and kura operate, how decisions are made and understand the commitment the school or kura has to involve ākonga in important decisions.

Concluding thoughts

Meaningful involvement of ākonga is an ongoing journey, but it is important we maintain momentum and purpose, and not let involvement and engagement become routine afterthoughts. Schools and kura should actively look for opportunities to develop ākonga as leaders who can enact positive change in their learning environments.