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  • Writer's picturePranay Dasari

Creating the right environment for meaningful student participation

Updated: May 15, 2023

Right from their childhood, children frequently negotiate with their parents and the surrounding adults to pursue what they value. In different aspects of their life, they often make decisions about things affecting them, thereby influencing the outcomes. Considerable research has shown that children are equipped with that agency. (Baraldi, 2008; Corsaro, 1985, 2003, 2005; Prout, 2000). The agency is a measure of autonomous action and empowerment in the context of choice and varies according to age. Children are capable of reflecting upon and making decisions about issues that concern them, as well as recognizing that their actions have consequences (Mayall, 2000). Children can influence their environment (Bronfenbrenner, 1986).

The notion of “Participation” is central for students to develop innate abilities into a capability that will help them lead a comfortable and happy life. Participation offers a range of opportunities (D/ Ni & Santi, 2012): it develops individual and collective agency; fosters friendship, sociability, and community spirit (Alkire, 2002); cultivates values and responsibilities, and promotes critical thinking and democratic practices (Nussbaum, 2006, 2011)

What is participation anyway?

When applied to children, participation can be defined as 'an ongoing process of children's expression and active involvement in decision-making at different levels in matters that concern them. It requires information-sharing and dialogue between children and adults based on mutual respect, and requires that full consideration of their views is given, taking into account the child's age and maturity (Lansdown, 2011: 3).

Why is it important to participate?

Fostering participation is central to the process of evolving capabilities. (Biggeri rt al. 2011) By enhancing self-confidence and self-esteem, participation has proved to be important in situations of conflict and emergency. Participation provides an opportunity for children to exercise their agency, take actions, make choices on what they value, and make them active agents in shaping their own lives and environments.

Children do participate in the classrooms and surroundings every day. However, traditional classrooms have an unspoken hierarchy i.e., power dynamics involved. In such a setting, the student is expected to respond only when asked to, more often as a test of their understanding rather than participating to construct the knowledge in the classroom. This conventional way of teaching and learning allows only a certain kind of participation which makes them receivers of some information and does not nurture their thought process enough. Such non-meaningful participation undermines their development, limits their capabilities, and hinders students from achieving their highest potential.

And one important purpose of our classroom programs is to demonstrate and promote the participation of a better kind - the more meaningful one.

By using problem-solving as a tool, we are nudging students in schools to meaningfully participate and influence their surroundings. We are creating safe spaces and giving them a platform to do things that they value. In doing so, children are motivated to participate and contribute to the process of learning. We believe this will develop the essential skills and attitudes that are required to face the ever-changing world.

Jahnavi, a public school student aged 14 from Jangaon, participated in one of our new initiatives, Champions for Change where she was mentored for 6 months to identify and solve problems around her. Jahnavi, a student who was quite inhibited to share her ideas and thoughts in the classroom, interacted with 15 different stakeholders, created posters to bring awareness about the problem she is trying to solve, prepared a google slide presentation and presented her journey to 30 people during the closing ceremony.

Gai Chandana, Nyalakonda Swetha Reddy, and Velpula Laharika from the Government Polytechnic for Women, Warangal have won the Youth for Social program conducted in collaboration with TSIC and UNICEF. In the process of identifying and solving a problem, they have interacted with almost 50 farmers to understand more about their issues and what can be done. They were also provided support by a mentor who helped them throughout our process to delve deeper into the problem and come up with a potential solution to do more research, talking to different experts, and testing their assumptions to design a better solution.

Above are a few examples of how our educational programs, built with problem-solving as a catalyst, are nudging school and college-going students to meaningfully participate in and create some value for their communities. This kind of participation builds a sense of agency and has ripple effects on different 21st-century skills and mindsets like empathy, creative confidence, risk-taking, and a child’s connection to society. It instills confidence in their ability to think and do and builds their social capital.

Creating the right environment and authentic experiences to nudge such effective participation becomes important to develop needed skills. Some levers we have used to do this are:

  • Children working on and doing what they value: By identifying problems and coming up with ideas of their own, children feel a sense of effective participation, influence, and connection to the society around them.

  • Children being owners of the process: Students have complete ownership of the actions they do in the classroom and they have the autonomy to make decisions around the problem, ideas, and the approach they choose for their Projects. Some of our programs are also facilitated by students themselves and are completely student-led.

  • Children being heard: Peers, teachers, and mentors hear their views and ideas without any judgement and give them space for dialogue, voice, knowledge, and idea co-creation.

While building such spaces takes a lot of intentional design, both at the level of content and facilitation, we are committing to creating such meaningful participative experiences for students. As we start this year, we are hopeful to reach many students, help them participate, and create something valuable, both for them and their communities.

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