Safe and participatory

Learning is enhanced when it takes place with (active) participation of all involved, in a safe learning environment.

  • How can more student involvement lead to better/deeper/more relevant learning?
  • How can students be actively involved in their learning?
  • How can students’ perspectives be taken seriously?
  • What are the characteristics of a safe school and learning climate and why is it necessary?
  • Does the student become the boss in the classroom when participation is the norm? What is my role as a teacher in a practice of student participation?
  • How does a school contribute to developing students into active participants in society (citizenship)?

What does it mean and why is it important?

Student participation can be viewed from different perspectives and has different meanings and interpretations in different contexts.[1]

From a didactic (or learning psychology) perspective, promoting learners’ active participation in learning activities is important and learning is seen as “a ‘constructive, situated and social activity.'” Constructive in the sense that learning is “more than the passive consumption of information conveyed by the teacher.” Students have an active role in processing offered knowledge. In addition to their own role, the context in which they learn (‘situated’) and their social interactions with others “partly influence the construction and meaning-making of learning processes.” (De Wit, 2019, p. 68) The corollary, of course, is that young people must then be given the space to actively participate and to have their perspective on reality (their views and desires in relation to the processes affecting themselves and their learning) echoed and heard.

This brings us to another perspective on participation, the pedagogical perspective, which focuses mainly on the relational side of upbringing and education. It then involves the willingness of professionals (adults), as pedagogues, to listen seriously to young people’s input, and to do so from “a sincere belief” in their potential and the notion that they have views on what happens very early on in processes in which they are involved. Professionals thus “learn to know, respect and take into account the ideas students have about their own lifeworld”. This requires an open, curious attitude, respect for the young people’s own perspective, and the intention to meet their basic needs as much as possible at all times, starting with the need for connection.

Participation can also be looked at from a legal perspective. Based on the notion that young people are not disenfranchised ‘not-yet-adults’ but are equally entitled to participate in decision-making processes (as enshrined in the Rights of the Child, among others), participation is then a means “to give young people a voice, to enable them to express their opinions or views, or to meet their need for information in matters they consider important.” The implication here is that it is a duty – legal and moral – for adults to do justice to this, including in education. Just listening to young people is not enough. It is necessary to take their views and ideas seriously, include them in decisions and take them into account when creating environments that involve young people in one way or another (Smit, 2014).

Safety and openness in the educational context is particularly important because learning consists of appropriating knowledge and skills not yet mastered. A student must be enabled to be vulnerable and dare to make mistakes. A social environment (fellow students/students, teachers, school) that allows and supports this and thus feels safe for the students is therefore a prerequisite for participation, both in terms of participation in the learning process and active involvement in decision-making processes that concern the student.

[1] See e.g. Thomas, Whybrow and Scharber (2012a; 2012b, 2012c) for an in-depth exploration of the concept of ‘participation’.

Practical implications

A number of tools and resources have been developed that can be used for the purpose of designing and implementing teacher education and joint (action) research by students and teachers:

  • Matrix SPinSTAR (student participation in student-teacher action research): a matrix of levels of participation and stages in research; useful for planning and during the conduct of research (activities) together with students (Smit et al., 2020).
  • PST PAR principles: a collection of 17 principles for student teachers’ participatory action research: useful for the development, planning, and evaluation of teacher education and teaching practice focused on student participation in research; useful in a research context to describe and analyse teaching practices in terms of participatory qualities (in 3 dimensions) (Smit et al., 2022).
  • Class Contact Handbook (in Dutch): guide and reference work in the deployment and use of Class Contact sets for pupils with chronic and/or long-term illnesses in Secondary Education. Contains good practice examples for all involved, both at home and at school. Also includes checklists and documents for preparing, starting, and daily use of KlasseContact. (Klunder, S., & Saab, N. (2020). Aan de slag met KlasseContact. Handboek voor gebruik in het voortgezet onderwijs. Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Dubbeljuf).

Research projects

Scholarly publications

  • Galikyan, I., & Admiraal, W. (2019). Students’ engagement in asynchronous online discussion: The relationship between cognitive presence, learner prominence, and academic performance. The Internet and Higher Education, 43, 100692.
  • Kroneman, M., Admiraal, W., & Ketelaars, M. (2019). A peer–educator intervention: Attitudes towards LGB in prevocational secondary education in the Netherlands. Journal of LGBT Youth, 16(1), 62-82, DOI: 1080/19361653.2018.1531101

Not many interventions are available to improve the school climate for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth in prevocational secondary education. In four schools with different student populations, this study examined the impact of a newly designed peer-educator intervention on attitudes towards lesbian women and gay men and on the class climate for LGB youth. The possibility of disclosing a non-heterosexual orientation in school was also assessed, using a pretest, post-test one-group design. We found limited and marginal effects of the intervention. Some evidence that the intervention was better tailored to the needs of female students is discussed.

  • Smit, B. H. J. (2013). Young people as co-researchers: enabling student participation in educational practice. Professional Development in Education, 39(4), 550-573. doi: 10.1080/19415257.2013.796297

In line with changing views on childhood, citizenship and educational goals, the last decades have shown a growing interest in student participation. More and more, it became felt desirable and necessary for student voices to be heard and really listened to and for students to be consulted on educational matters that affect them. The attention for these issues led to a increasing number of participatory initiatives and also has evolved into a plea for developing and applying more intensive and higher level forms of student participation, for instance a form in which students act as co-researchers. By implication, a more equal position of teachers and students in educational decision-making is advocated. Furthermore, it is acknowledged that both students and teachers can benefit and learn from such an approach. However, participatory practices require teachers and schools to change, and often daily educational practices appear to have a stubborn character.

In this article, the student participation form ‘students as co-researchers’ is explored on the basis of a case in The Netherlands: an action research project conducted by teams of teachers, students, and museum educators. First, the characteristics and the intensity of the student participation in this case are described along six dimensions of participation as distinguished by Kirby et al. (2003). Next, the implications for the learning and professional development of teachers who participated in the project are explored. The four domains of the teacher professional growth model as distinguished by Clarke and Hollingsworth (2002) serve as the structuring framework.

  • Smit, B. H. J., Meirink, J. A., Berry, A. K., & Admiraal, W. F. (2020). Source, respondent, or partner? Involvement of secondary school students in Participatory Action Research. International Journal of Educational Research, 100, 1-12. doi: 10.1016/j.ijer.2020.101544

This study addresses the nature and level of school student participation at various stages of participatory action research conducted by pre-service teachers (PSTs). PSTs’ research reports were analyzed by means of the SPinSTAR matrix, in which four levels of student participation were distinguished: Inform, Consult, Participate and Collaborate.

Results show that student participation in PST research occurred mostly at the less intensive levels (Inform, Consult). Furthermore, they participated mostly in the preparatory stages of the research projects. However, most PSTs came to see their school students in a broader sense as worthwhile partners in an educational endeavor.

  • Tran, T., Admiraal, W., & Saab. N. (2020a). Work-related values in international workplace in international workplaces in Vietnam: Cross-cultural differences between employers and employees. Open Journal of Business and Management, 8(4), 1567-1586.


Contact person for this principle
Ben Smit