Five Contexts and Three Characteristics of Student Participation and Student Voice – A Literature Review

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 6, Issue 2                     IJSV                           November 2021

Five Contexts and Three Characteristics of Student Participation and Student Voice – A Literature Review

Daniela Müller-Kuhn, Enikö Zala-Mezö, Julia Häbig, Nina-Cathrin Strauss, Pascale Herzig Zurich University of Teacher Education, Switzerland


Citation: Müller-Kuhn, D., Zala-Mezö, E., Häbig, J., Strauss, N.-C. & Herzig, P. (2021). Five Contexts and Three Characteristics of Student Participation and Student Voice – A Literature Review. International Journal of Student Voice, 6(2).

Abstract: In current scientific literature a wide variety of definitions and terms are used to describe student participation and student voice. In particular, this article examines how the terms participation, student voice, and their synonyms are used in the current literature to provide a structured overview of how these terms are being used. A systematic literature review led to 325 articles. From this number we selected 126 articles according to the criteria of topic (student participation in school), age group (primary and secondary school) and language (English or German). The results showed that student participation was discussed across five contexts: democratic education, children’s rights, well-being, learning and school practice. After comparing similarities and differences between the five contexts, three characteristics which characterize student participation became apparent: considering others, power dynamics between students and teachers, and change that is inherently connected to participation. These five contexts and three characteristics of student participation serve as a possible structure for the discussion surrounding the varied terms and concepts used regarding student participation.

Keywords: Student participation, student voice, literature review


Student participation has become a popular topic within the last several years. It can be seen both as an instrument of education and as one of its goals (Neumann, 2018). In the German literature, participation is referred to as ‘a term that is a master of confusion’ (Oser & Biedermann, 2006; translated by authors). Based on this statement, and based on our[i] impressions from reading about participation issues, it seems to us that the concept of student participation is described using different terms (e.g. student voice, involvement, collective decision-making, democratic education) and contemporaneously, the same terms do not always have the same meaning. As such it is important to better understand what student participation and its (putative) synonyms mean, as student participation will remain an often-discussed topic in the future because of its importance to practice and as its potential for implementation has not yet been fully reached.[ii] Therefore, the goal of this article is to examine how the term participation and its synonyms are used in the current literature and to identify patterns. Due to the perceived diversity, which is also partly addressed in the literature, it makes sense to identify patterns in the use of terms, because familiar patterns create orientation and help one avoid getting lost in a complexity of terms.

Our work is guided by the following understanding of student participation – as it refers to students in primary and secondary school, aged 6 to 16 –, which includes any kind of activity or communication and involves several individuals: “Students are offered the possibility of forming and expressing their opinions, getting involved in decisions, and actively influencing school life” (Zala-Mezö, Datnow, Müller-Kuhn & Häbig, 2020, p. 3).This working definition guided our search process.

In this paper we refer to three reviews which provided important insight into the complexity of the research and discussion surrounding student participation. The first is the literature review of Mitra (2018) looking at the role of student voice in school reforms in high schools and how student voice can impact change. She placed a special focus on power relations between youth and adults. The second is the international literature review of Mager and Nowak (2012) which sought out the effects of student participation in school decision-making processes. The third is a literature review focusing on student voice research in the United States by Gonzalez, Hernandez-Saca and Artiles (2017). Our study was constructed similarly but pursues a different purpose.[iii] We conducted a conceptual literature review, based on theoretical and empirical articles written in English and German about student participation in primary and secondary schools. In our review we looked for explicit and implicit theoretical argumentation, definitions, and constitutive conceptual elements of student participation and its (putative) synonyms in order to answer the following main research question: How is the term student participation and its (putative) synonyms described in the current scientific literature and what are emerging patterns in the reviewed articles? We also aim to derive practical use from this conceptual work for educators and policy makers.


The method used for this article was a combination of systematic and rapid review (Petticrew & Roberts, 2006, p. 39f.): It is systematic because our goal was to identify relevant empirical and theoretical articles to answer our particular research questions. Simultaneously, it was a rapid review as we applied restrictions to time, search engine and text type. The selection of the articles, which are included in the present paper, occurred in three steps, as Figure 1 demonstrates and as explained in the following sections.

Figure 1

Procedure of selecting articles for the present literature review.

Note: The numbers in this figure differ from those in the subsequent Table 1 because articles which appeared in more than one search were subtracted in this figure.

Literature Search (Step 1)

This previously stated working definition of student participation guided our search process: In the first step we conducted the literature search according to pre-defined search criteria. Due to the global relevance of the English language, we were interested in the discourse on student participation in English, and due to the linguistic background of the authors, we were interested in the German[iv] discourse on the topic. Therefore, we conducted the literature search using three different search engines. The Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) was chosen to discover the education-related, worldwide discourse about student participation written in English. We conducted this search via ProQuest. We used the Web of Science to incorporate articles whose source was not only in the educational sector but also belonged to other fields such as psychology, sociology or politics. To include the discourse in German, a literature search was also carried out on a German search engine called Fachinformationssystem Bildung (FIS Bildung).

To obtain a comprehensive picture of the discussion about student participation we chose more than one keyword combination and entered the same combinations of keywords in all search engines. Due to the large variety of terms which are used in the field of student participation, it was impossible to search every combination. Therefore, we decided to use (1) one combination of terms that were more general; both in English and in German, (2) a combination of terms located in the area of the UN children’s rights in English and in German (United Nations, 1990), and (3) a word combination which covered the democratic education perspective in English and in German. The pre-defined keywords can be retrieved from the left column in Table 1.[v] The keywords were entered in the ‘topic’ or ‘Freitext’ field. To capture the discussion about student participation, the search was restricted by time and genre. Only journal articles published from 2014 to 2016 were included. Due to the large number of publications that have appeared in this field so far, a sample had to be drawn, as it was not possible to assess the entire volume of literature. The middle of the last decade was chosen as suitable insofar as the UNCRC then achieved an important goal. With the exception of the United States, which still has not ratified the UNCRC to date, all countries in the world had ratified the UNCRC as of 2015. In this respect, this year is a milestone in the UNCRC’s history, and the period chosen covers the time shortly before and after.

The middle column in Table 1, titled “Total in Step 1” shows the results of the literature search for each keyword and search engine combination. Some articles appeared in more than one search. Step 1 yielded 325 different articles which we reviewed for thematic accuracy in the next two steps.

Table 1

Results of the Literature Search of the Six Selected Keyword Combinations which were entered in Three Different Search Engines

Keywords Search Engines Total

in Step 1


in Step 2


in Step 3

AND school
ERIC 41 23 16
Web of Science 81 29 23
FIS Bildung 5 5 3
Partizipation AND Schule ERIC 0
Web of Science 0
FIS Bildung 54 26 17
“student voice” AND school ERIC 32 24 22
Web of Science 50 33 32
FIS Bildung 0
Mitbestimmung AND Schule ERIC 0
Web of Science 0
FIS Bildung 14 12 10
“democratic education” ERIC 46 35 23
Web of Science 63 23 20
FIS Bildung 3 1 0
Demokratiepädagogik ERIC 0
Web of Science 0
FIS Bildung 1 0
Total 390 211 166

Note: The “total” column shows how many articles met the literature search criteria of Step 1. The columns titled“included” show how many articles met the selection criteria of Steps 2 and 3. Some articles appeared in more than one search, therefore the numbers in this table differ from those in Figure 1 because articles which appeared in more than one search hadnot yet been subtracted in this table (e.g. the 390 articles which resulted from Step 1 were actually only 325 different articles).

Selection of Suitable Articles (Steps 2 and 3)

In Step 2 (see Figure 1 and Table 1) we applied three selection criteria on title and abstract. The selected papers were then entered into Step 3, where we applied the selection criteria on the entire article. Those pieces which met the selection criteria in Step 3 built the sample for further analysis (126 different articles).

The selection criteria in Steps 2 and 3 were as follows: 1. Participation had to include student activities in school which went beyond merely attending school or answering researchers’ questions. Student participation had to refer to a student’s influence on school issues (e.g., Mager & Nowak, 2012; Thomas, 2007); 2. Primary and secondary schools were targeted, since at these levels the largest part of the compulsory school period can be covered; 3.The article had to be written in either German or English.

Elaborating on the Focus of Investigation

To apply the selection criteria in Step 3 and for further analysis we generated categories as advised by Petticrew and Roberts (2006, pp. 170–177). Therefore, we took systematic notes on every article regarding the following topics: a brief description of content; the article’s regional background; the terms used to describe participation; any frequently cited sources; important insights; context and assessment of suitability. These notes were open coded (Strauss & Corbin, 1994). The further analysis was an iterative and inductive process. Based on the coding, we looked for patterns across the articles and identified categories allowing us to build distinguishable groups. Therefore we compared the coding of the different articles and looked for codes which appeared several times. This took place in the software program MAXQDA and was also discussed at meetings attended by all the authors until consensus was reached. Based on the analysis in MAXQDA and the exchange at the meetings, initial assumptions for patterns were derived. Then we re-examined the apparent patterns systematically across all articles. We identified five distinguishable groups of articles which we then called contexts – respective ‘student participation in five contexts’. While 103 articles could be clearly assigned, this was more difficult for 23 of them: In 14 articles, more than one context occurred. Nine articles did not correspond to one of the five contexts and could not be categorized in another way.[vi] The five contexts that could be elaborated on are described in the following section.

Results – Five Contexts of Student Participation

Student participation has various meanings and is used in different contexts. This literature review led us inductively to five main contexts[vii] in which student participation was discussed: democratic education, participation as children’s rights, well-being, learning and school practice (see Table 2 and subsequent sections).

Table 2

Overview of the Five Contexts of Student Participation

Contexts of Student Participation Brief Description
Democratic education
(44 articles)
Articles belonging to the context of democratic education focused their arguments on the link between democratic society and education. They explored the issue of what kind of (democratic) education children need to become democratic citizens.
Children’s rights
(9 articles)
In articles that belong to the context of children’s rights participation began with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and examined student participation at the level of the entire school with focus on change especially concerning the hierarchical relationship between students and teachers.
(10 articles)
Articles that belong to the well-being context had the purpose of better understanding the link between well-being and participation and their respective impact on each other.
(43 articles)
Articles that belong to the learning context established a relation between student participation and learning – seeing learning as an outcome of participation.
School practice
(28 articles)
Articles belonging to the context of school practice described concrete practices or examples of participation in schools.

All contexts of participation include articles from different searches, as Table 3 demonstrates. There is no clear correlation between keywords and contexts, but tendencies can be observed.

Table 3

Crosstab of Keywords and Contexts of Participation

Keywords Participation in the context of
Democratic education Children’s rights Well-
Learning School
abs. in % abs. in % abs. in % abs. in % abs. in %
“student participation” AND school 6 12.5 2 20.0 2 20.0 22 48.9 2 5.9
Partizipation AND Schule 4 8.3 2 20.0 1 10.0 2 4.4 8 23.5
“student voice” AND school 8 16.7 5 50.0 7 70.0 15 33.3 13 38.2
Mitbestimmung AND Schule 1 2.1 1 10.0 0 0.0 2 4.4 7 20.6
“Democratic Education” 29 60.4 0 0.0 0 0.0 4 8.9 4 11.8
Demokratie-pädagogik 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0

Note: Absolute numbers of articles and column percentages. Articles can occur from more than one keyword combination and can belong to more than one or none of the five contexts. Thus, the absolute number of articles can vary from the absolute numbers of articles in other tables.

The articles originated in different regions: most of the 126 included articles concerned either North America (51 articles) or Europe (45 articles). Numerous articles came from the continent of Australia (21 articles), a few addressed Asia (11 articles) and one article described an African country. Several articles referred to more than one country or even continent and one (theoretical) article did not refer to a specific country or continent. Since we searched for articles written in English (107 articles) or German (19 articles), it should be noted that the German-speaking countries were more likely to enter our analysis than other non-English speaking countries.[viii]

Student participation was discussed in different contexts across the different continents, as can be retrieved from Table 4.[ix]

Table 4

Crosstab of Continents Referred to in Articles and Contexts of Participation

Continent Participation in the context of
Democratic education Children’s rights Well-
Learning School
abs. in % abs. in % abs. in % abs. in % abs. in %
Africa 0 0 1 10.0 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0
Asia 5 10.9 0 0.0 0 0.0 5 11.9 0 0.0
Australia 5 10.9 2 20.0 3 27.3 10 23.8 5 17.9
Europe 11 23.9 6 60.0 5 45.5 10 23.8 17 60.7
North America 25 54.3 1 10.0 3 27.3 17 40.5 6 21.4
South America 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0 0 0.0

Note: Absolute numbers of articles and column percentages. Articles can concern more than one or none continent and context. Thus, the absolute number of articles can vary from the absolute numbers of articles in other tables.

Participation in the Context of Democratic Education

Numerous articles (44) dealt with the topic ‘democracy and education’ and focused on how those concepts are linked. Articles referred to a democracy definition and derived from that definition objectives for schools. Some lines of argument suggested principles and governing values of society influenced school life and student participation. Half of the articles originated from the United States (22). Twenty-two articles were empirical, eighteen were theoretical[x], three articles were answers on scientific papers and one article was a book review. In the following sections, we give insights into the discussion about participation in the context of democratic education. We do this, on the one hand, from the perspective of the theoretically-oriented articles, which refer primarily to Dewey, but also to Sen and Nussbaum. On the other hand, we summarize empirical papers focusing on participation connected to democratic education in schools.

Educational theories – Fifteen articles that emerged from the literature review introduced holistic educational theories based on the concept of democracy of Dewey (1916). Winkelman (2016), who was one of these authors who based their elaboration on Dewey, argues that Dewey’s understanding of democracy was based on the concept of vocation. The aim of his ideal of manual occupation was to “engage students in active work directed at learning” (Winkelman, 2016, p. 314). So in this understanding, participation means being actively involved in order to learn. Hawley et al. (2016, p. 7) explain how participation in the sense of democratic education can be implemented in practice: “Encouraging students to make judgments about what needs to be changed, how to go about changing it and taking action to do so, is teaching students to live democratically.” Kessel (2015) stressed that politics could not be kept away from schools and suggested a school practice where democratic behavior could be exercised. Children should learn to engage critically in discussions and participate in a pluralistic community. Therefore they are challenged by the opinions of others – students and teachers – and learn how to negotiate: “Democratic citizens must practice critical discussion and collective decision-making with diverse others” (Kessel, 2015, p. 1432).

Duarte (2016), who refers to Nussbaum (e.g. 2002) brings up citizenship education as a theme and refers to education for democracy, which does not depend on school subjects but on the way of teaching: letting and motivating students to think in a critical and autonomous way in order to become an autonomous subject.

A slightly different understanding of participation – and quite a different aim of the participative processes – is raised by DeCesare (2014) who refers to Sen (1979): Active engagement and negotiation play a central role in the educational theory based on Sen’s capability approach (DeCesare, 2014). Capability means, rather than functioning and merely reproducing existing ways of living, creating a new altered way of living, where participation comes into effect because new lifestyles must be negotiated between members of a society to become legitimate. Schools can provide many opportunities for “learning that happens through our engagement in political-democratic practices. In other words, it is not preparation for democratic life; it is democratic life itself” (DeCesare, 2014, pp. 163–164).

Democratic education from an empirical perspective – Twenty-two articles discuss participation within the context of democratic education from an empirical perspective. Quite different conceptual understandings of student participation and student voice coincide here. There are understandings which are very close to what the authors referring to Dewey (see beginning of the section “Educational theories”) share. So for example Bradshaw (2014) states: At school, students learn ‘in miniature’ the skills they will need later as citizens: “deciding what to study or what game to play is precisely a way to practice, in a low-stakes setting, the skills students will need in the future” (Bradshaw, 2014, p. 3). So, students learn how to participate by exercising these skills in everyday practices (Reimers et al., 2014). Furthermore, there is a group of authors who relate participation in the sense of democratic education to the classroom and study rather specific features, such as that students should be able to communicate their needs (Diera, 2016; Thurn 2014b), and should be heard (Pereira et al., 2014), that students are involved in social interactions (Niia et al., 2015) or that participation means transparency and equal distribution of power between all participants (Korkmaz & Erden, 2014). Other articles conceive participation in a larger context. In these articles, participation in school is not related to the classroom, but means involvement at the level of the entire school. In the concept of Rutkowski et al. (2014), student involvement and autonomy refer to having influence at the organizational level and in structural decisions. Leung et al. (2014) use participation to describe students taking an active political role in school affairs and, more specifically, allowing them to participate in the school development plan and school rules, among other things. The width of conceptual understandings in this context is illustrated by Pomar and Pinya (2015), who describe participation as a continuum that begins with deliberation, with students acting as informants and spokespersons, and extends to shared responsibility among students and adults: “managing both organizational and curricular issues in the classroom, of the cycle and of the whole school” (Pomar & Pinya, 2015, p. 114).

Summary – Student participation is described with different terms and concepts. Participation in the context of democratic education refers to the role of education in a democratic society and the question of how democratic education functions. Democracy is assigned to education; it is “a mode of associated living” (Quay, 2016, p. 1024) and school is a suitable place to exercise and learn those capabilities. There is also an important parallel between education and democracy: they both need “continual rethinking because education, as Dewey noted with democracy, is never something fixed” (Kessel, 2015, p. 1025).

Participation in the Context of Children’s Rights

Nine of the selected articles emphasized the judicial aspect of student participation. They referred mostly to Article 12, paragraph 1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that children must have the opportunity to express their views and these views must be considered (United Nations, 1990, p. 5). The articles which focused on participation as a right originated mostly from European countries. They had at least three things in common and differed on one point, as explained in the following paragraphs.

The first commonality was that these articles concerned the entire school. Articles which referred to children’s rights often included examples which applied to the whole school– as opposed to those at the individual class level. Students should be active, involved community members (Males et al., 2014; Niia et al., 2015) and they should disclose their view about school affairs and decisions (Mitra et al., 2014; Quinn & Owen, 2016). Student participation can contribute to school improvement (Fleming, 2015; Nelson, 2015; Posti-Ahokas & Lehtomäki, 2014).

The second commonality was that the articles discussed the question of hierarchical order. Most of the articles distanced themselves from the hierarchical order traditionally found in schools. A new hierarchical order (Mitra et al., 2014) was mentioned which identified students and teachers as partners (Nelson, 2015; Quinn & Owen, 2016) with equal rights (Hartwig & Laubenstein, 2014), who communicate at eye level (Edler, 2014). Certain authors even described a role reversal where adults were learning from students (Posti-Ahokas & Lehtomäki, 2014).

The third commonality within the articles was their focus on change: the goal of participation is achieving change (Mitra et al., 2014). Students should improve school – as described previously – and their individual learning (Fleming, 2015; Nelson, 2015).

The point on which the articles differed, concerned the conception of student participation. While most authors referred to different conceptions of student participation, two groups of definitions emerged. One group of authors understood participation as having a say and being heard (Posti-Ahokas & Lehtomäki, 2014). Students are able to make informed decisions, choose their own learning focus and express their point of view (Quinn & Owen, 2016, Hartwig & Laubenstein, 2014).The other group of authors did not describe participation in concrete actions. Instead, they referred to participation as a continuum which comprised all stages from informing students to affording them power (Edler, 2014), partly with reference to the common model of the ladder of participation as designed by Hart (1992; Males et al., 2014).

To summarize, student participation from the point of view of children’s rights takes place at the school level and points to change. The goal is to reduce existing hierarchical differences between teachers and students and to foster partnerships. There is no common definition or understanding of student participation. Instead, two types of definitions were observed. Student participation is either seen as concrete engagement or as a continuum where participation can take place on different levels.

Participation in the Context of Well-Being

Ten of the papers explicitly explored the connection between well-being and participation. Eight of them were empirical, introducing a study or providing a review of several empirical studies.They focused primarily on a specific intervention (e.g. programs for well-being or forms of participation such as action groups or a community forum) to change school life and school climate. The articles originated in Europe, North America and Australia.Several papers covered case studies of activities or programs in schools where participation had been implemented (e.g. Baroutsis, Mills et al. 2016).

There was a shared understanding in these papers that participation has an impact on students’ well-being, health or social behavior in schools. The authors assumed that promoting participation would foster an individual’s well-being as well as the social climate of the entire school, but with different theoretical or methodological approaches. Student participation in the context of well-being seems to be mostly defined and studied in terms of student voice (e.g., Anderson & Graham, 2016; Baroutsis, Mills, et al., 2016; Fletcher et al., 2015; Kostenius & Bergmark, 2016), having a say and being heard (Baroutsis, Mills, et al., 2016; Thurn, 2014a) or involved in school life (e.g. Baroutsis, Mills, et al., 2016; Fletcher et al., 2015; Niia et al., 2015). Authors often proclaimed that students should have a voice to feel they are an active part of the school community (e.g. Baroutsis, Mills, et al., 2016; Niia et al., 2015; Thurn, 2014a).They argued that students are in the center of schools (Morse & Allensworth, 2015) and their voices and active engagement should be heard as a resource to improve schools and learning (Anderson & Graham, 2016).

The theoretical background in those articles varied. Certain authors used democratic education, children’s rights or social justice as an argumentative context (Baroutsis, Mills, et al., 2016; Niia et al., 2015). Others emphasized the students’ viewpoints as important perspectives on school improvement and school life and as a prerequisite to promote students’ health or well-being (Fletcher et al., 2015; Hawe et al., 2015; Kostenius & Bergmark, 2016; Thurn, 2014b).

All in all, participation in the context of well-being highlighted the link between the two fields (well-being/health and participation) and their impact on each other. The papers shared an understanding of participation as having a say and communicating views, and emphasized the importance of students being heard and taken seriously or recognized, according to concepts of student voice (Cook-Sather, 2006; Mitra, 2004), recognition theory (Honneth, 1995), self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1993) or democratic education (Dewey, 1916).

Participation in the Context of Learning

Forty-three articles were found that belonged to participation in the context of learning. When comparing the articles one important point we identified was that they referred to learning on different levels: student learning, teacher learning and learning of schools as organizations. The last two aspects were discussed in articles from North America and Australia while there were contributions from all over the world which mentioned student learning.

Student participation and student learning – The link between student participation and student learning was found in various articles with reference to different approaches. One of them was self-assessment (Beutel & Beutel, 2014; Bourke, 2016; Panadero et al., 2014; Sandholtz & Ringstaff, 2014; Tong & Adamson, 2015): student participation could take place by writing self-reflections in the form of journals, a teacher asking for feedback from students after lessons or the school asking for a student’s perception of school-based-assessments.

Another approach is agency, which was seen as an instrument to empower students as active and self-determined subjects. Jackson (2016) described that students “appreciated self-directing their learning experiences in three ways: through flexibility, especially of time, through freedom – especially from structure –, and through self-regulation of when, where, what, how and why one engaged in education” (Jackson, 2016, p. 3). Agency is closely connected to autonomy, which was defined by Jackson (2016, p. 2) as “the ability to make one’s own decisions”. Student participation connotes that students are informed about the options they have and can decide about their learning by themselves (Baroutsis, Mills, et al., 2016).

Another perspective emerged when student participation was tied to communication and as such seen as a collective activity. Here learning was conceived as a process of communication mainly undertaken by students: when they engage in class in processes such as sense-making and reasoning (Reisman & Fogo, 2016, p. 192).

Student participation as a learning opportunity for teachers – Articles concerning student participation as a learning opportunity for teachers highlighted the potential that lies within student participation for curricula design. Howley and Tannehill (2014) mentioned the effects for students that occur when teachers provide them with the opportunity to decide on the curriculum. Doing so increases ownership and responsibility and therefore influences the teacher as well because the teaching itself is facilitated. Bourke and Loveridge (2016) discussed the chance for teacher development when they listen to the students’ voices. Kane and Chimwayange (2014) illustrated how this can be realized: students and teachers begin a dialog with the consequence that “the teachers were motivated to discover if what they were doing in their classroom was promoting student learning and if not, to consider alternative approaches informed by the voices of their students” (Kane & Chimwayange, 2014, p. 6).

While most authors referred to ‘student voice’ Baroutsis, McGregor et al. (2016) employed the term ‘pedagogic voice’ defined as “young people’s active engagement, participation and voice in the areas of teaching, learning and the curriculum” (Baroutsis, McGregor, et al., 2016, p. 125).This concept underlined a shift that occurs – pedagogy is not only in adults’ hands, students are becoming involved in core pedagogical questions. Teachers must actively provide choices and should listen to the voices of students which calls for a new understanding of the role of teachers themselves.

Student participation serving to improve schools – A broader perspective of student participation within the field of learning was found in articles that referred to the learning of the school as an organization. The authors stressed the benefits of student participation but pointed to the challenge of it as well. In this context Damiani (2014) mentioned the special role of school leaders who should take the voice of the students into account, respecting it when applying school leadership. Downes et al. (2016) gave an example of how students can be active at their school and contribute to the learning of the school organization: when students engage in projects to implement new media technologies in classrooms they serve to improve the school at large.

Summary – All in all within the context of learning, participation refers to learning on three different levels: student participation can enhance the learning of students, is seen as a learning opportunity for teachers and can contribute to the improvement of schools as organizations.

Participation in the Context of School Practice

Twenty-eight articles introduced the issue of participation from the context of school practice. Participation is seen as related to concrete situations or processes of everyday school life. The goal of these participation processes is not primarily to improve learning but to have the opportunity to shape school life. Articles considering school practice were mostly written in Europe (17 out of 28).

It is conspicuous in this context that participation is defined primarily by active behavior. Students collaborate to implement their own ideas, join conversations, and take part in decision-making (e.g. Brückmann & Lippert, 2014). References to passive forms of participation were less frequent. Only a few articles also defined participation as becoming informed, taking notice of students and partaking (e.g. Vockerodt, 2014). Some authors emphasized their critical view of contemporary school practice concerning the implementation of student participation (e.g. Edler, 2014). Apart from these critical perspectives, the context of school practice can be divided into three sub-themes, as explained in the following paragraphs.

Participation as an attitude – A few articles investigated people’s attitude about participation. Definitions varied from informing students to children’s self-determination. On this edge of the spectrum, participation was connected to the view that no one knows what is good for children except children themselves (Vockerodt, 2014).

Participation as an attitude also raises the question of the relationship between students and teachers: students and teachers are seen as partners (Nelson, 2015), being of equal value (Klaffke, 2014), having equal rights (Hartwig & Laubenstein, 2014) or “shared power and voice” (Zion et al., 2015, p. 920). Haug (2014) stressed that the ‘school climate’ being based on positive attitudes of teachers towards student participation, enabling students to engage in school and take part is crucial. Another author highlighted that being able to participate does not depend on the competences a child has, but on the chances offered to the child (Vockerodt, 2014). In summary, having a participative attitude is the basic principle for lived participation in everyday life at school.

Institutionalized forms of participation – Another group of articles described formalized or institutionalized modes of participation referring to forms of participation such as class council and school parliaments. The latter is also called “represented democracy” (Pereira et al., 2014, p. 941). Brückmann and Lippert (2014) portrayed experiences with additional forms of institutionalized participation such as student involvement in school activities, reflection during class as well as project-based learning. Taines (2014) pointed out that “when the administrators discussed student voice in their schools, they uniformly pointed to formal student leadership” (Taines, 2014, p. 163). Mitra et al. (2014) illustrated the so-called carpet time democracy which “describes a form of classroom-level practice [… where] students sit together, usually in a circle, and talk about a variety of academic/non-academic topics or concerns” (Mitra et al., 2014, p. 294). In sum, there was a large variety of institutionalized forms of participation, which can sometimes be formalized, imitating adult democratic institutions and other times can be non-formalized, inspiring interactions and dialog.

Innovative approaches of participation – Several papers presented innovative approaches of how participation was enabled and how an alternative educational environment could be created (e.g. Baroutsis, Mills, et al., 2016). In one school for example each student decided on their own what to work on all day long while decisions concerning others were made by the community comprised of students and teachers (Hartwig & Laubenstein, 2014). So in sum, participation included conversations with others as well as considerations of self.

Summary – In the context of school practice, participation adopted institutionalized or innovative forms or was seen as an attitude, especially considering the relationship between teachers and students. Certain authors expressed a critical view concerning the lack of participation as such.

The Relevance of Language

With the five contexts presented, one overarching aspect should be raised: the language of the reviewed articles. We mentioned that 19 German-language articles and 107 English-language articles were included in the literature review. Eighteen of 19 articles published in German referred to Germany; one article additionally referred to Switzerland; another article referred to Austria. These countries do not appear in the consulted articles in reviewed English articles. The articles in English referred to non-German speaking areas in the world. So, while the articles in German only refer to German-speaking countries, the English-language articles refer to various countries around the world – not only English-speaking countries but others including Spain, Norway, China, Turkey and Mexico.

Table 5 shows the distribution of articles published in German respective to English according to the five contexts. What is conspicuous about the German-language articles is the following: The largest group of articles written in German discuss student participation in the context of school practice (57.9 %). The second largest group discuss it in the context of learning (26.3 %). The articles written in German are thus very practice-oriented and were rarely placed in a larger context such as democracy education, children’s rights, or the discourse around well-being. For the articles in German, the small number of cases must be taken into account. Looking at the articles in English, the following becomes apparent: There are two rather large groups of articles. The first discuss student participation with a focus on democratic education (40.2 %), the second puts the focus on learning (35.5 %). So, in the English discussion of student participation, both wide-ranging as well as very concrete and practical aspects of student participation are discussed.

The analysis of which understandings of participation were used in German respective to English also shows some differences: In the German articles, co-determination, student involvement and just participation are frequently used concepts to describe the phenomenon of participation. In the English articles, participation without further explanation, student voice/having a say, involvement and democratic education are the most used terms to describe the phenomenon of participation.

Table 5

Contexts of Participation and Language of the Reviewed Articles

Participation in the context of Language of the articles
Articles published in German Articles published in English
abs. in % abs. in %
Democratic education 1 5.3 43 40.2
Children’s rights 2 10.5 7 6.5
Well-being 1 5.3 9 8.4
Learning 5 26.3 38 35.5
School practice 11 57.9 17 15.9

Note: 100 % equals 19 articles in the German language respective to 107 articles in the English language. Reading example: 5.3 % of the articles written in German discuss student participation in the context of democratic education.


In the discussion section, we examine findings from the five contexts which resulted from the systematic literature review. Following the main research question of the article – How is the term student participation and its (putative) synonyms described in the current scientific literature and what are emerging patterns in the reviewed articles? – we first depict and discuss how the authors of the reviewed articles describe student participation. This is followed by a section in which we discuss key commonalities between the identified contexts – which result in three characteristics of student participation. Afterward some thoughts in terms of an overarching discussion are raised and limitations and future research needs are proposed. After that, the article concludes with some final thoughts.

Meaning of Participation within the Five Contexts

In this section we provide a summary of how the authors within each context describe student participation, based on the content of the previous “Results – Five Contexts of Student Participation” section.

As anticipated, there was no uniform use of the student participation concept within the five contexts. Instead, there were several understandings, uses and definitions of student participation within each participation context. However, patterns were observed, which will be presented in the following sections.

Participation in the context of democratic education approached the topic to a large extent on a macro level. It was seen as essential to become a citizen in a democratic society and that ability should be learned in school: In this view, participation means being involved in discussions and being able to voice a critical opinion (Kessel, 2015). Since democracy is never complete, schools must also remain open for change (Hyde & LaPrad, 2015). According to Dewey (1916), referenced by Winkelman (2016) and others, the best way to learn participation is to participate. As such, active engagement and negotiation are important means of participation (DeCesare, 2014). Another approach to the concept of participation in the context of democratic education is shown by the empirical articles: Participation is understood as having a voice (Diera, 2016; Thurn 2014b), and being heard (Pereira et al., 2014), involvement in social interactions (Niia et al., 2015) and transparency and equal distribution of power between students and teachers (Korkmaz & Erden, 2014). Furthermore, participation is described as a continuum starting with deliberation and raising to shared responsibility among students and adults (Pomar & Pinya, 2015),

In the context of children’s rights participation meant having a say and being actively involved, for example in learning decisions (e.g., Fleming, 2015; Mitra et al., 2014; Niia et al., 2015; Quinn & Owen, 2016). Also, participation could be described more generally as a continuum (Edler, 2014; Males et al., 2014), for example in reference to Hart’s ladder of participation (Hart, 1992). In this context, participation often coincides with responsibility and power and therefore with modified roles for teachers and students.

In the context of well-being, participation is viewed in the sense of voice understood as expressing views and having a say (e.g., Anderson & Graham, 2016; Baroutsis, Mills, et al., 2016; Fletcher et al., 2015; Kostenius & Bergmark, 2016). Additionally, authors highlighted the importance of listening to each other and taking students’voices seriously (Baroutsis, Mills, et al., 2016; Thurn, 2014a). Involvement in school life (e.g. Baroutsis, Mills, et al., 2016; Fletcher et al., 2015; Niia et al., 2015) and active engagement (Anderson & Graham, 2016) are also understandings of participation mentioned in the context of well-being. All authors agreed about the connection between participation and well-being.

In the context of learning, student participation, also called pedagogic voice (Baroutsis, McGregor et al., 2016), referred to the learners’ involvement in tasks that were formerly carried out by teachers, such as planning learning process (e.g. Jackson, 2016), assessment (e.g. Beutel & Beutel, 2014) and curriculum planning (Howley & Tannehill, 2014). Participation also embraces sense-making and reasoning (Reisman & Fogo, 2016). In addition to these understandings of participation in the context of learning, two tendencies are conspicuous. On the one hand, participation in the context of learning is quickly associated with self-determination (e.g. Jackson, 2016) and on the other hand, student participation is often presented from the teacher’s or principal’s perspective: The adults should listen to the students’ voice (Baroutsis, McGregor, et al., 2016) and take it into account (Damiani, 2014) and furthermore, they should increase the enablement of ownership and responsibility (Howley and Tannehill, 2014). Participation in this context had mainly positive connotations and was seen as an occasion for learning – learning for all people involved: students, teachers and the whole school as an organization.

Participation in the context of school practice signaled transparency (Haug, 2014), opportunities for influence (Nelson, 2015) as well as chances which teachers offer to the students and responsibility assumed by students (Vockerodt, 2014). It referred to schools with school parliaments and class councils, where collective decision processes occurred, and students hold some power (Brückmann & Lippert, 2014). All in all, in the context of school practice, student participation is seen as an active behavior, where students collaborate, are engaged in conversations and are involved in decision-making processes (e.g. Brückmann & Lippert, 2014).

This brief overview of the meaning of student participation within the five contexts illustrates the wide variety of its different characterizations. Furthermore, it demonstrates that most concepts and terms occur in more than one context.

Three Characteristics of Student Participation

The five contexts can be designated as emerging patterns of the discussion about student participation in the reviewed articles. Examining the commonalities between the five contexts brings a further pattern to light: three characteristics of student participation. In all five contexts we found the same three superordinate components of the concept of student participation: considering others, power dynamics and change. Thus we conclude that these three characteristics distinguish the discussion around student participation and constitute its conceptual frame. Figure 2 illustrates these patterns – the five contexts and three characteristics of student participation.

Figure 2

Student participation is characterized by considering others, power dynamics and change. It is discussed in at least five contexts: democratic education, children’s rights, well-being, learning and school practice.

Considering others

Considering others occurred in terms of social interactions (Niia et al., 2015; Thurn, 2014b), active participation (e.g., Fleming, 2015; Fletcher et al., 2015; Kostenius & Bergmark, 2016; Mitra et al., 2014) and having a say (e.g., Anderson & Graham, 2016). Teachers considered a student’s view so they could compare it with their own and obtain feedback from the students about their teaching (Tong & Adamson, 2015). Considering others in the sense of negotiating among students and between students and teachers was a basic and often-discussed principle of democracy (e.g., Howe, 2014; Hyde & LaPrad, 2015; Kessel, 2015). In school, students negotiated and discussed procedures (Reisman & Fogo, 2016) and different approaches to solve a task (Götze, 2014). Students and teachers negotiated about ideas, values and needs (Mitra et al., 2014). In some cases, as in the context of democratic education, negotiation between students and teachers or negotiation between multiple students has been explicitly separated from self-determination, because self-determination, unlike negotiation, exclusively pursues self-interests (e.g., Meens, 2016).

Altogether, the articles demonstrated that student participation is connected to the idea of considering others. Decisions concerning others are taken by a group and not an individual person.

Power dynamics

In schools, considering others often included the students’ interaction with teachers, school leaders and other adults working in schools. A second characteristic of student participation thus became apparent: power dynamics. This characteristic referred to a hierarchical relation between students and adults who were not considered as equal per se within schools. The concept of participation implied finding an appropriate way to deal with an unequal distribution of power: a conscious strategy to reduce hierarchies and encourage students with less power to participate.

This idea mirrored the following conceptions of power dynamics within the five contexts. In the context of democratic education there was a strong notion that democracy was connected to power – the ideal to attain was a fair distribution of that power. That ideal should also apply to schools, where students should be empowered (e.g. Hyde & LaPrad, 2015). Other authors argued for equal rights for students and teachers and believed that teachers could learn from students as well (e.g., Hartwig & Laubenstein, 2014; Nelson, 2015; Posti-Ahokas & Lehtomäki, 2014; Quinn & Owen, 2016).

A new hierarchical order where students and teachers communicate at eye level (Edler, 2014) was postulated in all five contexts. Students exercised ownership which meant that school was not determined by teachers alone. Instead, adults and youth were both responsible for student learning and school life. Students and teachers shared voice and power (Zion et al., 2015) – meaning that both co-determined school life. Nevertheless, several articles illustrated that the underlying hierarchy could not be completely dissolved (e.g. Brückmann & Lippert, 2014; Hantzopoulos, 2015; Vockerodt, 2014), although other articles provided concrete examples of how traditional power dynamics in school could be turned around (e.g. Mitra et al., 2014; Posti-Ahokas & Lehtomäki, 2014; Zion et al., 2015).

Altogether, power dynamics was a topic mentioned in all contexts and as such was linked to the concept of participation. Furthermore, power dynamics require special attention. Thus, the autonomy antinomy[xi] (Helsper, 2004) is essentially a problem in schools; however, this problem becomes even more acute when it comes to participation, since here, too, teachers should create an offer, but at the same time cannot allow total freedom since they have other obligations like providing safety for all students or adhering to the curriculum. The question of fair distribution of power in school was not ultimately answered.


Questioning power dynamics and calling for a new hierarchical order within schools were connected to the third characteristic of student participation: change. The central notion in the context of democratic education was that democracy is an unfinished concept and therefore is constantly undergoing change. School as the place to learn democracy is therefore also marked by change (Kessel, 2015). The concept of participation referred to students as change agents who define if and what needs to be changed and who implements that change (e.g. Hawley et al., 2016). Other examples of change that resulted from student participation were found in the context of learning: participation caused ownership and responsibility (Hawley et al., 2016) and modified the roles of student and teacher.

Many articles that linked the concept of participation to the idea of change presented change as a desired but not forcefully proven consequence of participation. In the context of children’s rights, participation was a concept to achieve change (Mitra et al., 2014). In the contexts of well-being and learning, participation had a normative connotation and was used as a tool for improvement and development (Kostenius & Bergmark, 2016). And finally, the context of school practice pointed to the change that the practice of participation itself had undergone: in addition to the institutionalized forms of participation, innovative forms emerged. Acritical view of the current reality of participation in the context of school practice implicated a requirement for further change.

Altogether, participation was seen as a never-ending concept, as a dimension without a final point. Participation means to constantly negotiate and initiate a change.

Relation of contexts and characteristics

Each characteristic of student participation was found in every one of the five contexts – but with different emphasis. Table 6 shows the intensity of the three characteristics of participation for each of the contexts. The shading, which is based on the coding of the descriptions in the results chapter on the five contexts, indicates how strongly emphasized a characteristic is in the respective context. The darker the field, the more prominently the characteristic is represented in the literature of the relevant context. Power dynamics seems to be a very strong characteristic of student participation. Democratic education is most strongly characterized by considering others; well-being by change.

Table 6

Contexts and Characteristics of Participation

Note: The darker the field, the more prominently the characteristic is represented in the literature of the relevant context

Further Thoughts about the Three Characteristics

Although the three characteristics result from the analysis of each of the five contexts, there are at least two questions remaining which should be discussed from a critical point of view: (1) Is it still participation if one (or two) of the three characteristics is missing? (2) Are these three characteristics really characteristics of participation or are they simply characteristics that describe interactions per se?

Concerning the first point: The authors of this paper take the position that participation only exists if the process is accompanied by considering others, power dynamics and change. Therefore they refer to the combination of the existing definitions, and the fact, that in each of the five contexts these three aspects occurred. For example, in the context of school practice, according to Brückmann and Lippert (2014) students collaborate to implement ideas, have conversations, and take part in decision-making, and according to Zion et al. (2015) students and teachers share power and voice. The combination of these two descriptions of participation results in the finding that student participation is always connected to the topics of considering others (as Brückmann and Lippert (2014) as well as Zion et al. (2015) mention), power dynamics (what Zion et al. (2015) point out) and change (as Brückmann and Lippert (2014) show concerning implementing ideas). All in all, the question of whether it is still participation if one (or two) of the three characteristics is missing, can at present only be answered with ‘it depends on which definitions one references’. So, to continue the above mentioned example, Brückmann and Lippert (2014) would most likely answer the question saying “yes” since their understanding of participation includes considering others and change, but not power dynamics. However, the summary of the numerous definitions shows that these three aspects are closely related to participation.

Concerning the second point: Participation is always interaction. But is interaction always participation? Interactions are processes between two or more people. Therefore, reference is generally made to each other and usually in interactions others are considered.We say ‘generally’ and ‘usually’ because one can also speak of interaction if the participants do not actually refer to each other. Interaction can be a one-way, power-based communication, like giving an order and not caring for the needs of others or talking past each other. In everyday interactions, for example a visit to the doctor or shopping, the roles are usually clear. There is generally no need for negotiation or reduction of power differences. Moreover, interactions do not necessarily have the goal of achieving change. Interactions can also be about reproduction rather than transformation (see DeCesare, 2014 and Sen, 1979 in the section on participation in the context of democratic education). Thus, we argue that participation is always interaction – but a specific form of interaction. So, if the interaction is accompanied by considering others, power dynamics and change, we speak of participation. The converse, on the other hand, does not apply: Not every interaction is also participation. The characteristics we have identified – considering others, power dynamics and change – help to distinguish between interaction and participation.

Parallels to Recent Literature and Other Literature Reviews

The three characteristics from our literature review show strong similarities with the findings of Pearce and Wood (2019), which presented requirements for student voice initiatives based on a literature review. According to their results, there are four conditions to be met, so that young people are able to initiate the transformation of education. The first is dialog. It should not be spoken for or about children, but with children and young people. Particularly high awareness of the omnipresent power relations is needed, those must be permanently flattened. Here we see similarities with our characteristic ‘power dynamics’. The second condition is the respectful relationship between the generations, since a dialog between teachers and children/young people can only develop when adults recognize that young people are capable of expressing their opinions. The third condition aims at collectivity and inclusion: the school community should strive to include all voices, even those perceived to be difficult or inappropriate. This aspect reflects our characteristic ‘considering others’. By fulfilling the three previous conditions, young people are given the tools that make transgression possible. According to the authors, “student voice initiatives should be dialogic, intergenerational, collective and inclusive and transgressive” (Pearce & Wood, 2019, p. 118). In their understanding participation of students in school is an important technique to reduce social inequalities through the transformation of the education system. In this way, change – our third characteristic – is genuinely embedded in their framework. Those parallels underscore our findings which highlight the importance of similar elements of student participation in schools.

Power dynamics and change are also very prominent topics in the literature review about the role of student voice by Mitra (2018). She sees a “particular challenge of student voice work due to the re-shifting of power balances and the inherent counternormative nature of youth–adult partnerships compared to traditional teaching settings” (Mitra, 2018, p. 481). Considering others also emerges from her explanations. Although her article has slightly a different focus – student voice in school reforms in high schools – than this one, similar themes result. There is other current literature in which the three characteristics or some of them are addressed as well. For example, the study by Mayes et al. (2021), which deals with the Teach the Teacher project, i.e. the use of the student voice for teacher professional learning, shows a shift in power distribution – together with considering each other and change – because students give teachers feedback on their teaching, which was evaluated as very beneficial: “Student voice offers real opportunities to support this kind of authentic and generative learning. It can form the basis for dialogical, creative experimentation with diverse and just pedagogies for unknown educational futures” (Mayes et al., 2021, p. 208). This shift in power in favor of students may also be initially troubling for teachers – not all teachers were convinced of the value of student voice (Black & Mayes, 2020). Those who were, on the other hand, “draw energy and inspiration from their work with students” (Black & Mayes, 2020, p. 1076). However, the attitude of teachers plays an important role: Ingrained beliefs about the students’ abilities, or certain attitudes of teachers, make change difficult (Gillet-Swan & Sargeant, 2019).

Different approaches and perceptions regarding power dynamics emerge from the various articles. For example, as Charteris and Smardon (2019b), recommend, it is important to look more closely when students are caught in power dynamics and it is not possible for them to influence what happens at school. Implicit in this are the same concerns that Lundy raises in her well-known essay entitled “student voice is not enough”: it is not enough for students to have a voice, but they must also be heard and their concerns must be acted upon to the extent possible (Lundy, 2007).Transferred to the case of Charteris and Smardon (2019b), this would mean that it is not enough to allow students to have a voice, but they must be given real opportunities for school decision-making.

Taking a look to the change characteristic of student participation, it becomes visible that change can have different scopes and affect different domains. The reviewed articles presented in this paper often focus on learning and the class-context. So, one push in this area is the personalization of learning: teachers and schools should be able to react to the individual learning needs of students and support students to take responsibility for their own learning (Gillett-Swan & Sargeant, 2018). One convincing argument supporting this driver is that students are experts in their learning and processes taking place in school and are therefore a precious source of information. Authors claim that students have a specific perspective and insight into school that adults do not possess (Levin, 2000; Thomson, 2011). Student voice or participation therefore does not have to be limited to class activities but can be used school-wide. The latter idea is also shared by Charteris and Smardon (2019a), who addressed different dimensions and intentions of student voice and mention, that student voice is often used to improve school.

All in all, then, the three derived characteristics of participation – considering other, power dynamics and change – emerge not only in the systematic literature review of the mid-2010s. They are also important themes in current discussions of student participation and student voice.

Overall Model and Further Points of Discussion

This literature review demonstrates that there are different ways to conceptualize student participation as, for example, voicing proposals, ideas, needs or views as well as being actively involved in school and class events. It also shows that participation is not discussed with the same intensity in all five contexts. Democratic education, for example, is frequently discussed in the literature and is correspondingly well documented. Democracy is a central topic in society, especially in the United States. Therefore, it is not surprising that there are many publications about it. Participation in the context of children’s rights, on the other hand, is discussed on a rather small scale. It is particularly noticeable that participation from this perspective is hardly discussed in the United States – which is understandable in the sense that the United States has not ratified the UN children’s rights. Well-being also seems to be a marginal topic of participation or possibly a marginal topic in schools generally, since there is an overwhelming discourse about student performance and less attention is paid to “soft” factors like well-being, belonging to school (Riley, 2019) and participation. In any case, the authors of this paper believe it deserves further attention. The learning context is again an area in which participation is widely discussed. School learning is a frequently studied field, on which much research and writing has been done. And since it is the main content and goal of school, it also makes sense that participation is discussed in the context of learning. With respect to school practice, there are also numerous articles related to participation. These articles appear both in rigorous academic journals and in more practical ones. So this is an area that is being discussed in different fields by different people.

While most of the articles could be clearly assigned to a context, 14 articles, were assigned to more than one context. Even though some articles connect two or more contexts, there is no context which always occurs together with the identical other one. Therefore, we would say that despite certain overlaps with other contexts, the contexts also stand on their own and, in particular, represent separate topics.

Systemizing student participation did lead to three further characteristics: Considering others, power dynamics and change. They seem to be distinctive, inevitable and constitutive for participation. They are not completely independent from each other but are distinguishable.

Bringing the two found patterns – the five contexts and the three characteristics – together, a simple concept of student participation results (see also Figure 2 at the beginning of the previous section “Three Characteristics of Student Participation”). This very basic model can serve as a frame for focused, topic-centered discussions. So, researchers as well as practitioners can use the model to narrow down which participation context they apply when talking about participation. The characteristics should help to distinguish participation from non-participation in a simple and practicable way; namely, by using the three characteristics to identify whether all three conditions for student participation are met.

Limitations and Research Desiderata

Our literature review covers the English and German written participation discussion. The 126 reviewed articles originated mainly in North America and Europe. Several articles concerned the continent of Australia and a few Asia. Only one article considered Africa and none South America. Not all contexts of student participation were equally represented on all continents. Even considering the language bias, a satisfactory explanation for this result requires further study.

Since our research encompasses primary and secondary education, it would be beneficial to do a literature review on the same topic focusing on tertiary education.

Although the keywords for the literature search were chosen consciously, some articles which also contribute to the current discussion of student participation might not have been found due to the lack of additional keywords, for instance pupil participation[xii] or students’ empowerment. It would be interesting to repeat this literature review with related keywords. Hence it would be possible to confirm the presented results – five contexts and three characteristics of student participation to structure the current discussion– or to expand them.

In order to trace changes in the discussion on student participation and what they mean, such literature reviews should be completed every few years. Future research could empirically investigate whether the three characteristics (concerning others, power dynamics and change) can be confirmed as constituting components of participation and whether they provide a useful concept to expand student participation. Furthermore, future studies could ask if there are additional characteristics relevant to student participation.

Final Considerations and Invitation

Our literature review shows plurality in the use of the terms. The concept of student participation is a multifaceted, commonly used and important topic in schools. Therefore, a well-grounded theoretical and empirical embedding is unavoidable. This literature review provides a possible structuring of the discussion surrounding student participation: The characteristics considering others, power dynamics and change show common characteristics of student participation and contribute to the unification of the different terms about student participation. At this point we would be very content to begin a dialog on what other authors think about those characteristics. Are they sufficient and reasonable or are there any additional characteristics to consider? The five contexts constitute frames for focused, topic-centered discussions about student participation and provide an overview of the current discussion about student participation from the point of view of democratic education, children’s rights, well-being, learning and school practice. So, the presented structuring possibility should give orientation in the field of participation and student voice. It offers a palette of contexts that can be used to designate about which area of participation one speaks. It also offers three characteristics that can be used to understand whether an interaction is really participation. And because the goal should be to implement participation in schools consciously, comprehensively and embedded in everyday school life, the article can also serve as a collection of ideas – for teachers or students who read this and perhaps come across areas in which they themselves experience little student participation and student voice. In this sense, a side product of this article is a collection of ideas for possible areas of participation. After all, it is about being able to conduct successful lessons from which all participants can benefit, and which are understood as the work of all participants.

Online Discussion Questions

To what extent do the three characteristics of student participation presented here – considering others, power dynamics and change – align with your practical experiences of everyday school life but also in research projects? Do you think the three characteristics are necessary and sufficient building blocks to describe student participation and student voice? Are there other additional characteristics that should be considered?

Are you as researcher or policy maker aware of other contexts in which student participation or student voice is discussed?

What other terms would need to be included in such a literature review? Do you think other contexts or characteristics of student participation would emerge if additional terms were added?


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[i]The authors of this paper are researchers at the Center for School Improvement at Zurich University of Teacher Education and conducted a research project about student participation from 2016 until 2019 in Switzerland where they investigated in a mixed methods design how student participation is perceived and realized in everyday school life, the teachers’ and school leaders’ understanding of and attitude towards student participation as well as school improvement processes connected to student participation (see and–Schule-entwickeln-PasSe-p111.html).

[ii]There are numerous, convincing arguments for involving students in school life. Unfortunately, if we consider the existing practice induced by this normative imperative, we observe in schools a lot of tokenism (e.g. Rieker, Mörgen, Schnitzer, & Stroezel, 2016) and student participation which takes place only in subareas of school instead of being a given part of everyday school life (e.g. Müller-Kuhn et al., 2020).

[iii] These three literature reviews differ from our literature review in the following ways: Mitra (2018) focused on student voice in school reforms while we focus on student participation in school life in general. Gonzalez, Hernandez-Saca and Artiles (2017) gave an overview of the current state of research about student participation and its (putative) synonyms in the United States, while our literature review deals with the content and systematization of the student participation discussion – in empirical studies as well as from theoretical points of view. Mager and Nowak (2012) carved out five fields of everyday school life where students participate (namely councils, temporary school working groups, class decisions, school decisions, multiple types of decision-making environments). The systematization of Mager and Nowak and our systematization are not mutually exclusive. Our review employs a different perspective and categorized the studies according to their focus of inquiry.

[iv]Articles in other common languages, such as Spanish or French, would also be of interest and present the possibility of further study.

[v]Even if the translation of the terms is not always quite identical on a purely linguistic level, the pairing was chosen for the following reasons: (1) “student participation” AND school was used as counterpart to Partizipation AND Schule (which means participation and school). In the English version we added “student”, because in the literature participation was often used in the sense of taking part in something, e.g. in a study and therefore often had nothing to do with participation of students in school. Therefore, the addition “student” was necessary in the English version. In German, this problem does not exist, because the term participation is hardly used to describe taking part. (2) “student voice” AND school was used as the equivalent of Mitbestimmung AND Schule (which means co-determination). There is no exact German equivalent of the metaphorical term student voice. If you look at it just linguistically, Mitsprache would be a closer translation. Because Mitsprache is used less frequently and is associated with less commitment than Mitbestimmung, and because our perception of student voice – particularly as Lundy (2007) describes the term – is closer to Mitbestimmung, we have decided to use Mitbestimmung instead of Mitsprache. Again, we have omitted the addition “student” because Mitbestimmung AND Schule automatically targets Mitbestimmung of students. (3) The last term analogy consisted of “democratic education” and Demokratiepädagogik, which is a very close translation.

[vi]The articles which could not be classified in one of the five contexts focused on other aspects of participation such as its influence on social behavior, motivation, or participation as an unintended random effect in a research project about lesson preparation. Furthermore, there are articles where participation refers to students as researchers. The understanding of participation in these articles varied widely: Participation means being listened to, taking part, having a voice, co-determination and self-determination. The articles originated in different countries in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia. Collectively these articles did not have much in common.

[vii]A list of all articles of the five contexts and the bibliography can be downloaded from

[viii]Although we did not impose any restrictions in this regard, it appears that most of the articles which are written in German are empirical studies and occasionally scientifically-prepared reports of experiences that relate to Germany or a specific school in Germany.

[ix]Conspicuous distributions from Table 4 are pointed out in the respective foci sections.

[x]In 15 articles, the authors referred to John Dewey, one article referred to Amartya Sen and another to Martha Nussbaum. One article contained theoretical considerations that refer to numerous authors.

[xi]The autonomy antinomy according to Helsper (2004) describes the problem that teachers on the one hand promote and demand autonomy of the students and that at the same time the autonomy of the students is constantly restricted (e.g. due to the institutional framing).

[xii]Although only the American English term “student” and not the British English term “pupil” was searched for, numerous articles from countries where predominantly British English is spoken nevertheless became part of the literature review: 7 articles from the UK, 2 from Ireland, 7 from New Zealand and 15 from Australia.

On Becoming a Trustee: The Socialization of Student Trustees of Public Boards of Higher Education in the United States

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 6, Issue 2                         IJSV                           November 2021

On Becoming a Trustee:
The Socialization of Student Trustees of Public Boards of Higher Education in the United States

Raquel M. Rall – University of California, Riverside
Sarah Toutant – University of Southern California


Citation: Rall, R. M., & Toutant, S. (2021). On becoming a trustee: The socialization of student trustees of public boards of higher education in the United States. International Journal of Student Voice, 6(2). 

Abstract: Coupling the sparse attention paid to the socialization of higher education boards in general and student board members in particular, in this study the authors explore how student trustees undergo leadership development. The purpose of this study is to highlight how student board members learn of, access, and use pertinent knowledge and developmental tasks related to their role as board members. The authors qualitatively analyze interviews with student trustees from 21 states to describe the components of student board member socialization. Using interviews with immediate past trustees from across the nation, the authors illustrate important components of the onboarding of student trustees onto boards of higher education. The authors use organizational socialization theory and student development theory to offer novel insight into a topic we know too little about in higher education in the United States. Findings center four central types of socialization central to the preparation of student trustees as pivotal leaders and decision makers in higher education: organizational socialization, personal socialization, professional socialization, and political socialization. Implications for policy and research are provided.

Keywords: Governance, leadership, higher education, decision making


It is erroneous to assume that simply because a trustee sits on a … board of directors, or is a brilliant professional man, or is a staff member of another university, he is (upon election) automatically and immediately prepared to serve as an enlightened trustee. Even if he has served as a trustee in another institution, he may not know enough about his new institution to operate at optimum effectiveness. In virtually every instance, it is incumbent upon the trustee to welcome orientation, education, and training. (Burns, 1966, p. 68)

Trustees have played an ever-increasing role in the governance of higher education in America since the inception of governing boards (Burns, 1966). Despite being entrusted with the ultimate authority to make policy decisions for the nation’s colleges and universities (Association of Governing Boards [AGB], 2010; Birnbaum, 1988, Herron, 1969; Scott, 2018; Tighe, 2003), boards have received minimal focus in studies considering how new board members come into the fold (Ingram & Weary, 2000; McGuinness, 2013). To fulfill their role, board members need to understand the mission, programs, and distinct circumstances of all institutions within their service area (Novak, 2009; Zeig, 2020). It is unclear, however, how trustees come to access, understand, and apply this information because research on the training of public higher education governing boards is limited (Dika & Janosik, 2003). Little is known about how boards are prepared for their ultimate authority to make policy decisions for postsecondary education in the United States (AGB, 2010; Birnbaum, 1988, Herron, 1969).

Creating and sustaining efficacious trustee orientation programs is challenging for most higher education institutions (Ingram, 2003). Despite near-unanimous agreement regarding the import and necessity of board training and orientation (Dika & Janosik, 2003; Houle, 1989), the education of college and university trustees is either nonexistent or inadequate in many cases (Chait et al., 1996; Michael et al., 1997). Further, new trustees face a steep learning curve (Zeig et al., 2017); fewer than 15% of public university board members have professional experience in the education sector (AGB, 2016). Making the governing board a well-informed partner in the academic enterprise has long been a challenge in higher education (Herron, 1969). Boards have been described as an “orchestra of soloists” (Chait, 2006, p. 2), and board members often lack a clear understanding of their purpose, what is expected of them, how to implement their responsibilities, and the time requirements of their service (Nason, 1982). Consequently, trustees need to understand that higher education is unlike other organizations and institutions (Nason, 1982) and “learn about the board’s policies and procedures and about the internal and external factors that influence [the board’s] work” (Houle, 1989, p. 26). How the bulk of this preparation occurs, however, needs to be pursued further.

The training and socialization of one subgroup of trustees are particularly underresearched. Student trustees have received insufficient attention in the literature (H. D. Davis, 2006; Elfreth, 2011; Lozano, 2016; Lozano & Hughes, 2017; Rall & Galan, in press; Rall & Maxey, 2020) and warrant a special focus (Rall & Galan, in press; Rall & Orué, 2020) because “this elite group of students has greater impact on changing the future of their institutions than even the most powerful tenured faculty member” (Kuh & Lund, 1994, p. 14). And while literature discusses student leadership in higher education (e.g., Eich, 2008; Kiersch & Peters, 2017; Skalicky et al., 2020), scholarship on students who serve on the highest decision-making body in higher education is scant. With this article, we intertwine the lack of knowledge on board socialization in general and student trustees in particular. Specifically, we use this study to inform practical knowledge of board socialization—the process of interlacing knowledge and decision making—in two ways. First, we offer an inside look at board preparation as told by trustees themselves. Second, we consider how individual student trustees and board culture interact to inform board socialization of the youngest board members. To elucidate the socialization of student trustees, we first offer an overview of socialization. We then shift to a discussion of the theoretical framework—a fusion of organizational socialization theory and student development theory. Next, we explicate our methodology and lead into the discussion of the findings. We end with implications for research and practice.


Not much is known about the socialization of higher education board members, yet the literature indicates the value of socialization. Socialization is of central importance to the most pressing issues in higher education (Tierney, 1997) and deserves attention in higher education research (Trowler & Knight, 1999). Socialization is the term used in this text to encompass the learning, orientation, training, and preparation of members of the governing board. The socialization process involves learning about the culture, attitudes, and expectations that individuals are expected to know when entering the board (Van Maanen, 1976). Socialization describes the ways in which individuals acquire the knowledge, skills, behaviors, and dispositions to fulfill new roles (Bragg, 1976; Brim, 1966; Van Maanen, 1984; Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). In this case, board socialization is the process through which board members learn the requisites of trusteeship; it is the method by which trustees learn to apply their preparation for their terms on the board to become more or less effective members of the governing board (Rall, 2014; Weidman, 1989). In other words, socialization is the means through which newcomers become insiders (Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). But socialization is not just about what new members learn, but also how they learn the new information (Ashforth et al., 2007). It describes how new members adjust to their roles (Ashforth et al., 2007; Van Maanen & Schein, 1979) and the informal ways group members transmit the social knowledge and tasks members require to maximize group participation (Levine & Moreland, 1994). Through interaction with other individuals, trustees learn about board expectations (Van Maanen, 1976; Van Maanen & Schein, 1979).

The literature highlights at least four types of socialization: organizational socialization, personal socialization, professional socialization, and political socialization. As Tierney (1988) discussed, organizational socialization describes how individuals learn and process the values and goals of their organization. Personal socialization characterizes the joint socialization impacts of students’ identities, backgrounds, and academic and social structure in college (Weidman, 1989). Professional socialization is concerned with how individuals understand and uncover the culture of their profession—in this case—their specific leadership role (Tierney, 1988). Lastly, political socialization defines the process in which individuals conceptualize and possibly internalize how power is distributed and structured within their organization (Glasberg & Shannon, 2010).

Socialization is ongoing; has both informal and formal components (Tierney & Bensimon, 1999); and though has it some anticipatory pieces (Van Maanen, 1976), mainly occurs after the individual joins the group or organization (Vesilind, 2000). Socialization is necessary to address “the disjuncture between new recruits to the academy and the work expected of them” (Trowler & Knight, 1999, p. 179). Within higher education, socialization has been explored in the contexts of faculty (e.g., Tierney & Bensimon, 1996; Vesilind, 2000), staff (e.g., Hornak et al., 2016; Trowler & Knight, 1999), students (e.g., Austin & McDaniels, 2006; Weidman, 2006), and presidents (e.g., Smerek, 2011). At present, it is unclear though, how socialization happens on boards in general and for student members of the board in particular. Therefore, we ask the question: How do student board members learn of, access, and use pertinent knowledge and developmental tasks related to their role as board members?

Board Member Socialization

Despite the theoretical and practical significance of board member socialization, limited research exists in this pivotal area (Cistone, 1977). A few studies explore this phenomenon within K–12 boards (e.g., Cistone, 1977, 1978; Kask, 1990; Kerr, 1964) and higher education (e.g., Birnbaum, 1988; Herron, 1969; Ingram & Weary, 2000; McGuinness, 1999; Tighe, 2003). Virtually no empirical studies exist on the socialization of student members of college and university boards, although the socialization of higher education board members has consequences for both the individual trustee and the board. Negligible attention has been given to the development of the board, and there is marginal evidence of any structured effort to provide “in-service training” or indoctrination of board members to their new posts (Chait et al., 1996; Rauh, 1969). Few boards provide adequate training for members, and even fewer prioritize the development of the collective board and individual board members (Tropman & Harvey, 2009).[1] For instance, in their study of improving board performance, Chait et al. (1996) found that the education of trustees is either nonexistent or inadequate and most board members confessed not knowing what they were doing well into their terms of office. In his study of community college boards of trustees, G. Davis (1997) noted that member orientation was mandatory at only 14% of colleges studied.

Despite the gaps in research on the role of boards in higher education, scholarship demonstrates that trustees need orientation, guidance, and ongoing professional development (Scott, 2018). Proper preparation of new board members for strategic leadership can help trustees become familiar with the governance process and get them ready for immediate participation (Carver, 1997). It may be particularly advantageous for student leaders to be provided with experience and training in higher education governance (Cuyjet & Terrell, 1994) in order to maximize the students’ contributions (Alvarez-Breckenridge, 2010). This acclimation process is complicated because trustees often enter their terms with nominal knowledge of specific institutions or higher education in general and require a great deal of careful educating (Ruml & Morrison, 1959). Regardless of experience, it takes board members anywhere from one to three years to learn the intricacies of trusteeship to be effective in their service (Chait et al., 1991). Yet still, acculturation of board members to the culture and responsibilities of the board is a vital process undertaken by few higher education institutions (Freedman, 2005). This research takes a step to contribute to the general understanding of how board members learn and assume their roles on the board.

Theoretical Framework

We used organizational socialization theory and student development theory to better understand the socialization of student trustees who serve on higher education governing boards. Given these theories’ individual limitations, we believe an amalgamated framework—which combines concepts from organizational socialization theory and student development theory—provides a more comprehensive assessment. A composited framework that uses both theories helped us to thoroughly analyze the socialization that student trustees experienced. While organizational socialization theory was used for its underlying theoretical principles, the vectors of student development theory were used as tools to analyze our findings.

Organizational socialization theory is a concept that illustrates how individuals achieve social knowledge and competencies to be successful in their appointed or elected roles (Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). Van Maanen and Schein (1979) stated that organizational socialization is the “process by which one is taught and learns ‘the ropes’ of a particular organizational role” (p. 211). Further, all organizations maintain their own culture, accompanied by a shared set of norms, behaviors, and processes that sustain the culture (Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). Socialization is a highly contextual process through which individuals learn and uphold an organization’s values and norms whether they move upward, laterally, or downward in their organization’s hierarchy (Bengtson et al., 2013).

In higher education institutions, organizational socialization concerns how individuals become socialized to organizations through more ordinary daily occurrences (Weidman, 1989). Such circumstances take place through the regular day-to-day happenings of normal business (Tierney, 1997). Earlier conceptualizations regarding organizational socialization of students in education discuss dramatic celebratory rituals such as graduations, pledging fraternities, and sororities, and other processes (Tierney, 1997). Such highly visible examples illuminate how individuals evolve between social statuses and how they become integrated or established in their given discipline or institution. Although these examples have assisted researchers’ understanding of socialization, they caused the omission of the “more implicit and processual activities that circumscribe how individuals become socialized to an organization” (Tierney, 1997, p. 3) over time through both formal and informal frequent interactions (de Toni & Nonino, 2010). Thus, organizational socialization allowed us to pay attention to how student trustees learned both formal and informal norms to navigate the various circumstances they faced.

In addition to organizational socialization theory, we also employed student development theory to account for the nuanced experience that student trustees have on boards that their layperson counterparts do not. Student development theories help us better understand how students discover emotions, find independence, feel, and develop their identities (Rodgers, 1990). Student development theories also indicate that students learn both within and outside the classroom setting, are influenced by their social environment, and have unique needs (Chickering & Reisser, 1993). There are two types of student developmental theories—cognitive and psychosocial. Cognitive approaches are more concerned with particular characteristics that students display at given stages of development, while psychosocial theories involve a sequence of development, such as how students think, feel, behave, and relate to themselves and others (Chickering & Reisser, 1993). The psychosocial theories were apropos for the study of the socialization of student trustees.

We used Chickering’s (1969) seven vectors of student development to help make sense of student trustees’ experiences. In Chickering’s model, the seven core vectors or challenges that college students endure are: developing competency, managing emotions, moving through autonomy toward interdependence, developing mature interpersonal relationships, developing identity, developing purpose, and developing integrity. In this sequence, the first four vectors provide a foundation for the fifth vector, leading to the last two vectors (Maekawa Kodama et al., 2002). Student development theory allowed us to contemplate how students navigate the many complexities of being a student and being a student leader surrounded by influential members of the administration. This theory made space for us to conceptualize how student trustees developed as individuals through their interpersonal relationships with board members and established the maturity and confidence to pave the way for their and other student voices. Coupling organizational socialization theory and student development theory, we were able to reconsider how each trustee uniquely developed as a leader through the board’s socialization process.


This study is part of a larger study on students’ overall experience on boards of trustees. Board of trustees is used throughout this text even though in some states boards are referred to as “board of regents,” “board of visitors,” “board of directors,” or “board of governors,” etc. because this is the most popular term used in governance scholarship (Herron, 1969; Martorana, 1963). We used purposive sampling (Creswell, 2007; Merriam, 1998) to determine which individuals to invite to participate in this study. Our intentional and nonrandom selection (Etikan et al., 2016) of participants was based on three primary criteria. First, participants had to be students who served on boards that were part of public institutions of higher education (governance research indicates that student service on private boards of trustees is less common; AGB, 2016). Second, the students’ contact information (email addresses) had to be publicly accessible. Third, the participants had to be either current or immediate past student trustees. This third criterion helped ensure that participants’ reflections on their service were fresh in their minds when the interviews were conducted and, for those trustees who had completed their term, facilitated a level of candor not feasible while they were still serving on the board.

We created a list of student trustees at public universities and colleges across the United States. We first identified those governing boards that include student members or representatives by searching the Public Higher Education Boards Database, a resource formerly maintained by AGB. Once we identified the boards with student members, we manually compiled current student trustees’ names and email addresses by accessing and searching governing board websites, university student directories, and student government resources. Then we contacted the student trustees to determine their willingness to participate. In some instances, the board member recommended we speak with their predecessor and provided either an email introduction or the relevant contact information.

The data reported in the findings section were drawn from one-on-one interviews with 30 student trustees from 21 states. The sample included 16 women and 14 men. There were a total of 25 White participants and five non-White participants. Terms for the student trustees ranged from one year to three years. We used a qualitative data analysis computer program, NVivo, to organize and analyze the data by themes. Further, we intentionally omitted any reference to the names of individuals, institutions, and states to protect the identities of our participants. We went the extra step to not ascribe pseudonyms so that even gender might not be assumed. Such precautions were taken due to the minoritized position of these students on their boards and our commitment to protecting their identities so that they might be more candid and not fear retaliation or differential treatment after sharing their experiences. We subjected the data from the aforementioned larger study to a secondary analysis using organizational socialization theory and student development theory. We evidence the utility of these frames in the findings section.

Data Collection and Analysis

The use of interviews centered on the experiences and stories of individuals is one approach used to examine the socialization process of individuals (Seidman, 2006). Data were collected over four months. Interviews were semi-structured and lasted between 30 and 60 minutes. They were conducted via phone due to the geographic distance between the researchers and the participants (Dimond et al., 2012; Lechuga, 2012). Telephone interviews increase participant candor and disclosure (Lechuga, 2012; Pridemore et al., 2005; Trier-Bieniek, 2012) and are useful (Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004; Sweet, 2002), convenient alternatives to in-person interviews, enhancing access to participants, data, and findings (Johnson, 2013). Codes (Creswell, 2007), then categories (Yin, 2009), were created based on the theoretical framework presented. Accordingly, we focused on the words of the student trustees that centered on developing competency, moving through autonomy toward interdependence, developing interpersonal relationships, developing identity, developing purpose, and developing confidence.

Our study does not include a student trustee from every state, so it is possible that other ideas would emerge if other trustees were interviewed. Further, we spoke to students at the end of their terms on the board, which means that their socialization might not have been as easy to recall as if we interviewed them at the start of their terms. However, our detailed notes, audio recordings, and interview transcriptions (Creswell, 2007) facilitated the reliability of this study.


One of the authors is a governance scholar and has conducted interviews with student trustees across the nation. She entered this space with that lens. Recognizing that “No single individual can comprehend all facets of an assignment as vast and variable as the trusteeship” (Burns, 1966, p. xv), to strengthen our vantage point, we combine both a researcher who has never been a student trustee and a researcher who has been in a similar role as a student trustee. The second author, who served in a similar student trustee position, attended a private university. Although the infrastructure differed from a public institution, her job was essentially the same as a student trustee at a public university. Having first-hand experience cultivating relationships with board members and speaking on behalf of students, she brought a particular apperception to the work.


Study participants described their socialization experiences in myriad ways. For this reason, the authors divided socialization into the following four themes: organizational socialization, personal socialization, professional socialization, and political socialization. The findings emerged as a way to demonstrate how student trustees were socialized into their positions through interactions with established board members and their overall experience navigating this particular organizational structure.

We used Chickering’s (1969) seven vectors of student development model to help make sense of student trustees’ experiences. Further, we used this model as an analytical tool to illustrate the different vectors student trustees faced. Underneath each theme in the findings, we note when students navigated a particular vector such as: Developing Competence, Developing Purpose, Developing Autonomy, Managing Emotions, Establishing Identity, Freeing Interpersonal Relationships, and Establishing Integrity. By applying these vectors, we explicate the developmental environments and tasks through which student trustees often maneuver.

Organizational Socialization

The theme of organizational socialization illustrates how student trustees learned and processed what the board as an organization valued and individual approaches to assuring such values and goals were obtained. Organizational socialization specifically highlights board members’ feelings of preparedness, their experiences with actively participating in board meetings, how they perceived themselves in influencing conversations, and the role of mentorship. For example, participants learned quickly about the board’s operations, and a shared feeling of unsureness was present among them. This insecurity was because they felt illprepared to fulfill their roles. To be clear, students believed they could perform the required tasks of the trusteeship; they just never received the onboarding to go along with the confidence. One participant described entering the student trustee role as “very much a crash course.” Similarly, another participant shared the following.

[The challenge] is kind of trying to figure out what you did and [how to] show [it] … The manual that [we] were given at the beginning of the year … didn’t really have a ton of information in it. It was still a big binder, but there is still a lot to learn. So, kind of figuring, okay, what do I know? What don’t I know? How do I figure out what I don’t know and how do I work [on] that stuff? It is difficult.

Participants explained and even found humor regarding the lack of instruction they received, thus affecting their preparedness when entering their essential roles. When asked how they were prepared for their roles, many participants described how they “learned as they went.” They expressed their desire for formal training and how that might have improved their performance. There was also a shared consensus that they had the power to be transformative and create change, but their lack of preparedness hindered their confidence as new student trustees. Participants also shared that being prepared was expected of them, and the application process served as a precursor to such expectations. For example, one participant shared:

[Y]ou know, it is a pretty rigorous process to run for the position. So, you have to petition and get many signatures and then … write a candidate statement and so on and so forth… I think that they kind of assume that if you’re going to go through the process and they vet you for fulfilling the requirements that they expect that you’re going to be able to have a good idea of what it is that you need to do to become prepared.

Being new to any organization often comes with its own set of challenges. As students, however, they were tasked with balancing the responsibilities of both academic and leadership roles. Additionally, this inadequate preparation was coupled with student board members’ not feeling confident enough to participate in board conversations. They learned quickly that participation was pertinent and encouraged, but they found participating challenging to navigate. One participant stated:

So [in] the July meeting, I was terrified. The September meeting, I still didn’t quite know what was going on, so that November meeting was the first time that I settled into my routine of going through my agenda and asking questions and made sure that I was speaking at the board meetings because that’s where everyone listens.

This participant’s statement illuminates the kinds of experiences managing emotions and developing autonomy many student board members had when attempting to participate.

Students consistently stated that they were intimidated when they realized the importance of speaking on behalf of all students and found it challenging to take their first steps of being vocal in meetings. Nonetheless, students recognized the importance of representing the students’ voice and influencing conversations. Another participant shared:

So, I think I was surprised by how active I had to be part of the conversation and making sure that the student perspective was being presented, and making sure I was doing my duties. You know you can’t influence policy or be in this part of the discussion if you aren’t willing to actually physically use your voice. You can still be effective, but you know, you could never introduce something to the board if you’re not willing to talk. And I think that is something that is also really important because it is terrifying the first like ten times that you talk. You like double and triple check before you say anything… You get more comfortable only when you practice. And so that’s why number one, I keep telling students, you really have to be willing to talk. Be part of the discussion because even though it doesn’t often feel like it, you really do have a piece of that conversation.

Students consistently shared how they might have been scared or intimidated to speak in board meetings. However, they also knew how critical it was for them to represent the student perspective, which helped them develop purpose. Given this task, they made sure to challenge their nervousness or hesitations not only to speak for current students but also to encourage future student trustees to continue the conversation. To further equip themselves with the knowledge to successfully navigate their roles, their mentors were often their predecessors. Another participant conveyed:

In one system, in particular, they have a good mentorship, not formalized or anything, but when the current student [trustee] knows who is in the running, they take them under their wing to make sure they know who is who, etc…They also talk about having the confidence to speak up early, thinking about how short their term is in comparison to other [trustees]. They say they didn’t get comfortable speaking up until almost the end of their term, and they encouraged their successor to speak up early so that their voice is heard.

Most participants felt mentored and encouraged by their predecessors, who provided them with insider information. Although each student trustee was often supplied with a layperson board member to serve as their mentor, they frequently only sought this mentor’s guidance for logistical questions. Student trustees made it clear that board members often vocalized how they were “there for [them],” and students believed this offer to be true—for the most part. That is, some students thought this statement was performative as opposed to coming from a place of genuine concern to assist and mentor incoming student trustees. Overall, participants went through similar difficulties, but they all developed competence, which helped them learn how to be active student trustees.

Personal Socialization

An additional prominent theme was how students’ identities, backgrounds, and academic and social lives affected their socialization processes. Personal socialization is characterized by the joint socialization influences of a student’s identity, background, and educational and social structure in college. Participants often discussed their personal relationships with other board members and student trustees, their age, and their academic studies. For example, many participants discussed how they observed the importance of creating personal relationships with board members. One participant stated, “I knew that to have the place on the board like the first year, I was going to have to really create those relationships and be part of those conversations… I sought out to learn everybody’s face and kind of you know, learn everything about them.” This specific example illustrates how students are motivated to develop mature interpersonal relationships and establish their identities.

Student trustees even learned that the process by which they sought to create such relationships required insider knowledge on how to approach board members. They pursued these relationships by asking board members to have lunch or coffee to get to know them better, but some students hoped that board members would make more effort to create relationships with student trustees. A participant shared, “You have to have time to develop relationships and trust to be comfortable no matter who you are and where you are. You can’t just jump in and go.” Participants understood this idea, and it was evident that they came to learn that some board members would be more inclined to create relationships than others. When asked what an ideal term would look like for student trustees, a student explained:

The ideal situation would be where leaving, the student knows everybody on the board and is able to call upon them, and you know, have a good relationship after being with them on the board. That would be the ideal.

Some participants wanted board members to take more responsibility to ensure student trustees had the space and resources to create meaningful and lasting relationships with board members. Overall, student trustees understood the benefits, importance, and difficulties of creating and sustaining relationships with other board members.

In addition to navigating how to create relationships with board members, participants universally discussed how their age influenced how they engaged in the board space. All participants were keenly aware that the board was made up of adults with decades of life experience, whereas the student trustees were significantly younger. For both undergraduate and graduate students alike, age mattered. For example, students also expressed how they were constantly unsure how to address board members—by their first names or last names. Participants often grappled with discovering what norms they should subscribe to in wanting to reconcile the desire to be deferential based on their age but also casual based on their status as peers. The age dynamic illuminated the inherent imbalance within the power structure on the board. Student board members communicated feeling the pressure that the age gap added to their role; there was an underlying sense of inadequacy based on their age, experience, and accomplishments as compared to their older layperson counterparts. One student trustee shared:

Because I think that when you look at students on these boards … most of them are in their early 20s, and we might have been a big deal and big fishes kind of on our own campuses, when you get to the board level, it can be very pressing because you kind of sit there and go into this big board… It’s very difficult at times because, you know, I’m 20 years old. I’m still in college, and I’m sitting next to people who are in their 50s and 60s who have accomplished a lot. And they are very, very important.

The age of student trustees played a role in how they viewed themselves in comparison to board members.

Some participants shared how they felt the age gap intimidated them or made them feel that their contributions would be taken as rudimentary inputs. The uncertainty regarding how they would be received also affected their desire to participate in board discussions. Some students felt that their suggestions would not be taken seriously because of their age. However, in the end, students did not allow the age gap to deter them from making their voices heard, thus establishing integrity. Instead, they were more aware that age (and limited time) played a role in their organization’s culture by way of how their board functioned. Take for example this student trustee who shared:

What you need to do is make sure that you speak up for students when you need to and have your voice be heard. If that means starting a new thing in the process, then that’s  great. But don’t let that be … don’t let your ambition to start something hinder your ability to be able serve. And that’s what I’ve tried to do.

This student trustee was adamant about preserving the focus on the students and having a voice on the board. The trusteeship was not about advancing individual goals or having one’s name attached to new initiatives, but getting the work done and representing those who were not in the room. Those are the integrity-centered values that prompted the trustee to serve on the board and those are the values that helped the trustee enact that role on the board. It was important to uphold these values.

Becoming a student trustee is a time-consuming, rigorous process given the prestigious nature of the position. The responsibilities include attending monthly board meetings, reading new policies and briefs, preparing suggestions, keeping the student body aware of what is occurring, and more. Student trustees manage the position in conjunction with their academic studies, which proved challenging for the participants in this study. Nonetheless, their experiences aided in establishing identities of integrity and making freeing interpersonal relationships that supported their professional development. Developing integrity means that the student trustees were able to personalize humanizing values and personalize them for their service on the board. Regardless of the challenges that the students faced on the board, establishing integrity meant that they maintained their values and beliefs (Chickering, 1969).

Professional Socialization

The theme of professional socialization concerns how individuals understand and uncover their profession’s culture—in this case, their specific leadership role (Tierney, 1988). In this way, participants often shared that they had to take the time to gain insider knowledge on the ins and outs of being a student trustee. They were consistently aware of how they were perceived if they did not quickly learn how to operate within their new leadership roles. Through conversations, observations, and experiences, student trustees were socialized to adopt the space’s habits and insider knowledge. For example, many participants discussed how they had to find key players on the board to assist them. One participant stated:

I think, depending on the individual, that may be one of the hardest things to do because there is nobody who writes down who the actual players at the table are. At least the ones that actually control decisions and the ones who don’t, whether informally or formally.

This specific example illustrates how students were socialized into initiating professional relationships with board members to get the assistance they needed, which led to developing autonomy and competence. Another participant explained:

Yeah, so my first point of contact is always the trustee secretary because she kind of can point you in the right direction. But, as I become more familiar and people have gotten to know me a little more on the board, I know which vice chancellor to go to with my question.

Many participants echoed this sentiment as they also learned to identify which stakeholders would help them throughout their student trustee journey.

In addition to student trustees identifying board members, another piece of insider knowledge was learning how to bring their ideas to the table. Frequently, participants explained that they had to “really go through the process,” to get an item on the agenda. They learned how to conceptualize an idea, garner support for said idea, and work to get the idea on the agenda. Students embodied the professional socialization they experienced to advocate for students across various universities. They also came to understand how to have their opinions and voices heard. One participant explained intentional collaboration with the other student trustee on the board:

So, we try very hard to make sure that we know what we think before we even go to the board meeting so that we can, you know, have the influence that we are trying to have on the board because if we are split up, then they don’t hear the student voice because we cancel each other out.

All participants were highly aware that they needed to be strategic about how they presented items or ideas to experienced board members. They often explained how they had to use such communicative strategies because many board members had been on the board for an extended period, and “it can be difficult for them to take a pause and actually listen to what the students are saying.” This experience was shared among participants as there was an evident pattern of students’ voices remaining unheard. However, student trustees managed their emotions and developed integrity by making sure they amplified the issues they were passionate about by continuously challenging themselves to speak up, despite being nervous or scared.

Some participants described how they encountered some board members who were very welcoming and wanted to hear their opinions. In comparison, other board members did not do the same. Some student trustees were even embarrassed or berated. For example, a participant shared:

Yes, you’re going to feel like crap at that board meeting when you get chastised or yelled at in front of everybody or made fun of… What I plan to do for the next trustee who comes in is to make the experience a little easier so that they don’t have to go through the things I went through.

Similar accounts were shared by other participants. This type of professional socialization was not something of which student trustees approved, nor did they want to accept it. However, all participants consistently spoke about how they tried to shift the culture and change how board members interact, support, and engage with future student trustees. Their motives were rooted in creating a better environment for future student leaders so that they did not have to experience the same type of socialization they did.

Political Socialization

The theme of political socialization is defined as how individuals conceptualize and possibly internalize how power is distributed and structured within their organization (Glasberg & Shannon, 2010). This theme builds off of our earlier conversation about the age disparity students experienced on boards. Adultism, which “is communicated through actions and words and ensconced in social structures and practices” (Conner et al., 2016, p. 5) can be internalized by student trustees who then feel the weight of subordination throughout their terms. Once adultism is internalized, student trustees may struggle to make or trust their independent decisions, which can initiate a cycle of powerlessness (Adams et al., 1997). Be it based on age or other factors, many of the conceptualization practices in which students participated led them to create relationships with their predecessors. These relationships were critical to understanding the political nature of the board, buttressing any perceived or actual inadequacies, and helping the students establish the foundation on which they would build their trusteeship. For example, since past trustees knew how to navigate the board’s distinctive political structure, they were vital in participants’ learning. One participant shared:

I knew the previous student trustee… And he was able to tell me a little about the procedure of the board and the makeup of the board… So what I heard from the previous trustees … was kind of accurate but also different because they were looking at different issues than they were in previous years.

As this example shows, student trustees found their predecessors’ experiences helpful. They also realized that their experiences would differ based on the nuanced issues the board addressed in a given year. However, some participants did not have “the privilege of meeting [their] predecessor, which is a little bit interesting and challenging.” Nonetheless, this level of critical thinking regarding the board’s political nature helped student trustees develop competency and move through autonomy toward interdependence.

In addition to navigating relationships with predecessors, student trustees also changed their perspectives once they realized the type of political system the board personified. Part of political socialization involves individuals’ internalization of how power is distributed and structured within the board itself. For example, one participant put forth:

And I would say that right around November was the first time that I kind of got the hang of the system and getting information so that I could make decisions without working on it from my own campus bias and just really kind of being, for people in my position where interactions with students outside of the board of trustees meeting is really you disseminat[ing] the information the best way you can. And learning how to do that in a non-biased way was difficult at first. But eventually, I started to get the hang of it.

This example illustrates how many participants “had to change [their] mindset.” Participants explained that they came to understand they were not individual students anymore but rather represented thousands of students throughout their college system or institution.

At times, political socialization was not what students expected. Many learned the political ropes along the way. One participant shared:

You know, a woman from my campus is a student affairs professional, and she, let’s just say that she kept me in a little happy bubble where they care about what students think and share ideas with students… I kind of just thought that everybody thought that. But when I got to the board, I realized that I was not in my happy little student affairs bubble anymore. I was on a board that was very political and had different agendas.

This board member clarifies how student trustees learned on the job, a theme that was prominent throughout the analysis. In political socialization, students managed their emotions and continued to develop integrity. Overall, student trustees experienced political socialization in similar ways and were challenged to think as a part of a system instead of only thinking about their individual interests and motivations.

Discussion and Implications

Because socialization is not sufficiently covered for boards in general and higher education boards in particular, we relied on literature from the nonprofit and K–12 sectors. This literature tended to be limited and antiquated. The literature constraints further highlight the need for research on the socialization of board members of higher education. Like the socialization of K–12 school board members, higher education board socialization is random, informal, and underemphasized (Cistone, 1977). To accentuate the complexity and breadth of board socialization practices, the accounts of different student trustees were featured. Student trustees described the components of their socialization in almost identical manners. Socialization of these novice board members was predicated on access to information, relationships, and engaged time on task. Though the methods of socialization were virtually indistinguishable at the level of the board, what differentiated board members most was how trustees individually employed these preparatory components.

The words of the student trustees were used to convey not only the socialization practices in place on the boards but also, and more importantly, the purposes of these practices—namely, how informal and formal methods of board learning and training influenced decision making. Board socialization influences what the trustees learn and how they come to apply that information through resource-rich relationships. If the board “is to function as a cohesive and purposive social system, the novice members who join it must be absorbed and integrated so as to minimize disruption of established operating practices and to maximize the core values, expectations, incentives, and sanctions” (Cistone, 1977, p. 19). Using organizational and student development theories, our work carries at least four implications for stakeholders interested in maximizing student trustees’ experience, role, and development on higher education boards.

Assessment and Evaluation

The effectiveness of the individual new board member and the board itself is closely tied to board socialization (W. A. Brown, 2007; Gill et al., 2005; Hackman & Walton, 1986; Holland, 2003; Michael et al., 1997); how both the new member and the established board deal with socialization affects every aspect of board decision making (Cistone, 1977). Yet there are no established means by which to monitor and assess this effectiveness. What we learned from these student trustees is valuable and simultaneously supports and contradicts common board knowledge. Trustees often face challenges developing their competency on the board because there are usually no checkpoints to evaluate their roles. Many students do not have a sense of whether they were doing a good job other than their own sense of accomplishment or through support from a trustee or two. Intentional steps should be taken to evaluate and offer feedback to student trustees early and often. While trustee evaluation at both the individual and board levels would also benefit layperson trustees, constructive feedback for student trustees is particularly essential as these students are developing their competency not only on the board but also in life. This feedback can come in numerous forms—a conversation with key individuals affiliated with the board, such as someone from the board professional staff, the board chair, or another trustee who serves as a mentor; a written evaluation from a board stakeholder; or a check-in with a prior student trustee. Though their terms are brief, student trustees want to do well in the role, and feedback will augment their efficacy in this position.

Relationships Matter

The student trustees with the highest levels of efficacy were those who maximized the socialization process through high-quality and quantity resource relationships. Students who were able to leverage the knowledge, support, and opportunities created by the interpersonal relationships they had acquired had more favorable opinions of their time on the board. In this way, it was imperative that they felt supported when entering the board, where much is expected of them. They forged relationships with key decision makers not because it was mandated but because they recognized early on the utility of such relationships for their time on the board. To maximize the influence of student trustees, more intentional efforts should be made to maintain multiple streams of communication with the students on the board. This way, even those students who are still in the first stages of establishing interpersonal relationships will have an opportunity to benefit from these connections. Boards need to formalize mentorship within the board and carve out special time for the students to engage with the board chair, board professionals, committee chairs, and the campus CEO. Boards, too, should do a better job of connecting current student board members with their predecessors and successors to maintain communication and benefit from lessons learned.

Once Is Not Enough

Student trustees undergird the notion that a one-time orientation is insufficient (A. L. W. Brown & Hayford, 2019; Scott, 2018). Layperson and student trustees alike require more than one orientation. Additionally, new and continuing trustees cannot passively engage with orientation (Scott, 2018). Active engagement before, during, and after board membership describes the requisites for the student trustees. These individuals must go above and beyond the call for their laypersonn counterparts and do not have the luxury of merely being a ceremonial board member. The voice of student trustees further supports the idea that training encompasses much more than just board materials or meetings. Novice student trustees are highly involved in their own socialization. What is more, these students often play an integral role in the next student trustee’s socialization. Unlike their layperson counterparts who may or may not inform the next wave of trustees, student trustees were integral and primary in preparing their predecessors. By intentionally playing a role in the socialization process, student trustees demonstrated that student voice can be leveraged to influence educational policy (Conner et al., 2016).

Board Lessons and Life Lessons

The role of the student trustee cannot and should not be divorced from the fact that these board members are developing not only as trustees but also as individuals. Their time on the board provided an opportunity for them to hone their leadership skills and their ability to assert themselves—what they want to represent, for whom they want to speak, how they want to be viewed by others, and what they want to advocate. They were entrenched in a role where they consistently developed their autonomy, asserted their identity, and established their purpose via direct and indirect means. The student trustee role places these students in a unique position where they are forced to quickly learn how to simultaneously establish themselves as students, individuals, leaders, and trustees. As their knowledge of the interworkings of the institution is sharpened, so too is their insight of themselves.


If the most important priority for boards and presidents is student success (Scott, 2018), should not this success also extend to the success of students on boards of institutions of higher education? We give specific attention to student trustees because their time on the board and access to direct predecessors is so limited. Also, we believe students warrant special attention in board socialization because this representative on the board is often tasked with representing the student voice. The time on the board for these individuals also, directly and indirectly, influences their time on campus and beyond. The discussion of board socialization offered in this article provides an enhanced understanding of the need for preparation of board members. It may prove helpful to board staff and board members themselves who are interested in equipping new members with the knowledge and resources required for productivity on the board. This study, though, is only an initial peek into an essential part of student trusteeship. Much more research is needed to better understand and ultimately support students as they concurrently navigate the complexities of becoming themselves and becoming a trustee.

[1] Available literature indicates that no one really takes ownership of socializing new board members. While there are roles for the board, board staff, the president, and other campus leaders to play in board member socialization, our study demonstrates that board members rely heavily on other board members to help them learn their roles.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the challenges and opportunities students face on governing boards of higher education?
  2. How might students leverage their role on boards of higher education to advocate for issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion?
  3. How might the student trustee role serve as a learning opportunity for and application of civic and community engagement?
  4. What are some ways that the student experience on boards of higher education can be improved to maximize students’ terms on the board?


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Children Talking about Their Experiences of Visual Art In and Out of the Classroom: A Systematic Literature Review

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 6, Issue 2                         IJSV                           November 2021

Children Talking about Their Experiences of Visual Art In and Out of the Classroom: A Systematic Literature Review

Anna Robb – University of Dundee


Citation: Robb, A. (2021). Children talking about their experiences of visual art in and out of the classroom: a systematic literature review. International Journal of Student Voice, 6(2). 

Abstract: This article consists of a systematic literature review focused on young children’s thoughts and experiences of visual art. The papers are analysed using the lens of cultural capital theory, a theory pervading curricula and practice in the classroom and which encourages a deeper look at the lives of children, their sense of identity and place in the world. The review demonstrates the value of children’s voice for informing teaching practice in primary classrooms. It also provides insight on how children value the curricular subject of visual art, which is in danger of being marginalised from the curriculum.

Keywords: art education, children’s voice

Online Discussion Questions

  • The article encourages practitioners to take notice of the individual pupil voices in their class. What are the challenges to doing this meaningfully?
  • This literature review adopted a systematic approach to searching for and reviewing texts in relation to the topic. What are the strengths and limitations of this approach?
  • The review draws together a range of research, the majority of which consists of small-scale qualitative work. What are the strengths and limitations of this research approach?
  • In terms of drawing on children’s voices in research, what methods could be used if a large-scale quantitative approach was adopted instead?

1.0 Introduction

According to Article 31 of the UNCRC “Every child has the right to relax, play and take part in a wide range of cultural and artistic activities” (United Nations, 1989). The arts provide avenues to explore who we are and what it means to be human (Barnes, 2002; Eisner, 2002; Hickman, 2010), while also supporting our levels of resilience, problem solving and creativity (Craft, 2015). In recent years however concern is growing that UK governments and therefore schools are moving away from teaching arts subjects and instead focusing on STEM subjects (House of Commons, 2019). Alongside this, social inequalities are increasing and funding for the arts in local communities decreasing, meaning that access to the arts is becoming more difficult for families and people on lower incomes (Arts Council England & University of Durham, 2019). The creative industries however are viewed as growing in economic importance for the future (Ashton, 2015; Bazalgette, 2017; Chung, Yang, & Caldwell-French, 2018; Tether, 2019) and so career and education strategies to encourage young people into these industries are being developed  (Bazalgette, 2017). Attitudes to art as a child and young person are key to their relationship with the subject as an adult and so the role of the arts in education is therefore currently at the fore of debates about the future of education and the curriculum (CVAN England, 2021).

This debate however is dominated by the voices of adults. The purpose of this review is to explore the voices of the people who are impacted by these issues: children.  It consists of a systematic literature review which investigates the research that has been undertaken exploring children’s experiences of, and attitudes to, visual art, and how they respond to this as a subject. The decision to focus on visual art only is based on one of scale, but also one of personal interest, as this is a subject that I enjoyed as a child and have carried this interest through as an adult, both personally and professionally. I am unable to go back in time to ask my 8-year-old self why this was the case, but I can review the literature of researchers who have asked children to share their thoughts on the subject. Additionally, it was a subject I enjoyed teaching as a primary teacher but there was always scope to improve my practice further to ensure the children in my classroom had quality visual arts experiences that opened up new worlds and interests to them.

It is this latter reason which primarily fuels the review: school is one of the few places where children have the opportunity to engage with the arts and where a positive relationship with the subject can be fostered. Alongside concerns of a decline in the teaching of the arts in schools, is a growing focus on cultural capital and teachers increasing the levels of this in their pupils (Kerwin-Nye & Floarck, 2016). Cultural capital was one of three forms of capital identified by Bourdieu (1986): economic, social and cultural. Through the acquisition of capital, primarily through inheritance, the status and class of a person is determined within the fields that they inhabit (Bourdieu, 1977, 1979; Bourdieu, 1986).  Transmission of cultural capital is complex. In its objectified form, the passing of objects such as works of art or books from individual to individual is easily done however in its institutionalised form, such as educational qualifications, these are not transferrable between individuals. Additionally cultural capital in these forms is more valuable when combined with its symbolic form, which is the least tangible to grasp. This symbolic form of cultural capital is linked to knowledge and thoughts and identity and it takes time and investment to acquire (Bourdieu, 1979); Bourdieu (1986)  believed that this happens most easily for children of families who have strong levels of cultural capital as they also have the money and the resources to give their children the time and experiences they need to be free to engage with culture. For a child, it becomes apparent that the economic resources of the family are key in terms of acquiring cultural capital in all its forms. Bourdieu (1986) believed that most cultural capital was acquired when an individual had the time and space to explore and understand it; staying on at school was therefore an important indicator of levels of cultural capital; he found that those who left school as soon as possible had lower levels of cultural capital in comparison to those who completed all their years at school and went on to further education.

Schools therefore play a fascinating role in the acquisition of cultural capital. They sit within a field of education, governed by a set of explicit and implicit rules and indeed Bourdieu (1977) believed that they reproduced and mirrored the practices of the people who attended and sent their children to them. In essence schools legitimise the rules that govern capital, including cultural capital (Ruck, 2020). They can also play a role in supporting a child with the acquisition of cultural capital, particularly that of embodied and institutionalised cultural capital. The role becomes even more pressing for those children who have lower levels of economic capital; for them, school may provide the only opportunities to acquire cultural capital in these forms (Phillips, 2021). The role of cultural capital in schools is proving to fascinate academic researchers around the world. For example Tan (2020) explores a range of international studies focused on this very issue drawing on PISA and ASPIRE studies, highlighting that PISA collects a range of data aligning with definitions of cultural capital.  Additionally we find the phrase cultural capital is being used explicitly across education in England (Mansell, 2019; OFSTED, 2019) where teachers are being told to increase the levels of cultural capital that their pupils have through an increase in the opportunities to access it. This is problematic as it promotes a simplistic narrative concerning cultural capital which ignores the class and structural elements of Bourdieu’s theories (Hall, Allan, Tomlinson, Kelly, & Lindorff, 2021). As Nightingale (2020) asserts, it also creates a deficit model placing the burden and responsibilities on schools to teach the correct knowledge to the children under the belief that anyone can be successful when taught correctly, thereby focusing on equality rather than equity. It also assumes there is a set of essential knowledge that every person needs to know in order to be successful in life. By doing this though it has the potential to ignore the individual and risks promoting a set of values that may clash with the values of the pupils in the fields that they inhabit outside of the classroom (Hall et al., 2021).

When adults start to dictate the types of cultural capital a child should consume through a curriculum, problems can arise (Nightingale, 2020); assumptions are made about what types of capital are most needed to a child, potentially ignoring the forms of cultural capital that are of most value in the fields that they inhabit and implying that there is a deficit in the knowledge that a child has. For example, new forms of cultural capital are emerging in response to the contemporary world (Hewison, 2014; Savage, 2015), reflecting the increase in the importance of technology in our lives and the resulting globalised world that we now live in. It means that the boundaries between Bourdieu’s classifications of culture linked to social class (Bourdieu, 1979) are now more blurred; for example the value of street art in recent years has increased significantly, both economically and in embodied cultural capital forms.

An alternative therefore is to focus on the child, their world and their identity, and the knowledge and interests that they have now, supporting them to convert these funds of knowledge into cultural capital in the future (Rios-Aguilar, Marquez Kiyama, Gravitt, & Moll, 2011). With parents playing a significant role in this, there is also further scope to work with families, rather than the emphasis being placed on individuals in a school environment. To do this however adults need to engage in dialogue with children to find out about their experiences of the world. Teachers can do this in practice now, but adults can also learn from what children have said in other contexts and other time periods.

This paper adopts the tenets of interpretivism, whereby the world is understood through multiple interpretation which provides depth of understanding as a result (Sarantakos, 2005). It assumes that the child has a voice that should be listened to, that everyone has a story to tell about themselves and that adults can learn new insights about the world by listening to children (Prout & James, 1997; Thomson, 2008). It will focus on children’s thoughts and experiences of visual art as this is a subject coming under increasing pressure in schools in the United Kingdom. It will explore how they value the subject and how this informs their identity both in and out of the classroom and by doing so, it will question the notion of building cultural capital in schools and what adults believe they should consume by placing the child at the heart of the matter instead.

2.0 Literature review methodology

The following research question was developed with the adult reader in mind: How do children experience visual art in their everyday lives? The aim was to explore this through the following three sub-questions which were written with the child in mind: What is art?; Who can be an artist?; Where is art?. These questions were also informed by Bourdieu’s forms of cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1979; Bourdieu, 1986) : their understanding of visual art (embodied cultural capital); how they identify with and value the subject (embodied cultural capital); and where and how they experience visual art (institutionalised and objectified cultural capital).

 A systematic approach to conducting a literature review was adopted and conducted in phases (Booth, Papioannou, & Sutton, 2012). The benefit of this approach is that the review is planned in detail before the search is conducted in order to ensure that all possible texts are found, included and analysed (Bearman et al., 2012).

2.1 Selection criteria

The first step was to define the scope of the review using a set of inclusion/exclusion criteria (Appendix 1). All texts were written in English and published from 2005 onwards. The review was designed to build on the systematic review conducted by Mason, Gearon, and Valkanova (2006) which examined the timeframe 1980-2004 which explored the relationship between cultural education and art education and the impact on children’s identity.

For the purposes of this review, the term art was used to mean visual art, and the term art education was used to encompass the teaching and learning of practical activities connected to fine art, applied arts and crafts, art and design, and contemporary fine art in addition to art history, art criticism and aesthetics. The categories of music, drama, and dance were excluded.  In terms of practical activities, those commonly experienced in the primary classroom, following traditional, global north notions of fine art and applied arts and crafts were included; for example, drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, textiles, paper craft, pottery. Contemporary fine art was also included in the scope of the review. An increasing range of diverse media tends to be embraced by contemporary artists and craftspeople and for this reason were included in the review; examples include time-based art using film, video and computer art, live art, installation art and mixed media.

The review focused on papers which had conducted research with children aged between 4 – 12, examining national and international papers to ensure that the breadth of the scope of the review includes studies and texts from across the globe. The age parameters were determined by global compulsory school ages; the lowest is 4 years in Ireland and by 12 most children will have moved on to secondary school education.

Children can develop their relationship with art through a variety of environments. For the purposes of this phase of the review, places that were considered most likely visual art learning environments were included; school, the home, and community-based venues (i.e. museums, galleries, or other venues where the displaying of art plays a prominent role). Studies which have taken place in educational settings which solely meet the needs of children with ASN (i.e. Special Education schools and Enhanced Provision Units) were excluded as the specialised learning environment may had have undue influence over the child, particularly if art is used in a therapeutic manner.

In this review identity focused primarily on self-identity in relation to personal and social identity (Giddens, 1991). Self-identity was first considered as a research term however an initial search produced a minimal number of papers.  To gain a picture of how identity is discussed in relation to art education and children it was necessary to use the broader term identity instead. In the full-scale text review, the papers were filtered down by excluding any papers which focused on the singular cause-and-effect relationship exerted by art education on cultural or social identity, and included any papers which discussed a reciprocal relationship between art education and identity. A person’s identity is closely bound to the capital they have acquired and the value attached to it within the field by themselves and others (Bourdieu, 1986) and so this notion of value was also explored; the aim was to get a sense of how children valued visual art and the extent to which it formed a part of their self-identity, as well as their social and personal identities.

2.2 Literature search strategy

Keywords were drawn from the definitions outlined in the previous section (Appendix 2): art, environment and identity. Seven databases were searched using 26 different key term searches (Appendices 3 and 4): ASSIA, BEI, ERIC, SCOPUS and World of Science were selected as key social science databases which cover education, ABM and AFT were also searched as these databases focus on historical and contemporary art and design topics.  A log sheet was compiled for each search undertaken and filed according to the search term code. A bibliographic database was set up using Endnote with details of each text identified given a separate record; notes were made as the search progressed including details of reasons for exclusion and dates.

Figure 1: Stages of Literature Search

2.3 In-depth review and rating procedure

Applying the exclusion/inclusion criteria, the initial title search highlighted 492 texts from 2005 to 2018. Two further review stages were then completed (See Figure 1). Endnote was used to compile reference information. It has the capability to rate texts according to a five-star rating system; this was applied to the texts with five stars being deemed ‘Very Useful – return to for more detailed analysis’ to one star as ‘Not relevant’.  A total of 80 papers were highlighted for in-depth analysis.  Once completed, 31 papers were identified as including the voices of children (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Map of Literature

2.4 Synthetic analysis procedure

Narrative synthesis in the form of thematic summaries were created (Snilstveit, Oliver, & Vojtkova, 2012). These aligned with the three sub-questions and a deductive approach was therefore adopted. An Excel spreadsheet was used to summarise the content and structure of each paper as well as identify key characteristics, which are summarised in the final section of the methodology. The spreadsheet recorded the methodological detail of each paper including the details of the participants and whether it included the voices of pupils, teachers and or parents. Additionally it recorded whether the paper focused on the voices of the children, the type of language used in relation to this (including direct references to children’s rights), and whether it ascertained directly their thoughts and opinions on art. Finally, it recorded the country of origin, the location(s) of where the study took place (at home, at school, in the community) and whether this was reflected directly in the findings. The key arguments of each paper were then analysed (Hart, 1998) and used to determine which theme they would best fit however it was possible to include the majority of the papers to an extent in every theme, demonstrating the overlapping nature of the themes when addressing the main research question through the lens of cultural capital. References are made to the various papers in each chapter as a result

2.5 Characteristics of the studies

The 31 texts (Appendix 5) were selected because an attempt was made to speak to children about art in their lives and present their words in the research. While it can be assumed from this that the researchers valued their input and their words it was noticeable that during the last ten years the rhetoric surrounding children’s rights and voices has become more prominent, with no clear acknowledgement of this at the start of the search period, but a full range of relevant terms being used towards the end of the search period. This does not mean that the researchers conducting research at the start of the search period were not aware of these issues however the conscious use of language associated with children’s rights and participation in the later years would indicate that this has become a more visible issue from 2011 onwards (Barrett, Everett, & Smigiel, 2012; Ferm Almqvist & Christophersen, 2017; Greenwood, 2011; Hallam, Hewitt, & Buxton, 2014; Lemon, 2013; Tan & Gibson, 2017). Interestingly though, despite a concern by these researchers to capture children’s voices, only one paper identified stated that an attempt was made to involve children in the research process (Barrett et al., 2012: 187).

The majority of papers originated from countries with Western, global north, traditions and culture, particularly the USA and Australia (Appendix 6). The visual art experiences, and voices, of children from other countries are therefore not represented in the literature thereby highlighting a significant gap. Of these papers, only three originate from the UK and neither Scotland or Wales are represented: the last paper to be issued from the UK was in 2014. It highlights that this is a research area with scope for further investigation across the world.

The location of where the studies were conducted was deemed as a factor that could influence the thoughts and words of the participants (Appendix 7). The majority of the papers were conducted in schools with only four focused on home and school. In terms of visual art experiences in the local community four were conducted in an art museum, and one from a summer arts programme. The influence of a school context needs to be highlighted as it may have had an influence on the content of the answers that the children provided particularly in relation to questions pertaining directly to the experiences that children had in school (Thomson, 2008). It could also influence children in terms of how they value art in their lives. Although some children did acknowledge negative experiences in the classroom  (Pavlou, 2006), overall they indicated that experiences were positive, particularly in relation to the support and feedback received from teachers (Greenwood, 2011; Hallam et al., 2014). Schools provide a relatively easy way for researchers to reach children and invite them to participate and so this may be the reason for such a significant number of studies originating from this location. The concentration of school studies does provide evidence for the need to increase the number of studies in home and local community locations or in locations that could be considered neutral.

3.0 Findings

The Findings have been presented according to the three sub-questions. The first two – What is art? Who can be an artist? – explore children’s thoughts and opinions on the subject and thereby focus on understanding the symbolic cultural capital aspect of the issue. Through this, we can also get a sense of how children have valued the subject and the role that it has played in their lives. For the final sub-question – Where is art? – we can get a sense in the literature of the environments that the children inhabit and how the experiences within them have informed who they are. Key to this also is the role of other people, particularly adults, in supporting children to develop a relationship with visual art. This final sub-question therefore explores the institutional and objective forms of cultural capital that inform the relationship. Examining these three questions together through the literature will therefore give a sense of how children have identified with visual art in the past, how it informs their own identity and therefore highlight how practice in primary art education classroom can develop in the future.

3.1 What is art?

3.1.1 A definition of visual art

Three papers from the review focus directly on how children value and define visual art.  The first is undertaken by Watts (2005) who conducted a study with over 300 participants focused on the attitudes to making art in school, exploring the value of the subject to the children. The study focused on Key Stage 2 (aged 7-11) pupils and one of the questions they were asked was ‘How is art important?’ A wide range of answers was provided however the older participants focused more on communication while younger participants felt personal development was key. Watts (2005) draws the conclusion from the range of responses that essentially the value of making art in the lives of children is that it is an enjoyable activity.

Similarly, three years later in Australia, Gibson (2008) focused directly on gathering the thoughts and opinions on art and how it was valued by children asking specific questions including ‘What is art?’; the question was directed to 103 participants from Early Stage 1 (5 years old) to Stage 3 (12 years old). The most common response across all stages was ‘painting and/or drawing’ however like Watts (2005), the responses became more diverse as the age of the child increased with older children focusing more on the intrinsic value of art such as art as a vehicle of communication and emotion. Gibson (2008) concludes that children apply a set of wide-ranging definitions which are narrow in the earlier years of schooling but become more diverse and thoughtful as children age.

Also in Australia, Barrett et al. (2012) explored children’s perceptions, aged between 5 and 8 years, of the meaning and value of the broader area of expressive arts, including art, music, drama and dance, and the role that they played in their lives. This was done through group interviews and through a drawing activity where children were asked to draw a picture of how they participated in the arts. They discovered that while children’s definitions of the term the arts varied widely, terms relating to the visual arts dominated descriptions; they acknowledge that this is perhaps an indicator of the emphasis placed on the visual arts in schools at the time in comparison with the other expressive arts. The children also emphasised the active nature of the arts process rather than the seemingly passive side of the expressive arts such as viewing art.

The three papers emphasised that when asked about the visual arts directly and how these manifest in their lives children draw on traditional notions of art making such as painting and drawing. As they grow older, their awareness of the world broadens and their levels of cultural capital increase, and it could be said that this begins to emerge in the greater range of responses to what art is and its value. The responses appeared to be traditional and to be expected and came from the children directly. The next two sections explore the sense of the familiar further and the extent to which children keep an open mind to the new and the novel.

3.1.2 The contrast of the traditional versus the contemporary

Linked to enjoyment is appeal and in the papers this appeared to be connected to familiarity for children across a range of art experiences, making or viewing. The role of the familiar appears to be important as it provides grounding for the children, something concrete upon which to base understanding. Both Savva and Trimis (2005) and Szechter and Liben (2007) found that when discussing preferences for works of art children had a tendency to be drawn towards subject matters that were familiar to them. It was this rather than artistic concepts such as mood or style that appealed suggesting a need to make sense of what is in front of them by making links to their own world. Never-the-less scale, texture and colour were all also reasons for selection preferences of works of art, though one could argue that these are again more tangible, aesthetic reasons which are easily made sense of when compared to thinking about mood or style, which both require an ability to empathise with other people, or at least be able to imagine what other people are trying to express.

Artists explore scale, texture and colour in their work with the aim of creating a response from a viewer. When children were presented with examples of visual art to view, as opposed to talking about art without a visual stimulus, the research found that children having a tendency to be drawn towards large-scale, 3D works rather than works considered to be traditional or classical in convention such as 2D paintings (Debenedetti, Caro, & Krebs, 2009; Savva & Trimis, 2005). The familiarity of these works derives from the level of interactivity which children draw on from their relationship with technology, where animation, sound and colour figure predominantly (Debenedetti et al., 2009). In terms of making, Pavlou (2006) also highlighted the attraction of art activities that were novel, unusual, complex and challenging for children; it seemed that the more playful and interactive the work of art the better. Children therefore seem comfortable with tradition and familiarity in visual art, as well as the novel.  What is not evident in these papers is the extent to which the levels of cultural capital linked to the range of visual art experiences that they have had, influences their reactions and responses. For example, does the level of cultural capital that a child possesses restrict or encourage an open mind to the novel and the complex when engaging in art activities?

Savva and Trimis (2005) begin to explore and acknowledge this as they researched children’s responses to a contemporary art exhibition. They considered the viewing experience for the young child, 32 participants aged between 5-6, in an art museum from beginning to end by conducting their work in three phases and on site: Phase 1 involved gathering children’s first impressions during their tour or the museum; Phase 2 gathered responses and preferences during the visit; Phase 3 took place in the classroom after the visit and involved responding to what they had seen by making art. 28 of the 32 participants had never visited an art museum before so the experience was new to the majority of the participants.  Savva and Trimis (2005) acknowledge this by focusing their second research question on how previous art making or viewing experiences influences the views of the children. They conclude that on the whole children with prior experiences of viewing original works of art responded no differently to those who did not have this experience and highlight that two of the children with previous experience did not want to talk at all about what they were viewing. Although not explored in the paper, it would be useful to consider what the nature of the previous experience had consisted of, the role that school and family played and the value of art for the children within those fields; indeed the authors highlight that further research concerning the role of families in artistic understanding would be beneficial.

3.1.3 The influence of ‘new’ forms of cultural capital

Another aspect of appeal and enjoyment of art emerged in research which focused on the influence of popular culture (Antoniou & Hickman, 2012; Eckhoff & Guberman, 2006). Eckhoff and Guberman (2006) interviewed 23 children though only three children aged 7-8 years were selected for the paper. The participants were drawn from a summer enrichment camp in America. The influence of popular culture on the children when discussing art image reproductions became apparent with children referring to cartoons and books that were derived from the same images. The children made connections to the works of art through their knowledge and preferences for culture in the contemporary world, drawing on comics and cartoons for example. This also emerged in the work of Antoniou and Hickman (2012) where case studies were presented of three children aged eleven years. Both studies highlight the role of popular culture as a means of making a connection to visual art but what is not evident is how children encounter popular culture in the first place. New forms of cultural capital are emerging in response to the contemporary world through technology (Hewison, 2014; Savage, 2015) and so it could be that greater access to technology is influencing how children interact with the world and the types of cultural capital they consume. There also needs to be consideration as to whether technology, popular media and culture can be considered simply an influence on the fields we inhabit or whether it creates its own virtual fields that people, including children, inhabit and network within, and form an identity. This topic is wider than the scope of this paper but the influence of technology on the types of cultural capital that are consumed by children is worth noting. It also leads to questions about how children identify with visual art and whether they view the term artist as something that can be applied to them or is applicable to others.

3.2 Who can be an artist?

Acquiring high levels of the type of capital which is valued within a field ensures that certain people belong to that field and others are excluded. For those that belong, the practices and habitus of the field influence a person’s sense of identity (Bourdieu, 1977). Within a school the identities of teacher and pupil are clearly defined, as are the power relations that are reproduced within the field. For pupils their learning is delivered with the aim of them being able to demonstrate their competence however we need to think about whether we want children to embody/perform the role of pupil, or whether we want them to be readers, mathematicians, scientists or artists?  Environment plays a key role here (Hickman, 2010); is the classroom telling the children they are pupils or artists? This will be explored in further detail in the next section. The adults that a child comes into contact with however also play a role as they transmit and model the messages about who can be an artist. The purpose of this section is therefore to explore how children view themselves in relation to art and as artists.

Two distinct art identities begin to emerge from the thoughts and opinions of children in the papers drawn from the literature review and from the researchers who conducted the studies; one that applies to children and is focused on their immediate, present circumstances and the other that applies to adults and is set in the future. What is not clear however is whether the children think in terms of two identities or whether the emergence of the two identities is due to the researchers’ influence on the direction of the research that has emerged in the literature. For example both Gibson (2008) and Watts (2005) addressed the issue of an artist identity in their research but approached this in different ways. Gibson (2008) kept the questions asked of the children broad, with no indication of difference between adult and child. When asked ‘Who makes art?’ Gibson (2008) believes that the responses reveal a great deal about the child’s world in comparison to adults; they indicated that they believed that anyone had the capacity to make art but that it was up to them to do so. In each of the four age groups, the children identified the category of Artists. The 7-10 year olds also stated themselves, while the 11-12 year olds said that everyone makes art. Gibson believes that this contrasts with the adult world view which is focused on art as a profession, inhabited by professional artists. (Tan & Gibson, 2017) develop this in a piece of research which focuses on four children in an Australia aged between 5 and 6. She states that “the children often thought about themselves as artists in their art-making” and that they believed that “artistic skill and aptitude improves with age” (Tan & Gibson, 2017).

In contrast Watts (2005) framed the question in two ways: ‘Why do children make art?’ and ‘Why do adults make art?’ thereby making a distinction between children and adults, encouraging children to think in terms of this distinction also. In response, the children felt that while making art was fun for children, adults engaged in art activities for different reasons, predominantly related to money and economics; this opinion was particularly expressed among the older children. They also felt that they were unlikely to engage in art activities when they were adults because they were not interested enough or felt that they were not talented enough. Comments were made about adult artists linked to fame and wealth rather than economically struggling artists. The children also commented on the degree of freedom they felt they had as an artist in comparison to being an adult artist where issues such as money become prevalent. Finally they believed that if you wanted to continue to engage in art activities as adults, you need to take a serious approach and you must be talented; the idea of art as a hobby or an interest for adults in their leisure time was not acknowledged. The sense of two artist identities emerges and while this is linked to the format of the questions asked, the responses indicate that as children increase in age they are becoming more conscious of the types of capital they perceive an adult needs to succeed in particular fields, particularly economic. The responses also demonstrate a broadening awareness of other types of cultural capital linked to popular culture, particularly social through the idea of becoming famous. Children are observers of the world and as Bourdieu (1977:87) states “The child imitates not “models” but other people’s actions”, they see what makes “an accomplished adult” in the fields they inhabit and they embody this, essentially developing mastery of a problem which is “the art of living”, or perhaps survival.

These ideas are reflected in the work of Oguz (2016) who asked 60 children in Turkey to imagine an artist and then draw them. The majority of students linked the term artist to painting however some also drew musicians. In terms of gender, 35 representations were male and 25 were female however there is no indication of how this was influenced by the gender of the participant as in whether a female participant drew a female artist. The researcher also asked the children to provide examples of their favourite artists and examples of people who could qualify as artists around them.  The majority of children said that their friends were artists (33 responses) followed by art teachers (5) and then a range of adults such as parents or family members. Only three stated that they were artists themselves. The responses indicate that perhaps the children have a stronger sense of personal and social identities, than they do of their own self-identity meaning that it is perhaps inconceivable to think of themselves as artists but they can recognise this identity in others (Haslam, Jetten, Haslam, Pugliese, & Tonks, 2011). Their responses also indicate that in their world, children are artists but there are few examples of artists among the adults that they know. When they identified favourite artists, the children drew on professional adults drawn from popular culture such as pop singers or actors. Only two famous artists were mentioned on four occasions and they were Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso. The researchers conclude that more needs to be done in terms of delivering an effective arts education in schools to redress the balance and influence of popular culture on children which aligns with the idea that adults know the types of cultural capital children need, expressed in English curriculum documents for example (Mansell, 2019). Another aspect of the research which is not acknowledged in the paper, is that for children in their immediate world there seem to be few examples of adults as artists. Drawing on Bourdieu (1977) if children are making sense of the world by observing the adults in that world, then this piece of research would indicate that for the participants there were few examples of adults as artists in their contemporary world. In terms of the formation of their identity it is also possible to draw on structuration theory (Giddens, 1991) in that children have an awareness of existing adult social structures meaning that it is inconceivable to think of themselves, children, as the equivalent of adult artists, as to do so could disrupt the security of the structures that they live within.

There is a sense in the children’s responses that they believe that anyone can make art but with age they begin to make the distinction between art as a profession and art as a hobby. In Barrett et al. (2012) the children identified that engaging in the arts required commitment and practice. For some however this can discourage children from making art as they grow older with this issue being linked most clearly to confidence and self-efficacy (Rose, Jolley, & Burkitt, 2006). This was explicitly explored by Pavlou (2006) with a group of 11-12 year olds from Cyprus, specifically choosing this age group as the researcher felt that it was at this stage that children began to express doubts about their own capabilities in art due to a growing awareness of shortcomings in their ability. She found that children with low confidence would not be as engaged with art activities as those that had high confidence levels in the subject; these pupils talked about boredom and also a fear of failure. Activities which did cause enthusiasm tended to be ones which were not perceived to focus on specific skills such as drawing; it seems that the focus on skills and knowledge can put in place barriers to a child’s engagement with art, particularly if that child has low confidence levels. This puts in place challenges for the teacher because the way to improve the quality of what one produces is often by receiving instruction in specific skills. Overcoming the low confidence in a pupil is therefore a challenge for both pupil and teacher and could ultimately mean that the child’s future relationship with art will not be a positive one. Considering experiences in the past and their influence on the child is also relevant here however this is not explored by Pavlou (2006).

An approach based on autonomy, play and experimentation may help overcome a lack of confidence but it requires the adult to acknowledge the individual and the knowledge they bring with them. Pavlou (2006) identifies a range of approaches for the classroom which includes breadth and depth of curriculum, opportunities for exploration and challenge, and opportunities for autonomy on the part of the pupil. Bhroin (2007) focused a study on 21 children aged 4-5 years old who were in their first year of formal schooling, examining the links between art, play and real-life. The result was that the three were closely intertwined, with one influencing the other, however the approaches taken by each child were very different and individualistic, allowing for greater creativity and self-expression. As the child participants in Greenwood (2011) and Haanstra (2010) identify though, opportunities for the individual to pursue and explore their own interests in an art lesson are sometimes limited. For some, this can be redressed at home or in the local community but as Mansour et al. (2016) discovered socio-demographic factors particularly linked to economics mean that this may not be possible for all, which makes the art experiences at school all the more vital.

3.3 Where is art?

Children inhabit a number of different fields, observing the adults within them, and learning how to navigate them as a result. They inherit capital from their parents and therefore learn the value of this capital and how it can be used within the field (Bourdieu, 1977; Bourdieu, 1986). There are also opportunities to acquire further capital in the form of qualifications and knowledge and this can be done in particular environments such as a school or in the local community. This final section examines the literature in relation to these environments, exploring where children encounter art and what these experiences consist of: in the home, in the classroom and in the local community.

3.3.1 Art and the Home

Home is the central point of a child’s everyday life (Kyronlampi-Kylmnanen & Maatta, 2012); in fact, it could be considered the central point of any individual’s life regardless of age. This environment will be examined by first discussing child art practice in the home compared to school. The role of the parent and the caregiver will then be discussed followed by the influence that this has on the selection of participants for research projects focused on children and art.

Four papers identified home as an important setting for child art with the key reason given that art in the home tends to be self-initiated by the child (Crum, 2007; Haanstra, 2010; Rose et al., 2006; Tan & Gibson, 2017). When asked to depict themselves engaging in an arts activity Barrett et al. (2012) found the majority of children provided drawings of themselves within the home environment with other members of the family involved. In comparison to the small-scale studies previously discussed, this finding is significant because the research was conducted with 140 children aged between 5 and 8, selected from 16 primary schools across Australia, focused on their perceptions of the arts, which included visual art, music and drama. The finding could indicate that the arts in the home are valued more highly than at school. It is posited that children value participation in arts activities because they provide a way to build relationships with others, particularly family through the creation of “family ritual” (Barrett et al., 2012:199).

(Tan & Gibson, 2017) used the Mosaic approach (Clark & Moss, 2011) with four children aged 5-6 years, living in Australia, to explore their voices and attitudes towards art drawing on experiences at home and in school. Purposeful sampling was used and focused on cultural backgrounds, academic abilities, and interest in the arts. It emerged that art-making was an important social experience for these children, linked to both their friends and their family, drawing attention to the mixed experiences that the children had at home. The small-scale, qualitative nature of this study provided an insight into the lives of pupils, creating a fuller picture of the individual as a result.


For the child participants in Haanstra’s paper (2010) children valued the fact that at home they could make the art that they wanted as opposed to art in school which they believed was produced primarily for assessment purposes; a clear distinction is made between home art and school art. Working with 28 pupils from a primary schools and 24 from secondary school, Haanstra (2010) identified four categories of art made in the home: applied art, popular culture, personal experience and traditional art, which was linked to established traditions and genres in art. Of these categories the most popular was that of applied art which focused on making things which had a practical use with the children drawn more to craft activities and the creation of art work inspired by popular culture such as cartoons and comics, than they were towards traditional genres such as landscape and portraits. This is perhaps an indication of an ease of access to popular culture, and different forms of cultural capital (Savage, 2015) which is not necessarily present in other environments. Some children felt however that there were more resources available to them in school and that they would like to make home art in school but expressed doubt that this would be possible. The children however did not believe that self-initiated art was possible in the classroom. The children make a distinction here based on economic capital, tied to the objectified form of cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986) in terms of the resources that are available to them in different fields. This reinforces the point that cultural capital in schools could be considered if we start with the individual supporting them with the knowledge of making through access to a range of media and resources (Phillips, 2021).

Some children enjoyed the distinction between the two types of art and felt that it should remain that way; it would seem that the children have created two identities for art, home art and school art, and are comfortable for this distinction to be maintained. This paper throws into question the value of art activities that take place within the school environment and the future impact these experiences have on a child’s relationship with the visual arts. It reveals that home art has more relevance and engagement for the child but the concern here, as highlighted by the participants, is that children do not necessarily have access to the breadth of resources that potentially are available in school. The children are therefore limited by the ability to financially resource an interest at home, and also by the quality of the experience that they receive in school, with adults playing a key role in this; it is through this dilemma that the power of capital, both cultural and economic, can be seen to exert force on the individual who is powerless to overcome it (Bourdieu, 1986). The scope of the paper is not to explore the longitudinal impact of this on child engagement with the visual arts but it highlights an avenue for further research.

The relationship between the adult, or caregiver, and the child is crucial to understanding the relationship and emphasis that children place on particular aspects of life, such as art. Linked in with this is Bourdieu’s (Bourdieu, 1986) notion of inherited capital. Two roles for the parent emerge: that of expert and that of support and are most clearly demonstrated in the work of Crum (2007). The study was conducted in two parts with the first phase consisting of asking 250 students, aged between 7 and 11, to write five statements each about the art that they made at home, followed by a second phase of in-depth interviews with five families selected from the original sample where art experiences actively occur in the home environment. To enable comparisons to be made between families, each is categorised according to a distinct familial characteristic associated to the location where the children made art. This means that one family is categorised as the “Garage” family while another is referred to as the “Kitchen” family and another as the “Everywhere” family. Within each family the type of art activity and the attitude towards art was different however the adult played a crucial role in determining this within the home setting; for example one mother took on the passive role as provider of the means to do art activity but not as instigator of art activity, whereas the mother in the “Everywhere” family actively encouraged art-making, art-viewing and art-buying, indicating a personal investment in art herself.

The role of parent as supporter was evident in all the families, reinforcing the notion of inherited cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1977; Bourdieu, 1986), and this was explored in three other papers. Rose et al. (2006) found that although drawing at home was a child-led activity, adults supported the child by providing encouragement and positive praise. Access to resources and opportunities for art experiences are highlighted by Mansour et al. (2016) who also emphasised the role of cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1979) by demonstrating that a parent’s education and occupation status was significantly linked to a child’s level of participation and their willingness to participate in arts activities, though this is not specifically associated to the visual arts, but the arts in general. Likewise Melnick, Witmer, and Strickland (2011) identified a connection between socio- economic status and arts participation, believing that the influence of parents on a child’s engagement with the arts is strong and that more effort should be made to involve children in arts activities in schools to ensure that all children, regardless of socio-economic background, have a reasonable chance of learning and engaging through the arts. This research is drawn from analysis of a secondary source however and a quantitative approach has been taken; speaking directly to participants may have presented a different, more complex, picture of engagement with the arts out-of-school.

The influence of parents on their child’s aesthetic understanding, the acquisition of symbolic capital, was investigated by Szechter and Liben (2007) drawing attention to the role of parent as expert. They worked with forty individual parent-child dyads, with the children ranging in age from 7-13: they were given three picture tasks, using photograph artworks, and then asked to complete a survey on art attitudes and participation. The selection of the images is interesting because the researchers say that they had chosen them because “they seemed likely to cause a viewer to pause and consider not only what is depicted, but how it is depicted”(Szechter & Liben, 2007: 883). During the activities it was noted that adults with a greater interest in art tended to sit more closely to their children. Despite the adults making repeated attempts to direct the conversation the children were unable to clearly articulate the reasons for aesthetic preferences. In addition to this, those children with parents who demonstrated some expertise in the subject, displayed signs of boredom. It would therefore appear that the influence of parents in directing interest of their children may not always be a positive one. The conclusion of the authors however was that further research was required into the role of parents on a child’s aesthetic understanding.

In contrast Toren (2007) found that the parents of children aged 5 and 6 years old had attitudes towards art that strongly reflected the approaches taken in the schools that their children attended in Israel: a comparison of two schools was undertaken with one adopting an authoritative approach to art instruction, the other a creative approach. Unfortunately there is little context provided for the study and so it is not evident why this would be the case; for example were the parents influenced by the approach in the kindergarten or was the approach influenced by the parents’ own opinions on the subject? The children however demonstrated a broader range of approaches to art, than those identified by the adults in the paper, which hints at the unintended subversiveness that can occur within children, particularly of younger years, despite the best intentions of the adult (Debenedetti et al., 2009). It also reinforces the findings of Gibson (2008) and Watts (2005) that younger children had a more playful approach to art.

The interesting aspect of the papers drawn for this review is that art has an importance in the lives of the children and their families that feature in them. They do not consider families for whom art is not a feature in everyday life and so there is no indication of what would be meaningful and relevant to them within the visual art context. From the perspective of a teacher they have a responsibility to meet the needs of every children in their class and from a child’s perspective, they need the opportunities to discover for themselves what is of value to them within the fields that they inhabit. A range of quality visual art experiences in school therefore becomes ever more important as this may be one of the few places where they get to explore the subject and determine the extent to which these experiences will inform their identity in the future.

3.3.2 Art in the Primary Classroom

In this section children’s perceptions of art experiences in the primary classroom will be outlined. It should be noted however that only one paper, Hallam et al. (2014), focused specifically on ascertaining children’s perceptions of art experiences in the classroom in England. The current focus on cultural capital is driven by adults at a policy level (Nightingale, 2020) and dependent on teachers putting this into practice, there is scope of policies to be interpreted differently, and to be received differently by children. One paper focusing attention on children’s perceptions therefore indicates a need for further research which responds to the constantly changing political landscape in different countries.  It does however provide a starting point and so this paper will be discussed first and then used to explore issues identified in other papers that focus on the art activities that occur within the space, the relationship with the class teacher and the role of the physical environment in terms of a space that is conducive for art experiences in school.

Hallam et al. (2014) explore the visual art experience in the classroom considering both making and viewing. In this study 24 children in total across three schools (two primary and 1 secondary) participated, with six children selected for each Key Stage (1-4). Each child was interviewed separately with the interviews lasting between 15-30 minutes and consisting of two parts: first they were provided with a set of art images and asked to rank them in order of preference leading to a discussion concerning their preferences and their values; following this each child presented a piece of their own artwork and this was used as a prompt to talk about their art experiences in the classroom. Three themes are identified in the article: the art experience; support during art experiences; suggestions on how art experiences in schools could be enhanced.

There are two drawbacks to the research however. Firstly, the discussion is primarily supported with evidence from Key Stage 3 and 4 children with the voices of Key Stage 1 and 2 not being given the same prevalence. The reason given for this is that the extracts selected best exemplified the theme however there seems to be scope to provide further breadth of responses. Secondly, the article highlights the positive reaction towards school art experiences giving the key reasons that art was enjoyable because it did not follow the same format as other lessons, it was collaborative and they valued the immediate feedback from the teacher. While it appears in Hallam et al. (2014) that the art experiences that children have are positive a limitation occurs in the selection of participants; teachers of the participating classes were asked to select six participants each from those that volunteered in their class and that this was not necessarily a random selection and could have an implication on the results.

In relation to art experience, Hallam et al. (2014) highlight feelings, the key one being enjoyment. Linked to this were beliefs in pupils’ own ability in the subject as well as art experiences providing spaces for relaxation and freedom. Enjoyment as an emotion also emerged in Ferm Almqvist and Christophersen (2017), with children proud to take their work home with them for display. These emotions could arguably be connected to high levels of self-esteem and confidence, which are highlighted by Barrett et al. (2012), Pavlou (2006) and Rose et al. (2006) as evidence of positive engagement with the arts. Age is an important factor also. Watts (2005) stated that the younger pupils cited fun as the reason for making art but expressed frustration at the lack of depth to this explanation.  As children age, their ability to articulate answers becomes stronger however Pavlou (2006) also discovered that their confidence in their own art abilities lessens as their awareness of their ability increases. This would also correspond with the increased acquisition of cultural capital and its value; as children have a greater understanding of what is valued, they perhaps become more aware of a mismatch between this and their own abilities as an artist, which in some cases impacts negatively on confidence.

In terms of what children like and dislike regarding their experiences in classrooms, one of the significant factors influencing the children’s positive responses towards art experiences is that the art lesson format tends to provide a contrast from the usual format of other lessons (Hallam et al., 2014; Watts, 2005). For some children this means that art lessons create opportunities for collaboration and autonomy, with activities which are deemed unusual or challenging (Ferm Almqvist & Christophersen, 2017; Hallam et al., 2014; Pavlou, 2006). The result is that children would like to spend more time on art in school (Hallam et al., 2014; Richards, 2014). Others however felt that while art may not follow a typical lesson format, it could still be formulaic and prescribed (Greenwood, 2011). The child participants in the Haanstra (2010) study felt that art in school was made with a purpose, usually that of assessment, and that it contrasted significantly to the freedom of the art that they made at home. The school environment did however have the benefit of being able to provide a broader range of resources than the home environment (Haanstra, 2010). Children also valued visits from working artists and felt that the demonstration of techniques and skills by teachers was important (Hallam et al., 2014).

The role of the teacher is particularly interesting as it would seem that the quality of the feedback that teachers provide is linked to the feelings of confidence, self-esteem and regard for their own work in children (Greenwood, 2011; Pavlou, 2006). In Hallam et al. (2014) the children felt that they received positive support and this confirmed findings in Rose et al. (2006) however in this report they identified that the feedback focused more on encouragement rather than on the development of skills. Teacher confidence is not the concern of this review however it could well be a reason why teachers tend to be positive but are unable to be specific in terms of providing specific feedback to progress a child’s ability in the development of a particular art skill. It could also indicate that a teacher’s own levels of knowledge and understanding of the subject need to be increased, which leads to a question about their own levels of cultural capital and how this has an impact on their teaching in the classroom. In particular the utilisation of cultural capital depends upon the level of understanding which feeds into symbolic cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986). Teachers will have varying levels of cultural capital across a range of interests and how this is utilised in the classroom could have an impact on the pupils and their own acquisition of cultural capital. This becomes ever more important when policies are determined at national level as there is an assumption that teachers will be able to deliver the policy successfully (Nightingale, 2020). It does not acknowledge that teachers will bring with them their own interest and expertise which may not accord with the policy, but which could be used in the classroom. The delivery of a cultural capital policy in the classroom is therefore problematic (Nightingale, 2020; Phillips, 2021; Ruck, 2020)

The opportunity to draw on the cultural capital acquired elsewhere into the classroom is addressed by Binder and Kotsopoulos (2011) who feel that there is little opportunity for children to draw on their lives outside of school into the classroom.  Both Haanstra (2010) and Crum (2007) acknowledge that teachers do not necessarily have an understanding of the lives of their pupils outside of the classroom and that there are mixed feelings from teachers as to whether this is necessary or not in order to teach effectively in the classroom. As highlighted in this review though researchers are beginning to take an interest in the breadth of visual art experiences that children encounter, both in and out of school, and there is scope to build on this research. We need to be open-minded to the possibility that the richness of a visual art experience, which makes it an experience and not just something that is experienced, will be as likely to occur, if not more so, out of the classroom environment. Exploring the range of experiences that a child has outside of school is therefore necessary.

3.3.3 Art Experiences in the Everyday

In the study conducted by Gibson (2008) participants were asked ‘Where do you find art?’. A range of responses was provided which included predictable answers such as art galleries and shows, as well as public spaces such as parks and libraries; the breadth in the responses increased with age which could be an indicator of a broader awareness of the world in general. The conclusion drawn is that children believed that art could be found anywhere and that it was an integral part of their lives. The current approach to increasing levels of cultural capital in pupils in England seems to be one based on adults determining the form of that capital (Nightingale, 2020) however access to, and the acquisition of, cultural capital will also depend on where a child is located and the resources that are available (Phillips, 2021) within the community. For that reason this section focuses on children’s art experiences outside of home and school. First a discussion regarding children’s responses to where they find art will be presented. This will be followed by a focus on children’s reactions and behaviours within the most commonly identified setting for art, museums and galleries. Key points regarding relationships between schools and local organisations will be outlined followed by a focus on the role of the adult in these settings. Finally a discussion concerning the role that these organisations play in providing links for children with the outside world will be presented.

Both Gibson (2008) and Barrett et al. (2012) highlight the awareness that children have of art surrounding them in their everyday lives, rather than something which is solely site-specific to school, homes or museums and galleries. The children were able however to identify these traditional spaces, museums and galleries (Gibson, 2008) and attempts have been made across the time period to examine how they interacedt with art in these spaces as a result (Debenedetti et al., 2009; Kisida, Greene, & Bowen, 2014; Kuster, 2006; Savva & Trimis, 2005). Savva and Trimis (2005) used an exhibit in a museum in Cyprus as the setting for an exploration of children’s responses towards contemporary art both from the viewing and making perspective. They gathered the responses of 32 5-6 year olds through open-ended interviews that were conducted with the children and observations. The children were asked to choose a specific artwork in the museum and then consider five related questions, two of which focused on explaining their choice. Teachers and parents also provided data in the form of questionnaires which provided background information concerning the children’s previous art experiences. The findings indicated that the majority of the children preferred 3D works of art over 2D and that they had a tendency to be attracted to familiar subject matter. In addition to this material and colour were considered main reasons for selection.

The interesting aspect of the research from the perspective of this study, was the emphasis placed on prior experience of museums and galleries.  It was concluded that the children responded to the artworks in the same manner regardless of whether or not a person in their family had an interest in the visual arts, or whether they had made a previous visit to the museum with an adult.  An assumption is made that the visits had therefore not been positive experiences though this is not expanded upon (Savva & Trimis, 2005). The researchers also highlighted the observed behaviours as children moved through the space. In particular one 6-year-old girl is highlighted for being serious, showing no urge to touch the works in front of her and being reluctant to discuss her thoughts and feelings with regards to what she was seeing. Apparently she had prior experiences of these spaces, though the researchers observed similar behaviours in other children who had not had prior experience. Savva and Trimis (2005) believe that further research into the role of families on children’s developing artistic understanding is required, particularly from a longitudinal perspective. They also highlight however that visits to art museums are an important factor of art education as they allow children to look and experience original works and draw on this in their own work. Unfortunately there is no discussion or evidence in the papers in this review, regarding children’s understanding of gallery etiquette and where they obtain this knowledge from. It would have been useful to know whether this was learned behaviour from a significant adult, or whether there was a belief that there was a particular code of behaviour which applied in settings such as these (Bourdieu, 1979). For example, gallery etiquette is referred to by Lemon (2013) in a study of a pilot project in Australia where children were given a digital camera and encouraged to explore the National Gallery for themselves recording their experience through photographs. It is acknowledged that the children were constrained both by time and by gallery boundaries with one child saying that she found the security guards quite scary.

An alternative perspective of children’s behaviour in art galleries is presented by Debenedetti et al. (2009) however here the focus is on child and parent, rather than on pupil and teacher. Children aged between 5 and 12 years were randomly selected from visitors to an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris which was created specifically for an audience of children aged 5-12 years. The exhibition combined works of art and interactive devices and the purpose of the research was to determine the impact of the art and the devices on the child and the role that the adults played during the visit. The results found that the children were drawn more to the interactive devices than the art works themselves, with children also spending more time at these areas. Artworks that contained animation, sound or colour were more of a draw than traditional examples of sculpture and painting. The influence here of media and technology can perhaps be felt in these preferences. It also connects with the findings of Pavlou (2006) where children stated that there was appeal in art activities where they were introduced to other art forms such as abstract art. In Debenedetti et al. (2009) a key aspect of the visits was the dialogue that took place between adult and child; in front of artworks this had a tendency toward the adult explaining and informing rather than questioning or inquiring, whereas on the interactive devices, both adult and child participated actively and together. The paper provides an insight into the role that the adult or parent has in supporting a child on a visit to an art museum and indicates that actually many adults do not know themselves how one should interact with artworks. By drawing this conclusion, the paper indicates that there are considered to be particular ways of interacting with artworks which would link with the acquisition of symbolic forms of cultural capital; essentially this becomes a code that needs cracked which could be difficult to master from a child’s perspective if the adult also does not have the tools or knowledge to do this. In terms of behaviour however this contrasted with that of the children in the study by Savva and Trimis (2005) in that the children effectively subverted convention dictated by the designated route round the exhibition, instead moving freely around the space, being drawn to objects that attracted them. It would seem in this study, that the conventions of art gallery viewing did not apply to the children. The key difference between the two papers is that the children in Savva and Trimis (2005) have direct access to gallery staff, whereas this is not the case in Debenedetti et al. (2009) where children are instead reliant on their parents. In the former, they have access to experts in the field of the art gallery, who are expected to have high levels of knowledge and therefore cultural capital in relation to this and who can encourage and support the children to access the field in different ways. In the latter, the children are reliant on their parents, whose experiences and knowledge in relation to the field of the art gallery, may vary significantly, and who may feel most comfortable conforming to traditional forms of gallery etiquette.

The socio-cultural background of children in relation to their interactions within a typical art space need to be considered. Kisida et al. (2014)  examined this point in relation to an art museum in Arkansas, America. Participants were drawn from elementary and middle schools who had applied for free tours of the art museum; prior to the visit selected classes were provided with an orientation pack and following the visit, researchers visited the pupils in their schools and completed a survey. In total 123 schools and 10,912 pupils completed the surveys so this was a large-scale project in comparison to many of the empirical papers identified. Only a third of these participants had visited the art museum that was the focus of this project, prior to going on the art tour and only ten percent had ever previously visited any other art museum. The researchers found that even a small intervention, such as participating in a tour of a museum, did increase a pupil’s desire to participate in further cultural activities and acquire further cultural capital, with the strongest effect being found in students who were considered to be disadvantaged in terms of socio-economic status. Those with higher levels of pre-existing cultural capital were more likely to engage with institutions such as the art gallery. The limitation of this paper is that it demonstrates a short-term positive and immediate impact without a full understanding of the long-term effect on the child. The researchers were also unable to draw confident conclusions in relation to actual repeat visits though. The paper does indicate that children do have some level of agency in building their own cultural capital however they are still reliant on adult intervention in order to put this into practice. It also puts forward the discussion point of how a child, who has expressed an interest in increasing their cultural activity does this if the resources are not available in the local community and what does this mean for their level of cultural capital in the long-run. Will it decrease over time for example? Also, what does this mean in relation to arts participation?

The connection between art institution and school is explored further in a number of other papers that emerged through the review (Ivashkevich, 2012; Jarvis, 2014; Jovana & Olivera, 2010). The projects identified in these papers concentrated on children producing artworks, with the adults taking time to begin with the children’s interests. All of the papers identified positive impacts on the children and the adults involved with Jovana and Olivera (2010) and Jarvis (2014) both noting the significant support to teachers that working with partnership organisations and art specialists created. The classroom being turned into an artist’s studio also seems to play a role in the success of the projects for both children and adults (Jarvis, 2014). Ivashkevich (2012) notes however that the children who were observed on a Saturday morning art programme, despite being given freedom to express their thoughts and ideas within a setting that had been created with democracy at its centre, actually created their own hierarchies of status and peer dynamics. The result was the emergence of leaders within the studio and an ethos which went against the grain of the democratic environment that the adults had intended existed. Here it seems therefore that the children are so used to living within particular structures, created by adults, that they recreated them for themselves anyway (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977).

None of these papers address the issue of participation in the arts, including visual art, but this is explored in a study by Mansour et al. (2016). Using a large-scale survey, 1172 pupils (both elementary and secondary) on the east coast of Australia, took part. Focused on the arts as a collective group the results demonstrated that higher achieving students were more likely to engage in the arts in a variety of environments. In relation to participation in community arts, factors such as parent education and occupation were found to increase participation; this is attributed to the economic fact that those with a greater income have greater access to extracurricular opportunities and are therefore more likely to participate. What this study does not explore is the relationship between the location of extracurricular opportunities and the location of the homes of the pupils; as (Savage, 2015) highlights, people on lower incomes tend to participate in cultural activities within their local community rather than engage with cultural activities further afield, in city centres for example where art galleries and museums are more likely to be located.

This section of the review aimed to provide a picture of the range of ways that art organisations within the local environment interact with children and use art to explore issues such as identity and cultural background. It has aimed to demonstrate the importance of partnerships with schools and the impact that this can have on the children and on participating adults. It does not necessarily provide a complete or full picture. In addition to activities encouraged by established organisations there exists a number of small, local art initiatives that are in place designed to engage children, families and schools with the visual arts. Often these initiatives are the result of an enthusiastic individual, a local artist or a teacher with an interest in the arts. However the impact of these initiatives on children may go unrecorded.

4.0 Conclusion

According to UNESCO (2006) access to education and cultural participation is an international human right, with access to art education emerging from this. This is justified with the statement that ‘Culture and the arts are essential components of a comprehensive education leading to the full development of the individual’ (UNESCO, 2006: 3); the arts and culture should be considered a fundamental part of humanity.  During the search for papers for this literature review there was an overwhelming sense of the need to remind people of this and highlight the value of the arts in spite of the clear statements issued by UNESCO; in fact, all the papers extracted during the course of the systematic review process pointed to the positive impact that the arts can have on people’s lives.

Key to this from a child’s perspective is the relationship they have with the key adults in their lives (Bourdieu, 1977). Children draw from their experiences and observations of the adults in their lives and use this to inform their own sense of identity. They also acquire cultural capital primarily through inheritance, but also in schools through the delivery of a curriculum by a teacher. While some papers such as Crum (2007) drew attention to the unwavering support from parents towards developing their child’s interests in art,  Pavlou (2006) highlighted that some children felt that parental support in art activities was limited. According to Melnick et al. (2011) parent influence has a significant impact on engagement with the arts which would mean that the children in the study by Pavlou (2006) who felt that their parents did not show an interest in art activities, were at a disadvantage to those children who belonged to the families used in the study by Crum (2007).

According to Bourdieu (1979; Bourdieu, 1986) children inherit capital, including cultural capital, from their parents. Kisida et al. (2014) confirm this in their study where they found that those children with higher levels of pre-existing cultural capital were more likely to show higher levels of cultural consumption. However, those children with lower levels of cultural capital actually made greater gains in terms of their attitude towards acquiring further cultural capital, following a visit to an art museum. This shows perhaps that breadth of experiences, including art experiences, are necessary for all children to engage with culture and to acquire cultural capital. What is not clear though is the extent to which children with lower levels of capital can overcome these barriers, particularly in attitude, if interventions by a school, such as a visit to an art museum, are not made. Also, it is not clear whether this has a direct impact on acquisition of cultural capital by children through increased engagement in art activities that are classed as high cultural activities or whether this influences the acquisition of other emergent forms of cultural capital (Savage, 2015). The concept of cultural capital has evolved and rather than a hierarchy of high and low cultural activities as identified by Bourdieu (1979), Savage (2015) believes that new forms of cultural capital have emerged and that they are defined not by activity but by the way that a person talks about them and enjoys them; this means that something which may have been defined by Bourdieu as a low cultural activity such as graffiti painting has now become something which people consider to be an important cultural act which requires knowledge, expertise and taste in order to appreciate it fully. Without the guaranteed influence of parents however, the conclusion drawn by Kisida et al. (2014) is that the role of the art teacher and educator is ever more important, providing breadth and depth in art experiences for children.

5.0 Implications and recommendations

The literature presents a picture of children’s thoughts regarding art, how they define it and what it looks like in their lives. The value of the subject in a variety of physical environments is also presented with children demonstrating a variety of opinions. For some, the belief that they are an artist is strong, for others, not so much. The influence of adults, teachers and caregivers is also presented, linked with a discussion regarding economics and external influences such as the media and technology. If we accept that access to visual art is a human right (UNESCO, 2006; United Nations, 1989), and the literature can provide the evidence that it has the potential to play an important part in children’s lives,  then it is incumbent on adults to acknowledge this and to act.

For practitioners, developing a critical understanding of the concept of cultural capital, particularly in relation to the curriculum, is important (Hunter, Baker, & Nailon, 2014; Mansell, 2019; Nightingale, 2020; Phillips, 2021; Ruck, 2020). However ultimately, the research points to the importance of knowing the child, having an awareness of their interests and knowledge and providing them with a breadth of visual art experiences which supports them to develop those interests and knowledge further, if they so wish. As the literature demonstrates, children do not necessarily respond to visual art experiences the way they are intended by the adult and we need to acknowledge that what may be deemed as valuable cultural capital within an education context, may not be considered to have the same value in other fields that the children live in. Children observe and navigate these fields by observing the adults around them (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977) and in this way they make sense of the world and their place within it. As they do this, they create a sense of identity, one which changes over time (Giddens, 1991) and is informed by the capital they acquire. They will ultimately make the decisions, consciously and unconsciously, as to what is of most value to them, regardless of a curriculum which seeks to direct this. It is incumbent then that the teacher acknowledges this and seeks ways to support the child while also navigating the policies imposed upon them in their practice.

From a research perspective, although research is beginning to emerge which is focused on children’s visual art experiences in a range of environments (Mansour et al., 2016; Richards, 2014; Tan & Gibson, 2017) the small-scale nature of the research conducted means that there is scope for further case studies to be added to the existing body. For example, in geographical terms, the voices of children in some countries are not currently represented. It would also mean that a broader range of children’s voices are presented in the research allowing for the opportunity to move away from conducting research with children, and families, who are positively biased towards the visual arts. The case for conducting further qualitative research is also strengthened by the findings of this review as there was scope in the majority of the papers, adopting either a quantitative or qualitative approach, to explore further the depth and reasoning behind the children’s responses. This lack of depth is linked to a surface-level examination of the experiences that the children had; further exploration of the essence of visual art experiences for individual children and the reasons that they are significant in terms of their identity and autobiographical memory is required. An attempt to unpick these complex ideas would create a fuller picture of what is meaningful and relevant to the individual allowing teachers to begin to accommodate this in their lessons, making them meaningful and relevant also (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005). The limited evidence of longitudinal studies in the research is also problematic; the research illuminates moments in time but this does not allow for changing thoughts and attitudes towards art experiences or identity. There is therefore scope for the development of further longitudinal research. Finally, further examination is required of the levels of cultural capital that adults have acquired and the impact that this has on the lives of the children that are in their care. It may not be as simple a case as higher levels of cultural capital equalling higher levels of engagement and value on the child’s part; higher levels of cultural capital could have a restrictive influence over the child also. Linked in with this is the need to explore the levels of trust that people place on established systems and structures and how this replicate in children and their attitudes to curricular subject. Within this, the place of technology and media also needs to be considered.

This review provides insight into a curricular subject, presenting a nuanced picture of children’s thoughts in relation to a particular topic. By doing this it demonstrates the complexity of children’s thoughts and opinions, and provides insight into their world. There is therefore much in this review to learn from, both from a researcher’s perspective and from a practitioner’s perspective, both in terms of insight into the topic, but also in terms of the value of engaging with children in dialogue, seeking their thoughts and opinions and using this to inform future practice and research.


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Appendix 1: Inclusion/Exclusion Criteria

Research Themes Art education – past and present Learning Environments

(school, home, local community)

Key sources (e.g., policy, research, theoretical) Both discursive and empirical texts have been considered. This includes research reports, books, articles, conference papers, dissertations and theses.

In addition policy documents and curricula pertaining to primary/elementary school were included.


Reviews of books, magazines, research or journals; instructional materials, bibliographies and visual resources for teaching, incomplete research studies were not included.

Both discursive and empirical texts have been considered. This includes research reports, books, articles, conference papers, dissertations and theses.

In addition policy documents and curricula pertaining to primary/elementary school were included.


Reviews of books, magazines, research or journals; instructional materials, bibliographies and visual resources for teaching, incomplete research studies were not included.

Both discursive and empirical texts were considered. This included research reports, books, articles, conference papers, dissertations and theses.


Reviews of books, magazines, research or journals; instructional materials, bibliographies and visual resources for teaching, incomplete research studies were not included.




The term ‘art’ is understood to be activities and practice which fall under the auspices of visual art. Particular attention was given to the art curriculum applied at primary school age, and the activities most commonly associated with the teaching of art at this level.


This included the categories of fine art, applied arts and crafts, and art and design in addition to art history, art criticism and aesthetics. Contemporary fine art was also included.


The expressive arts categories of drama, dance, and music were not included. Other curriculum areas were not included.

The review focused on learners aged 4 to 11. International texts were included in this review.

The learning environments examined were primarily be associated with the Microsystem level of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological theory. These included school, the home and community-based venues (i.e. museums, galleries or other venues where the displaying of art plays a prominent role).


Studies which focused solely on learners in the early year (0-3 years) or on learners aged 12 -16 were not included.


Studies which have taken place in educational settings which solely meet the needs of children with ASN (i.e. Special Education schools and Enhanced Provision Units) were excluded.


Studies which focus on art therapy were excluded.

Papers which focus on the role of art education as a facilitator of identity creation and papers which examine identity in relation to the pedagogy of art education were examined.


Papers which focus on children’s voices on art education were included. Papers which used art to express children’s voices were excluded.

Search methodology Electronic databases were searched using a combination of terms

Grey literature and unpublished literature were then searched.

Bibliographic and reference lists of texts were also checked.


Empirical texts are in English and published from 2005 onwards.

Discursive/theoretical texts are in English and published from 2005 onwards.

Appendix 2: Key Search Terms

Art (What is art?)  Environment (Where is art?) Identity (Who can be an artist?)
Art education

Visual art*

Art and design



Primary School

Junior School

First School

Infant School


Local community





Appendix 3: List of Searches

Code Search Terms
KS1 “art education” and “primary”
KS2 “art education” and “primary school”
KS3 “art education” and “elementary school”
KS4 “art education” and “junior school”
KS5 “art education” and “first school”
KS6 “art education” and “infant school”
KS7 “art education” and “home” and “child*” and “identity”
KS8 “art education” and “local community” and “child*” and “identity”
KS9 “visual art*” and “primary school” and ” and “child*” and “identity”
KS10 “visual art*” and “primary school” and “identity”
KS11 “visual art*” and “elementary school” and “identity”
KS12 “visual art*” and “junior school” and “identity”
KS13 “visual art*” and “first school” and “identity”
KS14 “visual art*” and “infant school” and “identity”
KS15 “visual art*” and “home” and “child*” and “identity”
KS16 “visual art*” and “local community” and “child*” and “identity”
KS17 “art and design” and “primary school” and “identity”
KS18 “art and design” and “elementary school” and “identity”
KS19 “art and design” and “junior school” and “identity”
KS20 “art and design” and “first school” and “identity”
KS21 “art and design” and “infant school” and “identity”
KS22 “art and design” and “home” and “child*” and “identity”
KS23 “art and design” and “local community” and “child*” and “identity”
KS24 “art*” and “child*” and “voice*”
KS25 “art education” and ‘child*” and “voice*”
KS26 “visual art*” and “child*” and “voice*”

Appendix 4: List of Databases

Databases Searched
     Art Bibliographies Modern (ABM)

Art Full Text (AFT)


British Education Index (BEI)



World of Science


Appendix 5: Summary of papers including voices of children

Year Author Country Focus of VA experiences Participants Age

of children

2005 Savva & Trimis Cyprus Art Museum 32 children


5-6 QLT
2005 Watts England School 316 children


7-11 QLT
2006 Eckhoff & Guberman USA Summer Programme 3 children


7-8 QLT
2006 Kuster USA School Children

(3 5th Grade classes)


10-11 QLT
2006 Pavlou Cyprus School 16 children


11-12 QLT
2006 Rose, Jolley & Burkitt England School


270 children

246 parents

44 teachers

 5-14 QNT
2007 Bhroin Ireland School 21 children 4-5 QLT
2007 Crum USA School


Stage 1 – 250 children

Stage 2 – 8 children/5 families

7-11 MM
2007 Szechter & Liben USA School
40 children and parents


7-13 MM
2007 Toren Israel School Undefined:




5-6 QLT
2008 Gibson Australia School 130 children


5-12 QNT
2009 Debenedetti et al France Pompidou Centre Undefined:



5-11 MM
2010 Haanstra Netherlands Home 52 children

8 teachers


10-14 QLT
2011 Binder & Kotsopoulos Canada School 12 children 5-6 QLT
2011 Greenwood New Zealand School 16 children 10-12 QLT
2011 Melnick et al USA School Undefined:




Undefined QNT
2011 Rusanen et al Europe School Undefined:




3-5 Summary of projects
2012 Antoniou & Hickman Cyprus School 7 children 11 QLT
2012 Barrett, Everett and Smigiel Australia School 140 children 5-8 QLT
2013 Lemon Australia Art Museum 29 children 8-12 QLT
2013 Shaban & Al-Awidi UAE School 25 children


4-5 QLT
2014 Hallam, Hewitt and Buxton England School 24 children


5-16 QLT
2014 Kisida et al USA Art Museum 10,912 children from 123 schools Not stated QNT
2014 Richards Australia School


4 children 4-5 QLT
2015 Lekue France School 397 children

(156 aged 10-12)

10-17 QNT
2015 Oguz Turkey School 60 children 10-11 QLT
2016 Mansour et al Australia School


Local Community

1172 children


Not stated (Primary and Secondary age) QNT
2017 Ferm Almqvist and Christophersen Norway


School 9 children

5 teachers

2 principals

10-11 QLT
2017 Roth USA School Undefined:


9-10 QLT
2017 Tan and Gibson Australia School


Local Community

4 children 5-6 QLT
2018 Kim USA School 1 child 5 QLT

Appendix 6: Papers by Country of Origin

Country No. of Papers References
Australia 6 Gibson, 2008; Barret, 2012; Lemon, 2013; Richards, 2013; Mansour, 2016; Tan and Gibson, 2017
Canada 1 Binder and Kostopoulous, 2011
Cyprus 3 Savva and Trimis, 2005; Pavlou, 2006; Antoniou and Hickman, 2012;
England 3 Watts, 2005; Rose et al, 2006; Hallam et al, 2014
Finland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden 1 Rusanen et al, 2011
France 2 Debenedetti, 2009; Lekue, 2015
Ireland 1 Bhroin, 2007
Israel 1 Toren, 2007
Netherlands 1 Haanstra, 2010
New Zealand 1 Greenwood, 2011
Norway/Sweden 1 Almqvist and Chistophersen, 2017
Turkey 1 Oguz, 2015
UAE 1 Shaban & Al-Awidi, 2013
USA 8 Eckhoff & Guberman, 2006; Kuster, 2006, Crum, 2007; Szechter & Liben, 2007; Melnick et al, 2011; Kisida et al, 2014; Roth, 2017, Kim, 2018

Appendix 7

Location of Study No. of Papers References
Art Museum 4 Savva & Trimis, 2005; Debenedetti et al, 2009; Lemon, 2013; Kisida et al, 2014
School 22 Watts, 2005; Kuster, 2006; Pavlou, 2006; Bhroin, 2007; Toren, 2007; Gibson, 2008; Haanstra, 2010; Binder and Kostopoulos, 2011; Greenwood, 2011; Melnick et al, 2011; Rusanen et al, 2011; Antoniou & Hickman, 2012; Barrett et al, 2012; Shaban et al, 2013; Hallam et al, 2014; Lekue, 2015; Oguz, 2015; Mansour et al, 2016; Almqvist et al, 2017; Roth, 2017; Tan and Gibson, 2017; Kim, 2018
Home 0
Home/School 4 Rose et al, 2006; Crum, 2007; Szechter and Liben, 2007; Richards, 2014
Summer Arts Programme 1 Eckhoff and Guberman, 2006