In a recent interview about adultism, the interviewer asked me whether adultism affects education. Here’s my answer:
All parts of society meant to address youth are compromised through adultism, especially education. The very premise of compulsory schools – forcing youth to attend – was originally meant to intervene against child labor. However, its become a tool for enforcing compliance and coercion in society. This disallows youth from acting as full members of society by forcing them to learn a standardized curriculum, stay confined throughout the course of the workday, and generally incapacitating their power and disabling their passions. By doing this, schools cynically enforce the power of adults over youth, further entrenching the social hierarchy that relies on adultism.
While there are obvious reasons for this like securing adult power, incapacitating revolutionary sentiment among youth, and enforcing social hierarchy, I think its vital to understand the economic manipulations that allow, encourage, sustain, enforce and manipulate all this: In the worldwide economic machine today, youth are a transitional commodity. This means that they’re seen as adults-in-the-making whose sole purpose is to become better customers. As adults, people are generally empowered to become economic agents as producers, accumulators and customers. Since they aren’t recognized in those economic realms, youth are generally seen as under-actualized consumers. This disallows adults from successfully advocating for youths’ genuine best interests, and wholly takes away youths’ abilities to advocate for themselves. Basically, no money = no power. Any appearance otherwise is simply a momentary blip or allowed by the economic system as a release value for the stresses of social change. That’s why we have a momentarily powerful youth movement right now; its seen as a pressure release valve. When that pressure is gone though, what will happen to that movement? Only time will tell…
What do you think – does adultism affect education? What do you think about my response? Share your thoughts here!
To say that schools are changing right now is a gross understatement.
Between technological, social and cultural transformations happening right now across the U.S., there are new trends becoming apparent everywhere, schools included. This paper puts the massive changes happening throughout the education system into context to help readers understand what’s happening, and why its happening.
Lots have said it, many see it, but few have called it out: for a century, our education system has revolved around ego. As we become an evermore interdependent and transparent society, this is inherently at odds with the future. This article explores the former EGOsystem of education and identifies an emerging ECOsystem taking its place. It also shows what the future might look like.
An EGOsystem of Education
When I first started working in education 15 years ago, I discovered quickly that educators in schools are most often the ones who school worked well for. After barely graduating from high school and taking eight years to get my BA, it was glaringly obvious to me that I was surrounded by former star students and others whose learning styles, socio-economic statuses and cultural backgrounds were being perpetuated by the system. This formula generally holds true for politicians who make educational policies as well as social service staff who support student success outside of schools.
These students often go on to work in schools as teachers and administrators; in districts as administrators; and in state education agencies as program directors, assessment officials and curriculum experts. They are successful in their careers, embraced by their institutions, and generally, reveling in the ways things are. If they are aware of how things are going for students who are most often failed by schools, they see these learners from a position of noblesse oblige, looking down on them from on high.
The system that created these workers has engendered particular school cultures that ensured succeeding generations of familiarity. Despite technology and social changes of many sorts, in many schools, learners who time travel from a century ago can find similar patterns of teaching, classroom management and testing. This is because the education system revolves around the ego, which is a person’s sense of self-importance or self-esteem.
Four Phases of Transition
Educators have relied on fulfilling their sense of self-importance and building their self-esteem through their work for more than 100 years. Through my studies, I have seen four phases in America’s education system.
1) The Control Phase
Initially relying on a high control environments, schools were initially places where teachers controlled students. The Control Phase looked like this:
Teachers could literally physically abuse students for not complying with their every intention.
Students who innately complied with teachers were awarded with increased amounts of autonomy and access to learning opportunities.
Educators sought to wrangle authority from communities and parents by illegitimating self-education and learning from life.
Education policymakers make child labor illegal at the same time legal and cultural systems were created to ensure government authority over learning and teaching.
The Control phase radically dismantled community-based and home-based learning opportunities, secured the function of a controlled curriculum, and imposed the meaning of grades and scores on students.
Voters supported this model enough to enable schools to emerge as a dominant force in society.
The Control Phase relied on the EGO of educators, as it enabled teachers to control large groups of students with minimal enforcement.
Administrators were able to control massive groups of students with few teachers, and were capable of ensuring teachers success through compliance.
The Control Phase served to break down the EGO of students in order to ensure students would learn what educators wanted them to. Academic honor societies were available only to the highest achieving students and student governments were almost nonexistent.
This phase displaced young people from their positions in communities, positioning them as dependents of schools for their learning. It attempted to strip students of self-leadership in order to secure the role of adults as leaders in learning and teaching.
All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools dependent on control. This phase evolved towards the Competition Phase. People who benefited from the Control Phase of American education saw the transition towards the Competitive Phase as logical, predictable and favorable progress.
2) The Competition Phase
With time, schools became high command environments that relied less on forcefulness and abrasion and more on leveraging authority for outcomes. During the Command Phase, schools looked like this:
Students were compelled to participate in classes because of government orders and nothing further.
The Competition Phase sought to essentialize schools by making graduation diplomas requirements for workplaces.
Conversely, during this phase post-high school opportunities were minimalized for non-graduates.
Voters initially supported this approach because they saw that when more people succeeded at schooling, more people succeeded in their careers; more successful careers led to more successful communities, which led to better schools.
In the Competition Phase, pragmatic acceptance reigns as students, educators, administrators, policymakers, politicians, parents and voters become acclimated and accustomed to the EGOsystem that has formed within the education system.
As schools became judged for their success according to graduation rates, students EGOs were recognized as helping motivate academic vigilance. This phase saw the widespread prevalence of honor societies and student governments in order to satiate those EGOs.
With the decreased emphasis on teacher EGO in the classroom, this phase saw the emergence of powerful teacher unions that ensured the authority of educators.
Student connections outside classrooms were ignored or seen as irrelevant to teaching, learning and leadership in schools.
This phase positioned students as the subjects of teachers, securing the hierarchal relationship between adults and students in schools.
All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools reliant on competition. This phase evolved towards the Connection Phase. People who thrived in the Competition Phase were threatened by the transition towards the next phase and saw it as the devolution of schools.
3) The Connection Phase
When social change insisted, schools modified their approach to include connection between students, among educators, within the curriculum and throughout the education system. During the Connection Phase, schools looked like this:
Rigorous demands imposed on schools coupled with decreased school funding led to increased attempts to ensure community connections with schools.
Cross-curricular approaches to teaching and learning were recognized as essential in some areas.
Student connections outside classrooms were recognized and mass amounts of homework were assigned to utilize out-of-school time.
Students work and family responsibilities outside school time were dismissed.
The EGO of students becomes central with honor rolls, honor societies, extracurricular clubs and other student voice and student leadership clubs being perceived as elite or otherwise disconnected from mainstream student populations.
The EGO of educators is struggling due to having diminished authority throughout the education system.
In the Connection Phase, placing self above all others is the norm. opportunists have the most authority as they maximize connectivity in order to ensure their personal gain.
The EGO of education policymakers is peaked from their increased authority over educational outcomes and avenues.
The EGO of education textbook, assessment, preparation and advocacy organizations is peaked from their influence on education policymakers.
Voters become resentful from subsequent generations going through failed phases of American education and stop supporting schools with levies and pro-public school advocacy.
This phase fosters a sense of independence with an awareness of the larger whole.
All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools contingent on connection. This phase evolved towards the Collaboration Phase. People who benefited from this phase saw the emergence of the Collaboration Phase as a relief from the pressure of connection and competition.
4) The Collaboration Phase
Today, we’re in the midst of moving from EGOsystems towards ECOsystems of education. This movement is happening through collaboration fostered by technology, social change and other evolution that holds great possibilities.
Connectivity is recognized as key to successful learning, teaching and leadership with all partners recognized for their potential, purpose and power.
Students are recognized as full partners in learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.
While technology was initially frowned upon, connections among students outside of school time became an imposition on classrooms. Educators were essentially required to recognize student connections outside of schools and the effects they have within schools.
In the Collaboration Phase, placing self above others is becoming increasingly unacceptable as more people identify with the whole.
Students who work and have family responsibilities are recognized for the legitimacy and authority of their learning outside school time, and receive high amounts of support to ensure their successful academic growth.
Academic learning, liberal arts and community living skills are recognized with equitable authority throughout the lives of young people.
The EGO-driven era of education ends as learning is recognized and embraced as a community-wide, lifelong endeavor for all people everywhere all of the time. This leads to the ECOsystem of education.
Voters reinvest in education because of the re-asserted vitality of schools in the health and well-being of democratic society.
This phase nurtures a sense of increasing interdependence with strong awareness of the effect of individuals on others.
All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools revolving around collaboration. This phase is currently evolving and emerging. Everyone in society should benefit from the emergence of the Collaboration Phase and will embrace the ongoing evolution of learning, teaching and leadership.
The emerging ECOsystem of education is harder to see than previous phases. From my work in schools and throughout communities over the last 15 years, I have seen some aspects of it becoming apparent. Following is an exploration of some patterns that are becoming apparent.
An ECOsystem of Education
Right now, there’s a new picture of schools that is coming into focus. Across the horizon of testing, standardization and the school-to-prison pipeline are learning, teaching and leadership opportunities for all people everywhere in which love prevails and pessimism stops. With beautiful balance between critical thinking, cultural uplifting and participatory infrastructure, learning mirrors life in a balanced, holistic way that honors difference, embraces hopefulness and builds through equitable partnerships among everyone involved, regardless of their ages.
When considering the ECOsystem of education, its important to remember what constitutes an ecology. An ECOsystem consists of the interdependent and interacting components of a learner’s environment. There are living elements like teachers and other students throughout, and non-living elements like the building, computers and textbooks. Air and light cycles through an ECOsystem, as well as talking, music and paper ripping. Material elements also cycle through an ecosystem via cafeterias, heating plants, and other pathways.
As the ECOsystem of education continues to emerge, we will need new guideposts to know where we’re at. In the 300+ schools I have consulted over the last decade, the following three trends represent the new realities in education. These can serve as guideposts to ensure students, educators, administrators and others are on the right track to ensure the healthy, whole, successful and sustainable transition underway.
While more students opt to learn from home, more schools rely on BYOD and tablets-as-textbooks, and classrooms integrate more with communities, schools will have fewer and fewer options for retaining students in desk chairs. Instead, they will be forced to embrace disruptive learning technologies of all sorts, including experiential education, service learning and integrate CTE that positions elementary and middle school students in applicable, pragmatic problem-centered learning to address real world challenges.
With more adults actively infusing throughout the school day as both co-learners and co-leaders with students who are transforming communities, the role of student will be actively redefined. No longer the plaything of classroom tyrants, students will be recognized for their essential role in the American democracy as the foundation and implementation of lifelong civic identity and engagement. Students of all ages will freely co-learn, co-teach and co-lead communities in quintessential learning communities that are infused with vigor, vim and vitality.
By actively taking control of the things they want to learn, students are actively moving from being the passive recipients of teaching towards becoming active partners in learning and leadership. Each individual student will develop and implement their own course of learning from their youngest years in schools. Learning about their roles as active learning partners, they will also assume more responsibility throughout their communities for teaching their elders. In turn, today’s teachers will continue towards become learning coaches and facilitators to the willing. Students will gain full authority through true interdependence, and communities will become fully integrated throughout their local education systems.
The effect of dispersed learning and teaching are already rippling throughout the education system. Technology is actively pushing students out of the forced irrelevance of age- and interest segregated classrooms and towards their broader communities, while schools have to reach deeper towards their local communities in order to cover budgets. This is drawing students towards meeting real community needs through authentic leadership and away from falsely important student governments. In turn, this is forcing schools to reconsider engaging those students in educational leadership. In the ECOsystem of schools, education uses all members of the community in order to drive, transform and sustain learning. Students become researchers, planners, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers and advocates throughout communities, which in turn recognize their legitimacy as contributing members of society.
This rekindles community investment in education, which further enriches the educational environment. Racial inequities are eagerly addressed by communities, and the school-to-prison pipeline is dismantled. Every student creates their own learning plan with strategic systems of learning supporting their implementation. Restorative justice engenders new cultures of respect, trust and ability throughout schools, while nutrition, school buildings, athletics and other activities become safe supports for learning and teaching. All of this happens through new leading.
As schools move forward through the phases, a natural ECOsystem of learning will emerge. There is a growing awareness of this transformation. Some people see a complete destruction of traditional, EGO-driven schools, while others see an ongoing evolution towards ECOsystems of learning, teaching and leadership. If we deliberately identify the systems supporting education, we can make this shift intentionally.
As the entirety of the system moves forward, there will be resistance and denial. People who’ve upheld the first and second phases will resist the inevitably of this transformation, while others who’ve embraced the third and fourth phases might actually deny the need for the system to move forward. Those who resist and deny are actually representing the EGOsystem of education that has become entrenched by the powers that benefit most from the EGOsystem. However, truncated by the inevitable transformation fostered by ongoing social change, its inevitable for the EGOsystem to die.
In order to move it forward, its important for educators, students and others to make an honest assessment of where their own personal expectations lay; where their schools’ realities are; and what the gap is between those two areas. Schools will never do more than we are willing to do in them. If a person is young, then its imperative to establish genuine expectations for their own experience. This comes through reflection and critical thinking. If a person is older, its vital to engage in critical self-analysis as well as self-engagement in a project for school improvement. For anyone, its important to get active. Research what exists right now. Work with others to plan for alternatives. Teach people about options, no matter what age you are or they are. Evaluate and critically examine what exists, what could exist and what the gap is between those two spaces. Get involved in decision-making wherever there’s an opportunity, including on committees, in forums and in other spaces. Finally, everyone must advocate for the future of schools and the emerging ECOsystem of education. This has to be brought forth on purpose, and the only way to do that is to encourage individuals, organizations and communities to move towards the ECOsystem on purpose. Advocate for that.
Learning is a beautiful, nature and evolutionary approach towards expanding our human potential. The ECOsystem of education moves us towards powerful possibilities for all students everywhere all the time. You should come with.
Today, I toured a middle school in the region where I live. Listening to an adult school leader explaining the school to me, I heard several the cues that routinely concern me:
“Our students don’t have problems”
“We don’t allow students to have social time”
“There is routine homework in every class, every day, all year long”
“We maintain strong communication with parents”
“We have a strong culture of respect for adults here”
These are all signs of a “Command-and-Control School.” These are highly structured, highly demanding and highly adultcentric places featuring rote memorization, rigid adherence to standardized curriculum and gross overcommitment to testing and assessment.
Regard students are problems that need to be solved;
Think adults have all the answers to solve students-as-problems;
Don’t see students as full humans with rights and responsibilities;
Disagree with the ability of parents and students to be equitable educational partners
I raise these issues because they are the antithesis of Meaningful Student Involvement. When I began studying schools for signs of student voice in 2000, it took me several years to discern the patterns in which students said learning mattered to them. However, when they came forward, I identified these Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement as the keys to moving education forward. They centered on the notion that schools must become places that actively engage students as equitable partners with adults throughout learning, teaching and leadership across the entirety of the education system.
Meaningful Student Involvement Schools…
Treat students as the problem-solvers of global, local and personal problems today and in the future;
Foster equitable student/adult partnerships that position everyone, everywhere, all the time as active learners, teachers and leaders, regardless of their age;
Engage every student as a full human with unique abilities, challenges, opportunities and knowledge;
Support the entire ability of students and parents to become engaged throughout the entire education system.
What To Listen For
I know I’ve found a school that’s on-point when I hear the antithesis of what I heard today:
“Our students meet challenges head on with adults who empower and support them”
“Our teachers work with students pace teaching to meet every student’s learning needs”
“Students actively engaged in learning throughout their lives, and schools support them where and how they choose to do that”
“We engage students and parents as equitable partners everywhere, all the time”
“We have a strong culture of mutual respect among students, between students and teachers, and throughout our learning environment”
Recently I was discussing the latest developments happening in the mainstream education conversation today. Student voice is bubbling up more and more frequently across the radar, with folks ranging from curriculum writers to test makers talking about it. Of course, educators continue to share their thoughts on social media, along with students themselves. This is all very powerful, and a wonderful development to finally see emerge after more than a dozen years on the national circuit promoting student voice throughout education.
Increasingly though, I’m concerned about the direction that student voice is taking. It seems most conversations are intent on tokenizing student voice, minimizing the roles students can play in schools. Last year I released a book called The Guide to Student Voice in order to help shift this conversation and move it towards a more holistic, powerful picture of what students can do.
Today, I’m pleased to announce the re-release of the SoundOut Program. Based on a curriculum I developed in 2007, today the SoundOut Program has operated in more than 25 districts across the U.S. and Canada, and has been adapted in Australia, Brazil and the U.K. too. With my new promotion, I’m glad to bundle the curriculum itself in several new ways, featuring new elements and activities, and building new relationships with districts and state agencies around the world.
I have seen three primary ways adults relate to youth, no matter whether the relationship is parenting, teaching, or policing. The first way is over-permissiveness; the second is responsible; and over-restrictive. Before I explain these, its important to remind you that I’m an adult and these are my opinions; a young person and other adults surely will see things differently.
Over-permissive relationships between children, youth and adults allow young people to do whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever and however they want. Disregarding the longer term effects of how young people relate to adults, over-permissiveness can incapacitate young peoples’ ability to successfully relate to the broader society around them. By allowing too much freedom, these relationships give children and youth “just enough rope to hang themselves” by extinguishing their inherent away their sense of purpose and belonging throughout the larger society in which we all belong. Based in a well-meaning notion of equality between young people and adults, these relationships conveniently relieve adults of the burden of responsibility in parts or all throughout the lives of young people. They often happen to encourage freedom.
Over-restrictive relationships between young people and adults override the decision-making capabilities of children and youth and disable their inherent creativity in order to assure adults’ sense of authority, protection, and ultimately, ownership over young people. By discouraging young people from experiencing the freedom and ability they need in their natural learning process as well as throughout their social and familial worlds, these relationships can take away enthusiasm and unfettered joy, only to replace it with rigidity and structure. Over-restrictive relationships enforce inequality between children and youth, and occur by adults enforcing their power with heavy-handed education, tight schedules and severe rules, and harsh punishment. They often happen to encourage safety.
Responsible relationships between children, youth and adults are based on trust, mutual respect, communication, and meaningful interactions. Positioning each person as an evolving member of a broader society, they identify roles, opportunities and outcomes that benefit every person in uniquely appropriate ways while holding the greater good ahead of individualism. These relationships occur when adults consciously decide to foster equity throughout the lives of young people by intentionally acknowledging each others’ according abilities, fostering deliberate opportunities and continually embracing the evolving capacities of children and youth throughout their lives, starting when they are infants. Responsible relationships nurture appropriate attachment and encourage interdependence between young people and adults. They often happen to foster democratic sensibilities.
I have not met one adult who is constantly and consistently one of these ways with all young people all of the time. This isn’t meant to provide a puzzle for people to fit together the individual pieces, either. Instead, by showing a spectrum I meant to show that each of us can be any of these at many points throughout our lives.
We hear it all the time: American schools are terrible and only getting worse. For more than 25 years, the country has been massaging the egos of educators, administrators, and politicians who think they know what’s best for young people and our country. Bill Gates and countless rich people have tried throwing money at solutions they want to see. Yet none of this has seriously improved our schools, and in some cases, its only made the situation worse.
In the meantime, there are more young people than ever before who are working steadily, progressively to fix schools today. They’re partnering with educators, community members, businesses, and others to move school reform forward and actually achieving real outcomes. Student engagement in school improvement has been shown to have powerful effects on every aspect of learning, teaching, and leadership in education.
Past the hype, beyond the media, and without biased research, evidence shows that when students improve schools, they are creating lasting changes, saving schools real money, and improving learning experiences for themselves, their peers, and younger students.
Five Ways Students Are Improving Schools
Students Are Leading Research. In elementary, middle, and high schools across the nation, students researching education. Among countless subjects, they’re discovering student learning styles, identifying best practices in classrooms, and exploring structural changes in learning. First grader students in Cheney, Washington, helped teachers develop curriculum in their classroom to make learning more meaningful for both students and educators.
Students Are Planning Education. Budgeting, calendaring, hiring and firing, curriculum designing, and many other activities are happening throughout schools with students as partners. Students are also involved in some district and state education agency activities, and helping elected officials plan more effective schools. In Anne Arundel County, Maryland, students have been voting members of the district level board of education for 25 years. In the same district, every advisory, curriculum, study committee and special force task includes students.
Students Are Teaching Courses. In all grade levels, students are taking the reigns of pedagogy by facilitating learning for their peers and younger students. They’re also teaching adults! Students are increasingly being engaged as essential teaching partners, and the outcomes are changing learning for everyone involved. In Olympia, Washington, there is a program that gives students classroom credit in return for helping teachers learn how to use complicated hardware and software in classrooms.
Students Are Evaluating Everything. Examining their own learning, identifying teachers’ strengths and challenges, exploring curriculum and climate in schools, and looking at ways schools can improve in strategic ways are all ways that students are driving school improvement in their own schools and throughout education. High school students in Poughkeepsie, New York researched their districts budget crises, conducted a student survey on the next years budge, and then analyzed the data and submitted it to the board which used it in its decision-making process. The board adopted it and saved more than $50,000 the next year.
Students Are Making Systemic Decisions. Joining school boards as full-voting members, forming student advisory committees for principals and superintendents, and getting onto important committees at the building, district, and state levels, more students are participating in systemic decision-making than ever before. In Stuart, Ohio, students at the local high school have and equal vote in faculty hiring decisions, choosing curriculum, and class offerings.
Between these five categories of action, deep change is happening. However, beyond the expectations of adults, students are working further still to improve their schools. Students advocating for education changes are organizing their peers and larger communities to create powerful, effective agendas that consistently and determinedly transform schools.
In order to broaden, deepen, and sustain these activities there needs to be a systemic, intentional pathway to engage all students as partners throughout the education system. More than a decade ago, I combed research and practice happening nationally and internationally to identify my Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement. Since then, these tools have been used around the world to promote these activities, and to build further beyond many peoples’s expectations. As I’ve written before, Meaningful Student Involvement is, “the process of engaging students as partners in every facet of school change for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community, and democracy.”
6 Steps To Engage Students As Partners in Fixing Schools
Here are some steps anyone can take to engage students as partners in improving schools.
Teach students about learning. Learning is no longer the mystery it once was. We now know that there are different learning styles, multiple learning supports and a variety of ways to demonstrate learning. In order to be meaningfully involved, students must understand those different aspects as well.
Teach students about the educational system. The complexities of schools are not known to many adults. Theoretical and moral debates, funding streams and the rigors of student assessment are overwhelming to many administrators, as well as teachers and parents. However, in order for students to be meaningfully involved in schools, they must have at least a basic knowledge of what is being done to them and for them, if not with them.
Teach students about education reform. There are many practical avenues for students to learn about formal and informal school improvement measures, particularly by becoming meaningfully involved within those activities. Sometimes there is no better avenue for understanding than through active engagement in the subject matter, and school improvement may be one of those areas.
Teach students about student voice. While it seems intuitive to understand the voices that we are born with, unfortunately many students seems to lack that knowledge. Whether through submissive consumerism, oppressive social conditions or the internalization of popular conceptions of youth, many students today do not believe they have anything worth saying, or any action worth contributing towards making their schools better places for everyone involved. Even if a student does understand their voice, it is essential to expand that understanding and gain new abilities to be able to become meaningfully involved.
Teach students about meaningful student involvement. While meaningful student involvement is not “rocket science”, it does challenge many students. After so many years of being subjected to passive or cynical treatment, many students are leery or resistant towards substantive engagement in schools. Educating students about meaningful student involvement means increasing their capacity to participate by focusing on the skills and knowledge they need. Only in this way can they be effective partners, and fully realize the possibilities for education today and in the future.
Another great advantage today is that several other organizations are working in earnest to promote ideas related to Meaningful Student Involvement. Aside from my program called SoundOut, there are groups like UP for Learning in Vermont, the Student Voice Matters website, and Student Voice Live!, an annual gathering of students talking about school improvement. Evidence supporting this work is growing too. The work of researchers like Dana Mitra and Alison Cook-Sather in the US, Michael Fielding and Julia Flutter in Europe, and the penultimate advocate Roger Holdsworth in Australia is moving all of this further faster than anyone could have anticipated.
Whatever your opinion about schools today, the case is clear that we must engage students as partners. What are you going to do?
Adam Fletcher is the author of several booksand a consultant who has worked with more than 200 K-12 schools and districts in more than 25 states and Canada. Sign up for his newsletter by visiting adamfletcher.net.
Hazel Owen is a spectacular educational consultant in New Zealand. Recently, after reading an article I wrote, she asked me a number of questions. Today, I’m addressing this one:
“How, given that what ‘achievement’ comprises is set by the society from which some youth disengage, can a sense of achievement be felt by these youth without compromising the principles by which they have chosen to live their lives?”
By acknowledging young people where they’re at right now, we can engage young people in “achieving” in things they’re doing already. If a young person is engaged in their family’s rural lifestyle, what learning opportunities are their in that setting right now? When do young people get academic credit for all the learning they’re experiencing through video gaming or online social networking? This is to say nothing from the students who are making art in the garage, building science projects in the shed, or studying geology while climbing rocks on the weekend. Acknowledging youth where they’re at means not making it an “either/or” situation, but a “both/and”, meaning they don’t have to choose whether they achieve our goals as adults, or their goals as autonomous humans.
I’d love to hear what you think. Leave any comments below!
Talk with your supervisor, Executive Director, board members, and other decision-makers.
Build support by talking to staff members about youth engagement.
Train young people about youth engagement, why it matters, and how they can experience it more.
Research resources that might help different people in different roles throughout your organization understand youth engagement more.
Pass along useful websites, materials, and other info with people who care or need to know.
2) Advocate Action.
Explore policy-making in your organization, and advocate for changes that reflect a commitment to sustained youth engagement through programs and throughout the organization.
Create an action plan that focuses on sustained programs and projects.
Be a constant and strong champion for youth engagement throughout your program or organization.
3) Facilitate Approaches.
Remember Gandhi’s idiom, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If you want youth engagement in your program or organization, start engaging youth personally right now.
Start leading activities and programs that foster youth engagement right now. Build youth engagement on the personal level for young people, then solidify it throughout your organization.
Strengthen your knowledge about youth engagement and then facilitate opportunities for others to learn about it.
4) Critique and Examine Outcomes.
Create safe space to engage diverse youth and adults in critical thinking and cultural examinations.
Actively engage young people and adults in frank, open conversations about the activity, program, or organization.
Ask questions that inquire further into peoples’ assumptions or beliefs, and foster new understanding through having everyone share their experiences and opinions as applicable.
Ask hard questions about beliefs, understanding, and outcomes.
Examine new opportunities to talk change.
5) DO IT AGAIN!
When you travel through each of these steps, you’ll find a variety of awards for your hard work, including youth retention, re-engagement, and much more.
Where These Came From
Recently, I’ve been working with a group of traditional, mainline youth-serving organizations. They offer services to young people living in adverse situations, including homelessness, family disruptions, addiction, and other circumstances. The activities generally fall into the realms of intervention, education, and employment.
Working with them to establish new approaches to their work, I have been slowly introduce my conceptual frameworks focused on youth engagement, especially how I wrote about the subject in my publication, A Short Introduction to Youth Engagement. When I wrote the Short Intro…, I intentionally didn’t cover many important aspects of moving forward with the concept. Here’s one area that wasn’t addressed.
These are steps that I’ve followed for more than a decade as I’ve taught, trained, advocated for, and lived through many, many youth engagement programs and projects. They’re also what I’m using right now to help others promote this vital concept, too.
Thanks for reading! Let me know what you would add, take out, or challenge in the comments section below.More Resources
There are many roles in democracy-building by youth. Following are several different opportunities for young people to take action.
23 Ways Young People Can Change the World
Children and Youth as Facilitators. Knowledge comes from study, experience, and reflection. Engaging young people as teachers helps reinforce their commitment to learning and the subject they are teaching; it also engages both young and older learners in exciting ways.
Children and Youth as Researchers. Identifying issues, surveying interests, analyzing findings, and developing projects in response are all powerful avenues for Youth Voice.
Children and Youth as Planners. Planning includes program design, event planning, curriculum development, and hiring staff. Youth planning activities can lend validity, creativity, and applicability to abstract concepts and broad outcomes.
Children and Youth as Organizers. Community organizing happens when leaders bring together everyone in a community in a role that fosters social change. Youth community organizers focus on issues that affect themselves and their communities; they rally their peers, families, and community members for action.
Children and Youth as Decision-Makers. Making rules in classrooms is not the only way to engage young people in decision-making. Committees, board membership, and other forms of representation and leadership reinforce the significance of Youth Voice throughout communities.
Children and Youth as Advocates. When young people stand for their beliefs and understand the impact of their voices, they can represent their families and communities with pride, courage, and ability.
Children and Youth as Evaluators. Assessing and evaluating the effects of programs, classes, activities, and projects can promote Youth Voice in powerful ways. Young people can learn that their opinions are important, and their experiences are valid indicators of success.
Children and Youth as Specialists. Envisioning roles for youth to teach youth is relatively easy; seeing new roles for youth to teach adults is more challenging. Youth specialists bring expert knowledge about particular subjects to programs and organizations, enriching everyone’s ability to be more effective.
Children and Youth as Advisors. When youth advise adults they provide genuine knowledge, wisdom, and ideas to each other, adults, organizations, institutions, communities, and other locations and activities that affect them and their world at large.
Children and Youth as Designers. Youth participate in creating intentional, strategic plans for an array of activities, including curriculum, building construction, youth and community programs, and more.
Children and Youth as Teachers. Facilitating learning for themselves, other youth, adults, or children, youth can be teachers of small and large groups in all kinds of topics.
Children and Youth as Grant-makers. Youth in philanthropy identify funding, distribute grants, evaluate effectiveness, and conduct other parts of the process involved in grant-making.
Children and Youth as Planners. When planning programs, operations, activities, and other events and activities, youth can benefit nonprofits, schools, their homes, and any other institution throughout society.
Children and Youth as Lobbyists. Influencing policy-makers, legislators, politicians, and the people who work for them are among the activities for youth as lobbyists.
Children and Youth as Trainers. When they train adults, youth, children, and others, youth can share their wisdom, ideas, knowledge, attitudes, actions, and processes in order to guide programs, nurture organization and community cultures, and change the world.
Children and Youth as Politicians. Running for political office at the community, city, county, or state levels, youth as politicians can run for a variety of positions.
Children and Youth as Recruiters. Youth building excitement, sharing motivation, or otherwise helping their communities or people to get involved, create change, or make all sorts of things happen can happen through youth as recruiters.
Children and Youth as Social entrepreneurs. When youth recognize a social problem, they can use entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to make social change.
Children and Youth as Paid staff. When organizations, businesses, agencies, and other groups hire youth, they can be staff members in programs for adults, other youth, children, or for the community at large. They can fulfill many roles on this list in paid positions.
Children and Youth as Mentors. Mentoring is a non-hierarchical relationship between youth and adults, adults and youth, or among youth themselves, that helps facilitate learning and guidance for each participant.
Children and Youth as Decision makers. Participating in formal and informal decision-making, youth can be board members, committee members, and in many different roles.
Children and Youth as Activity Leaders. As activity leaders in nonprofits, community organizations, and other areas, youth can facilitate, teach, guide, direct, and otherwise lead youth, adults, and children in a variety of ways.
Children and Youth as Policy-makers. When they research, plan, write, and evaluate rules, regulations, laws, and other policies, youth as policy-makers can enrich, substantiate, enliven, and impact the outcomes of policies in many ways.
Almost a century ago, English author and educator A. S. Neill wrote, “Free children are not easily influenced; the absence of fear accounts for this phenomenon. Indeed, the absence of fear is the finest thing that can happen to a child.”
It was in 2001 that I was sitting with a group of “non-traditionally engaged” youth in Olympia, Washington, brainstorming about changing the world, when they suggested I start “Free Children” and promote youth activism. Finding a Canadian organization already took that name, I modified it and began working.
The Freechild Project has never advocated for “free children” though, and neither have I. I have written about this concept of the free child before, but rather than an anarchistic sense of radical self-entitlement, I advocate for freedom. Early on in my work I learned its important to acknowledge that while it’s true that there are 74 million people under the age of 18 in the US, and 2.5 billion people under-18 worldwide, they aren’t the only ones here. As the feminist hero Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” So I don’t advocate for “free children”, but for freedom.
That said, the road to freedom is through education. bell hooks once wrote, “To be changed by ideas was pure pleasure. But to learn ideas that ran counter to values and beliefs learned at home was to place oneself at risk, to enter the danger zone. Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself.”
That is what I am most interested in: public schools as a site to examine, invent, and reinvent oneself. Because of this, they are still roads to freedom, and for that, we engage with them, not against them.
I believe that a substantive, child-centered, child-driven education is absolutely essential to the health of democracy, and that’s what I advocate for. Public schools have the capacity to delivery that education. Towards that end, I work to actively engage them with the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to transform their own educations and the educations of succeeding generations; I also work directly with educators, school leaders, and community advocates to transform public schools to become the kinds of places that infuse the “passion, free will, freedom and joy” of all young people throughout the education system and the democratic society we share. Ultimately, public schools are the only places in society where that collective, conscious enterprise can occur, and in that way I support them.
Critics who suggest that any and every public school is incapable of genuinely benefiting students in any way are generally offering misguided criticism, if only because in the vast majority of schools benefit some of the students some of the time. There are a growing number that make many students richer all the time. I support schools if only because that’s the institution where the vast majority of young people spend their time. I believe we must engage them where they’re at and revolutionize places we can affect, rather than extinguish those places without paying attention to the rest of their lives that may actually be more harmful.
Saul Alinsky once wrote, “True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism. They cut their hair, put on suits and infiltrate the system from within.” I’m going back inside now, and I’ll get quiet again soon. This is why I believe we need to engage in schools.
This post is stemming from an interesting dialog. On this blog a few years ago, a writer named Laurie Couture took the privilege of grandstanding and wrote,
“The Free Child project is a great idea, but I think it fails to indict the most mountainous, enormous force in society’s hatred and oppression of children: Forced/compulsory schooling. Public schools abuse children in every way possible. Everything about the school environment is antithetical to children’s basic physical needs (food, hydration, elimination, movement, play, connection with parents), emotional needs (connection, safety, freedom and affection) and their creative and intellectual needs. Children are truly treated as hostages in public school, and their passion, free will, freedom and joy are stripped from them and their ability to learn. You cannot work for children’s rights as long as you support a system that was designed to oppress children. Please consider working with the unschooling and Attachment Parenting movement.”
Curious about how to respond, yesterday I took the liberty of posting this comment verbatim to The Freechild Project facebook page. It received more views than average posts, and elicited some impassioned responses from readers. You can read that conversation.
While Couture’s position is thorough and not wholly wrong, her analysis is ultimately misguided and ill-thought through. In America, the privilege of leaving school and succeeding in life by one’s own terms belongs mostly to well-to-do white people. Similar to how the experience Couture describes isn’t true for all students, the experience of dropping out is rarely positive for most students.
Stay tuned for updates, but know that this is why I do what I do. And this. Why are you doing what you do?