Schools that create real roles of value for young people - Roger Holdsworth
Original language: English
Roger Holdsworth (Australia)
Currently a Research Fellow and Manager of the Youth Research Centre, Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne; and, since 1979, he has also been editor and publisher of Connect, a bi-monthly journal supporting student participation in primary and secondary schools. He has a background as a secondary school-teacher, curriculum consultant, policy worker in community-based youth affairs, and researcher. Mr. Holdsworth has a strong interest in the empowerment of young people, with regard to equity, active citizenship and democracy in education.
In Australia there is a quiet debate occurring about civics and citizenship education. It is a debate that is about young people, but that seldom involves young people. Perhaps in the face of widespread cynicism about political processes and participation (Mellor, 1998a; 1998b) and growing concerns about issues of student alienation as well as about the connectedness of young people (not only to their schools but also to their communities and their society), this debate is set to become more noisy.
In these debates there are naturally substantial differences in assumptions about what it is to be a citizen, about the status of young people and about the role of schooling.
Rather than looking at ideas from the perspective of individual characteristics or deficits (the degree to which young people themselves are alienated or have a sense of connectedness), this paper is concerned with the ways in which institutions, such as schools, act to alienate or connect students.
It is argued here that such whole-school approaches are at the very heart of learning to be an informed and active citizen. Issues of student participation and agency underlie positive educational responses (see Slee, 1995; Pearl & Knight, 1999) and these issues will be explored here.
Citizenship and education
In a climate of national elections, electoral definitions of democracy and citizenship are brought to the fore. However, debates on citizenship have identified broader concepts and have, in particular, pointed to 'minimal' and 'maximal' interpretations in the way that the concepts of citizenship have been used. Evans has characterized these:
When such a discussion is applied to the role of education of young people in our society, attention is also drawn to the reasons for learning about issues of democracy and citizenship. Are these issues that only concern students' future lives? Are we talking of training 'future citizens'? Here too there are substantially different assumptions. Owen notes the distinction between being a citizen and being an adult:
For schools, these interpretations have direct implications for the nature of educational approaches in teaching about civics and citizenship.
In particular, the adoption of any form of maximalist approach requires attention to what students learn from the way the school is organized, and from their prescribed or implied place within that school - the ways in which they are treated. At one stage, this was often referred to as 'the hidden curriculum', though it has now become more common to talk of the impact of the 'school ethos' - policies, programmes, organization - on student learning.
This applies at a number of levels, from the form of decision-making in the school as a whole, to the degree and nature of curriculum negotiation within classrooms, to the nature and purpose of learning tasks developed within the school.
When I think about what I learned (and then later taught) about citizenship, I can recognize two distinct, and sometimes contradictory, elements. On the one hand, formal content emphasized concepts of living in a democratic State, ranging from minimalist views of the citizen as a consumer and exerciser of rights, to more maximalist views of the need for a commitment to a participatory and democratic approach to decision-making. On the other hand, the school organization excluded or marginalized the exercise of student roles in the 'democracy' of the school. Student organizations were either non-existent or extremely limited in their scope; students were seldom represented in the school's decision-making.
When we consider how we organize our schools, and when we consider how we organize learning and knowledge, what are we saying to students?
Citizenship education across the curriculum
Being a citizen is not just about being involved in the governance of a community. It is also concerned with having a valued and recognized role within that community. It is who we see we are in connection with that community that is, in essence, our citizenship.
If it is 'the array of roles that individuals can play in forming, maintaining and changing their communities' (Owen, 1996) that shapes citizenship, then the role of citizenship education is to ensure that young people have opportunities to participate in those roles. The arguments about recognizing and supporting the active citizenship of students therefore have bearing across the curriculum, not just within the subject areas (e.g. studies of society and the environment) mandated to teach civics and citizenship content.
Thus the critical challenge for us, in thinking about how and what students learn about civics and citizenship is: how can we develop curriculum and governance approaches that enable students to build upon their civic competencies, and assert and learn from their roles as valued citizens? How can we ensure that we build both 'learning about' and 'learning to' into citizenship education? These are challenges for all subject areas to teach about active citizenship, by the respect and consideration they give to students within their teaching approaches, and also in their capacity to support and create real roles of community value for young people as part of the learning within those subjects. This paper will consider practical ways in which this can happen.
When we consider what we teach students and what we ask them to do (i.e. the value and productivity of their learning), what are we saying to students about their citizenship?
We might ask also at this point why these issues are now emerging as important.
Various writers have argued that there have been fundamental and continuing changes to the role of young people in our society. For example, Wyn has pointed to the relatively recent invention of 'youth' as a category and the consequences of this:
The great majority of learning activities carried out in schools provide purposes for students that are deferred; these learning activities are immediately productive only in terms of being seen and marked by the teacher. Students are told: 'learn this because it will be valuable to you later'; 'learn about citizenship because one day you will be a citizen'.
Some students will be content to defer the outcomes of their learning - because they recognize that they do have a secured future; others, faced with greater uncertainties about jobs, health, livelihoods and so on, will become passive collaborators or active resisters. But all of these students are absorbing a more profound message: that learning and its organization through schools devalue their experiences, their knowledge, their present situation.
This is perhaps most significant in the area of citizenship. By deferring the outcomes of learning, and by devaluing students' present situation, we are conveying strong messages to students about how Australian institutions regard their participation. We are, in fact, teaching about 'active citizenship' in the most negative way.
Passivity versus agency
Coleman, writing in 1972, also pointed to change in the roles of young people, and to its consequences:
In response, there has been some recent attention to classroom curriculum processes that include students more actively in curriculum implementation and in curriculum and classroom decision-making. For example, approaches outlined originally in the United States and now used in many schools in Australia emphasize the role of students in negotiating curriculum:
Yet even here, these approaches can easily devolve into trivial exercises in temporary engagement. Negotiated curriculum processes have concentrated largely on the what and how of the curriculum: decisions about what we will learn, about how we will make such decisions, and (in the presence of increasingly rigid frameworks) about how we will learn. Little attention has been paid to the larger and more difficult issue of encouraging and supporting student participation in debate on why learning something is valuable or of the usefulness of that learning.
It is no surprise that students continue to bemoan the lack of relevance of the curriculum, even as we seek ways to make the activities we design more relevant to their perceived interests, and seek to centre the curriculum in student interests and needs, rather than abstract academic pursuits.
So it is argued here that there is an increasing need for engaging students more directly with the immediate purposes for their learning. The curriculum must include the capacity and willingness of students to act upon their learning - to produce something of value, to be valued and to value one's self as someone who can 'make a difference' - that goes beyond the teacher and beyond the classroom.
Elsewhere this has been referred to as 'social agency' and linked strongly and directly to concepts of 'full citizenship' or 'active citizenship' (Watts, 1995, p. 93). Watts goes on to draw out some implications of such an approach, and includes schools as a principal site for the exercise of agency:
These views argue for broad changes to teaching and learning within primary and secondary schools. They argue for approaches in which student roles of community value are created.
In deferring learning outcomes, in 'negotiating' trivial curriculum pursuits, in engaging in only passive or diversionary activities within schools, we are teaching students their lack of value to our present society. We are allowing creativity, commitment and enthusiasm little or no place. We are saying that 'being cool' is about being irrelevant.
In developing a 'theory of the value of youth', Pearl has suggested that 'If youth are to be valued, they must be of the society - participants, not recipients. That is the crux of any theory of valuing youth' (Pearl, Grant & Wenk, 1978). These ideas also underlie the approach adopted by various school networks in the United States as the 'Foxfire Approach'; here, basic principles of student choice and action around projects which have community value and academic integrity are the basis for learning (see Foxfire Fund, 1995).
In Australia, such approaches embrace both the arena of classroom curriculum approaches and of school governance under the general heading of 'student participation'.
These approaches see young people as bringing skills, views and experiences to their education. They see that learning takes place most effectively when it is active, relevant to the needs of the learner, and recognizes the background and present situation of the learner. Learning builds upon the strengths of young people, and values their contributions as partners in the learning process.
Ideas of student-centred approaches in education are not new. Early in the twentieth century, Dewey (1916) articulated principles and approaches which are now being rediscovered. While building upon these principles, ideas of student participation in education go even further to assert that schools must develop ways in which their students' education can contribute to outcomes of recognized community value.
In education, the word 'participation' has been used in various ways. It can mean 'being there' (as in participation or retention rates); it can mean 'taking part' (as in performing activities over which students may have no say); it can mean 'having a say' (students speaking out about issues). All these are important, but we mean much more than these definitions when we talk of 'student participation'. We mean an active role for students in decisions about and implementation of education policies and practices and of the key issues that determine the nature of the world in which they live (Holdsworth, 1986, p. 6).
This implies that participation must value the contribution that students make, meet genuine needs (i.e. be about real things), have an impact or consequence that extends beyond the participants (i.e. outside the classroom), be challenging to participants, and provide the opportunity for planning, acting and reflecting. Student participation must involve activities that are valuable and make sense in three ways:
These principles then provide an essential checklist by which we can determine whether a particular proposal is of worth. Is it driven by student choice and enthusiasm? Does it produce something of real value to the community? Does it meet the learning goals of the school or the subject?
ARENAS OF STUDENT PARTICIPATION
There are two major arenas in which student participation is seen as developing: in school governance and in the curriculum. The existence of participation in both these arenas is important and complementary.
In school governance
This involves students directly or through representatives in participation in decision-making about educational issues. In turn, this occurs through:
In both areas, students are regarded as having valuable perspectives, information and skills to contribute to the school's decision-making. Student views are taken seriously, and students are supported in developing democratic structures that ensure the views of all students are represented.
Further evidence is now emerging on the importance of such aspects of the school curriculum to the development of active citizenship, and Owen reports on a recent study based in the United States.
Many schools have some form of student organization - and these have recently developed most rapidly in primary schools. While these groups have traditionally been seen as having limited functions (fund-raising and organization of social activities in many cases), schools which are serious about supporting student participation continue to grapple with issues involved in extending the role of student organizations as a vital part of the school's overall decision-making structure.
When do the student groups meet - at lunchtime or as part of the curriculum? Who is elected - the popular crowd or a variety of students representative of interests of the student body? How does the school recognize and credit students' council participation as part of the school's curriculum? These are some of the concerns being explored.
Student representation also occurs within the broader decision-making structure of the school, on the various committees and working parties that make decisions and recommendations on policies and programmes. Students are directly represented on many school councils and on regional and state-wide bodies.
This structural participation raises further issues for representatives; reporting back and seeking direction from other students, in the student council and then through discussion at home group or sub-school levels, become important for all students' development and learning.
This involves students in decision-making and action through classroom learning partnerships, and through specific 'student participation' projects or approaches. Curriculum negotiation is basic to all such approaches and can occur at all levels - though it has been described most clearly in senior school curriculum (e.g. Holdsworth, 1986, p. 30).
Even within centrally determined curriculum, schools have discovered and developed opportunities for negotiation of learning methods, but in other courses, curriculum partnerships between teachers and students have taken joint responsibility for setting goals, canvassing needs and background, identifying appropriate content, devising learning methods and putting appropriate assessment and evaluation measures in place.
The most extensive examples of student participation are seen in the wide range of curriculum projects that have been developed within schools. These can be:
There are long lists of practical examples in all these areas. It is important that documentation and sharing of practical initiatives continue to occur.1
Attacks and deflections
In developing such approaches in Australia over the past twenty-five years, it has been possible to recognize some of the ways in which these basic ideas have been misinterpreted, deflected, co-opted and marginalized. By identifying at least some of these limitations, it is also possible to suggest ways in which some of the difficulties may be overcome.
First, ideas of student participation have been seen simply as 'providing a voice' for young people and this, if taken literally, may serve to limit possibilities for programmes.
A simple focus on 'being heard' can merely serve to make it appear that young people are active participants; this may, in reality, act as a 'safety valve' to ease pressures for real changes in decision-making or simply be a way of letting decision-makers feel as if they are 'doing the right thing'.
Some recent student forums have realized the limitations on 'youth voice' and are explicitly making bridges from the concept of 'voice' to ideas of 'agency' or 'action'. One changed its name from 'Teenroar' to Teenaction': 'The idea is to build on what we know and rather than just 'roar' - 'act' on implementation of programmes which will positively address relevant issues in the youth culture' (Osmotherly, 1998). For many years, the concept of a community 'participation ladder' has been useful for distinguishing ideas of 'consultation' and 'involvement' as more limited than ideas of 'participation' and 'action'. In a similar way, it is possible to distinguish between views of 'youth/student voice' and characterize the stages on the way to the real inclusion of young people in their communities.
This development has been seen as a move from 'youth voice' to 'youth agency', i.e. towards an increase in the capacity and willingness of young people to act upon issues that affect them.
In working with primary and secondary students, it has been recognized that student groups tend to work in modes of 'do', 'ask' and 'share' (Holdsworth, 1998). While there are some things that student groups can do by themselves, these tend to be relatively trivial in most cases and marginalize the groups into, for example, fund-raising or social roles; while there are some things that student groups will need to ask others to do (making requests or demands), these tend to lead to rejection and to reinforcement of students' powerlessness. While it is recognized that the capacity and willingness to both 'do' and 'ask' is important for the individual development of a student's own agency, the more important structural challenge has been to encourage a movement towards the 'share' role in which students (as other parties do) work with others through accountable, decision-making partnerships.
At the moment, however, with very few exceptions, students (and young people generally) remain locked out of such partnerships, relegated to asking, encouraged to have a 'voice', but no more.
Secondly, there has been a disturbing trend for some time to move attention from participation to representation and then to leadership - and to focus upon developing the skills of the few students elected or appointed to elite positions. Similarly, while curriculum programmes such as cross-age tutoring have traditionally been inclusive (and even provided alternative positions of responsibility and value to those students otherwise excluded and marginalized) there has been a similar degradation of such programme intentions in favour of the already advantaged students 'who will best represent the school'. For some schools, caught in situations where every action is thought of as 'selling' the image of the school, educational outcomes have become secondary to those of public relations.
In a process of choosing only the 'best students' to be tutors or of setting up student council elections that reward the already articulate and 'in the know', the forms and activities of participation hide a commitment to the selection of the few for continued success. The loss of equity criteria is alarming. Whose voices are being heard? Those who speak most coherently? Those with whom we most readily agree?
This observation is reinforced by recent research at the Youth Research Centre (at the University of Melbourne), in which many young people alienated from schooling were highly disparaging of student organizations, seeing them neither as effective nor as representing them (Dwyer et al., 1998).
In classroom forums, and in forums for enabling students to 'enact their voices', we need to ensure that all voices are heard and that all students are enabled to walk the bridge from voice to action. That will mean taking specific measures to overcome the legacies of silence, distrust and inactivity that have traditionally and particularly locked some students out. It will be necessary to be vigilant against tendencies to co-opt participation programmes and see them as disposable 'add-ons' or as only accessible to already successful students.
The same forums mentioned earlier have shown that it is possible to be conscious of these trends and to work to maintain a focus on equity issues. While Theobald reports that 'the most committed members of this generation want to have a voice in the on-going dialogue' (Theobald, 1997; my emphasis), a press report of a youth forum which starts by quoting his ideas, noted that 'one of the striking things about this project is that it has managed to engage young people who are not normally active on student representative councils or other formal groups' (Guy, 1998).
Continued attention to selective ideas of 'leadership' or 'participation' may indeed finally be self-defeating. Where governance or curriculum activities have excluded the broad range of students and have bypassed their interests, concerns and abilities, these students have grown increasingly cynical and angry at what they see as another form of coercion and deflection. The initiatives fail.
Thirdly, the focus of what is regarded as student participation can become limited and limiting. It is, unfortunately, still common to find that both students and teachers simply think that some form of student organization is 'what student participation is all about'. This can lead both to the token participation of students in 'safe issues' and, particularly, to the exclusion of student participation from what is central to the school - the learning and teaching that occur there.
Even relatively forward-looking approaches to civics and citizenship education have talked as if 'representative democracy' defines the total scope of what being an 'active citizen' is, rather than acknowledging that having and exercising a valuable role within communities is at the core of our citizenship. School-based approaches have consequently focused on the need to build on existing examples of student democracy and leadership, but to the exclusion of curriculum initiatives. Learning about active citizenship in schools will include support for active student voice and participation through student councils and within various areas of school governance, but it must also include fundamental changes to the ways in which we structure the teaching and learning in classrooms - particularly towards rethinking how we share purpose and demonstrate authentic outcomes.
STUDENT PARTICIPATION: MORE THAN ACTIVE LEARNING
Finally, ideas of student participation can be limited by being seen as merely 'student-centred education', 'active learning' or 'creative teaching'. It is thought that by having a 'hands-on' curriculum in which students are 'doing things', or conducting simulation activities, that they are active participants.
The limitations of such a view of student participation need to be challenged; the final section of this paper provides one practical example drawn from the Mind Matters: Mental Health Education Programme developed by a consortium that included the Youth Research Centre.
Doing the two-step: examples of the educational process
Student participation involves more than student activity. Active learning may be only the first step in the dance; when we talk about student participation we actually mean doing the two-step.
STEP 1: MOVING FROM PASSIVE INSTRUCTION TO ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT
Inquiry-based learning approaches are characterized by an active role for young people in investigation and presentation. This is the first step in which we move from presentation of information by the teacher, and relatively passive responses from students. It is characterized by teachers asking: 'how can I organize for the students to do it instead of me doing it?'
For example, in a lesson about the nature and range of local mental health services, a teacher-centred approach would involve providing students with a list of the appropriate organizations; classroom activities might then be focused on answering worksheet questions about this information. The first step towards participation would be to change this approach by having students carry out the local investigation. They might, as a group or in small teams, compile the list of services (asking and answering questions about where to find information) and perhaps interview a range of these services in order to write descriptive paragraphs about what they do. This information would then be disseminated within the class and discussed.
The teacher role has moved from one of presenter of information to one of organizer of learning. The student role has moved from recipient of facts to active searcher for information and meaning.
But this is just the first step.
STEP 2: MOVING FROM ACTIVITY TO VALUE CREATION
When we talk meaningfully of developing student participation, we really need to be thinking of approaches that go beyond this. These approaches also involve creating real and recognized roles of community value for the students and for their learning. Each example of active learning can be 'pushed' a step further to create engagement with meaningful outcomes.
To pursue the curriculum example, we could start by asking questions about the collection of information: 'why do we want to find this out?' and 'what are we going to do with the information?' Several possible outcomes might then emerge from class discussion: the students could publish the information they have discovered in a school newspaper, in a community forum or newspaper, or through a small booklet or pamphlet which is distributed in the area.
Students are now learning for a direct purpose. They are adding something of community value to their learning, and are being seen as valuable community members, doing valuable things. These are all direct indicators of enhanced mental health.
The challenges for teachers in doing the 'student participation two-step' are to be:
1. The national newsletter Connect has provided a means for this to happen for almost twenty years. Connect Journal Supporting Student Participation, 1-12 Brooke Street, Northcote 3070 Victoria, Australia.
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