Engaging High School Youth in their Own Education

So when you are bored and not really engaged with what is going on around you, is that a good learning environment for you? It apparently isn’t for most of America’s high school students.

As reported in a June 15 article in Education Week, “Study: Teens Are Bored”

Most high school students feel bored and disconnected from school, according to a new survey of students from 103 high schools in 27 states. Begun in 2004, the annual High School Survey of Student Engagement aims to take a pulse on teenagers’ attitudes toward school and learning. But the latest results, released last week, show that students were just as bored in 2009 as they have been every year since 2006.

The study is “Charting the Path from Engagement to Achievement: A Report on the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement”, Conducted by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University in Bloomington. I think it is a critical bit of input into our needed effort to transform our education system in the 21st Century.

When presented with this sort of crisis, our public school systems tend to have very bureaucratic responses, with decision-making that emanates from a very high district, state or even (in the last couple decades with Goals 2000, NCLB and Obama’s “Race to the Top”) national level. That response is generally well within a “box” of hierarchical “command and control” top-down edicts that are generally focused on fine-tuning mandated curriculum, further scripting how teachers interact with students, and generally continuing a perhaps three-decade trend that disempowers teachers and students as agents of educational change.

Among the most disturbing findings of this study is that only 41% of the students surveyed said they went to school because of what they learned there. So why are the other 59% attending? Please really think about that… Why are the other 59% of students attending? What is their motivation for going to school?

Wouldn’t you agree that this study illuminates a very fundamental crisis in how are society is framing education and human development? I don’t understand why more people don’t realize that we are looking at our youth in school more as the raw material for creating a product rather than key stakeholders in a process. We are still generally caught up in the logic of hierarchical power-over thinking where well-meaning adults charged with stewarding youth feel they need to make all the significant decisions for those young people, or they are not doing their jobs.

I am particularly troubled by what I read about and see in most high schools (confirmed by this study), because I have seen a very different way of setting up a venue for the development of older youth.

An Alternative Approach for Older Youth

I have worked with older youth not as a teacher but as an adult facilitator of Unitarian-Universalist youth-led camps and conferences. We UUs are “process junkies” and we teach these group process techniques (which are designed to empower everyone to actively participate) to adults and youth. We empower our older youth (high school age) to program, staff and run their camps and conferences themselves, with minimal adult intervention.

A youth governing board is elected each year by all the youth attending the district-wide summer camp. That board meets quarterly and plans week-long camps and weekend conferences throughout the year. The board appoints youth “deans” to coordinate each event.

The dean(s) put together their youth “staff”, which collectively develops the camp or conference curriculum and programming, each youth playing a specific role leading the various programmed events, working as counselors or “chaplains” to informally handle individual issues, handling registration, managing the budget and money, and in some cases even providing the food. Programming can include adult or youth-led speakers and workshops, facilitated “rap sessions”, youth-led “worship services”, arts and crafts, dances, talent shows, hikes, and all the array of typical camp or conference curriculum.

This is all youth-designed and youth-led (other than say a particular workshop where an adult is invited to present and/or lead). Both my now young-adult kids had the opportunity to participate in these events as attendees, staff and even as “deans”. My daughter served on the youth board for two years, the second as the board president. She co-coordinated one of the week-long summer camps. My son designed and led several of the weekend conferences.

Just FYI, in case you are wondering or otherwise concerned, adults do attend these camps and conferences. To meet insurance regulations, the events have to have at least one adult on site for every ten youth. But the attending adults don’t run anything; they are basically there to be available in case there are significant calamities.

But even when a serious situation arises that calls for specific intervention, it is still handled mainly by the youth, with perhaps more significant adult participation than with the day-to-day stuff. During the week-long summer camp my daughter led, two of the youth campers were found to have violated the camp rules for sexual conduct. Over the course of two long nights without much sleep, my daughter, the rest of the camp youth staff and several of the attending adults met in long sessions with the campers who had broken the rules. They were heard out, the issues were discussed in depth, and the appropriate consequences were agreed to by the assembled group. The two campers were asked to leave camp the next morning and I recall were also not allowed to attend another camp for another six months.

I would like to testify to all of you the energy of empowered young people I am surrounded with at these events is so exhilarating and gives me such hope for the developmental possibilities of the human race. How capable we are if given the opportunity, even at the age where some people still call us “children”, to run our own lives!

Applying this Paradigm to Public High Schools

So I contrast my experience with empowered, highly capable UU youth with what I witness when I walk into a conventional high school and see how relatively un-empowered the kids are, how much of their potential for individual agency and wisdom and collective ability to problem solve and design and mnage an enriched environment is untapped and even suppressed.

I would suggest that at least some of these principles and methodologies for empowering youth be employed in high school environments to change the paradigm from youth as passive consumer and “product” of an educational process to active stakeholders in designing or at least managing their learning environment. Even though the curriculum and programming of a year-long instructional high school can be very different than a week-long camp or weekend conference, the fundamentals of governance and programming are essentially the same, and can be done by youth alongside adults, if not led primarily by youth with adults as consultants, mentors and subject-matter experts.
As I have noted before, there are schools that actually run using these kinds of youth-led principles and processes. Most notable in the United States, and a model for other such schools elsewhere in our country and others, is the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. Though this is a “free school” with individual students setting their own curriculum, the democratic empowerment of students can be applied to any type of school, whether instructional (like most conventional public and private schools), holistic (Dewey, Waldorf, Montessori, etc) or “free”.

So I would suggest that conventional high schools confront the crisis that this study highlights by implementing regular egalitarian and democratic process into the high school program. Have facilitated discussions among the students about the issues of student engagement (or not) in school. Solicit suggestions and actually try all or some of the suggestions that gain consensus. Have students and teachers participate on the various governance committees within the individual schools and at the larger district level that manage these new initiatives and other suggested changes.

From my experience with the collective wisdom of the UU high-school-aged youth, I would suspect your typical high school class would be able to muster enough collective wisdom and “solutioning” to move the needle of student engagement at least some of the way in the right direction. Give this disengaged majority of students a third avenue of expression beyond checking out or acting out.

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