I wrote earlier in this blog space about work with some 100 students from across Alberta in Canmore this week. The key ingredient of this work is trust and respect. Treating students, teachers, and principals as colleagues who each have different parts to play in our schools, but whose voices need to be heard, understood and acted upon.
What was impressive was how mature the student voice is. I have been engaged in educational research, policy ,and teaching related activities since 1972 (not 1066, as one student kindly pointed out). I have talked with cabinet ministers, senior policy advisors, superintendents, principals, teachers and students all over the world – in some 70 countries in fact. My conversations with some students this week were as informed, provocative, insightful and mindful as many of the conversations with senior policy makers and deep thinkers about education.
At the heart of the concerns students have are just four things: authenticity, engagement, respect, and challenge. Let me elaborate.
What many of the students seek in their learning are what is called authentic learning tasks. They want to work on issues, ideas and challenges that matter to them or that they can see are genuine and real in some way. While they are perfectly capable of abstract thought and of historical analysis, they want to focus their learning on the world in which they live. When I talked to three students about the work we are doing on a project called 9 Billion Lives – how will the world support enriched and meaningful lives for the nine billion people who will soon live on the planet – they were engaged and wanted to learn, contribute and make a difference. They understand that they need to know more about science, mathematics, technology, creativity and other things to be able to contribute, but they are looking to do so. In terms of the work of Victor Frankl, they are engaged in an authentic search for meaning. What is interesting is how articulate they are about that search and what it means for learning, curriculum, and collaboration.
This leads to the second issue – engagement. Each school present (and some schools had several groups present) described action research projects they were intending to work on. Almost all were focused on the same thing: increasing, expanding and deepening student engagement in the work of the school. Whether this was making better use of flexible learning times, strengthening peer to peer learning or going deeper into ideas that matter, the students in Canmore want to be deeply engaged in the work of the school. They want engaging relationships with peers for learning; engaged teaching and learning activities; engagement with others around the world. For these students, engagement was not a “buzz word” – it reflected their search for a meaningful, intelligent relationship with other students and with the adults in the school. So as to enable their search for meaning, they were looking for meaningful, thoughtful and enabling relationships.
Which in turn leads to the third issue – respect. What they were articulating, to my ears at least, was a call to be respected for who they are right now. We can all learn, grow and develop. But being shown respect helps us on this journey. Respect can come in many ways: being actively listened to; being given more responsibility; being given feedback which helps understanding and development (e.g. on an assignment); being given a challenge which demonstrated trust and respect. When these students have been shown respect – for example, when some of them traveled to Finland last year and were trusted and respected both by their parents and teachers, but also by their host families and Finnish peers – their personal growth was remarkable. One student said to me that traveling to Finland made her reflect on “just how she treated other people and that she need to show the care, compassion and concern shown to her by her Finnish billet parents and friends”. It was life changing for her.
Finally, most of the students in the room in Canmore were ready to be challenged to do the next thing to move along the agenda of building a great school for all. They genuinely want to help other students be successful since, they have worked out, this will help them too. Canada is good at the work of equity – these students want to be challenged to make it better. They had a great many ideas – lots of small things – which could make a difference.
I came away from my three days with these young people with a strong sense that the future of my adopted country is in good hands. Impressive minds, articulate and fun young people with a commitment to an inclusive future. Let’s help them “make it so!”.