Changing Schools for Changing Students

I spent three days in two schools last week leading SoundOut Student Forums. Its been almost a week, and I’m ready to talk about it. There were mixed results.

Across Washington schools are changing at rapid paces. They are changing because the state and federal governments mandate them to; they are changing because the parents in their communities want them to; they are changing because the world needs them to. But after absorbing student opinions and ideas about schools for a week steady, I have a reason why schools need to change: Students have changed.

As so many school reformers have proposed, the world is a different place than when today’s schools were invented more than 100 years ago. There is technology that was not imagined; there are issues that were not addressed. Today’s schools have to face those realities – but they also have to face the reality that young people themselves have changed.

In our hyper-commercialized society youth have had to adapt. I have had a difficult time finding research identifying youth perspectives from pre-1965; however, if Dewey, Montesorri, and Piaget were telling the truth, students used to believe what teachers in schools taught them, and learned great lessons from their parents. Today students have different teachers that extend beyond and into the home and school. Corporate pedagogy, which is any business-driven learning, has taught several generations of youth several anti-democratic lessons that I have heard repeated in the SoundOut Forums:

  • The goal of life is to own stuff
  • Sex sells anything
  • The military is everywhere we are, and that is good
  • Youth culture is different from adult culture
  • Kids should be seen, not heard

I have not interpreted these lessons from what students have said: They say these things directly to me. Sometimes I have adults dispute that “their” “kids” could have said this, so I have to bring in the volunteer student facilitators to corraborate my report. I also share with them reports from Henry Giroux, Kathleen Cushman, Mike Males, and Allison Cook-Sather, all of whom have testified to young people taking those perspectives in some form. (Yes, the irony of having to refer to ‘outsider’ educational experts in order to convince adults of what the students in their school believe does not escape me.)

Its not just student perspective that has changed. Students’ abilities have changed as well. Dennis Harper’s Generation YES provides great examples of what students can do today as they use GenYES to teach teachers to use technology in their classrooms. More examples flow from What Kids Can Do, as well as our own Freechild Project and SoundOut. We have identified dozens of current examples of youth teaching, evaluating, researching, planning, making decisions, advocating, and doing other really powerful action around the world.

A United Nations publication put out in early 2005 easily illustrated this contention. The Evolving Capacities of the Child contrasted historical research with current examples to illustrate an arch over which young peoples’ abilities to change the world have become deeper, more sophisticated, more sustainable, and more impactful on themselves, their families, their schools, their communties, and our world.

Which brings me back to why schools have to change. Schools have to change because students have changed. The perspectives of young people have changed and the abilities of young people have changed. Schools are still huge players in the life of every ‘first world’ child and youth, and it is not “too late” to teach young people. Its never too late.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once argued for complete voting rights for African Americans in a book called Why We Can’t Wait. His passionate and powerful prose thoroughly detailed the urgency and timeliness of voting rights. Young people today can’t wait any longer for schools (or our communities) to change; we should not make them wait any longer.

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