There are several challenges to overcome when we’re advocating youth involvement. Following is one way I’ve been examining those barriers for almost a decade, based on the work of Alfie Kohn.
Kohn says that structural impediments are a barrier to involving youth in decision-making. Adults working with youth frequently protest that they would love to open up the decision-making process but for the fact that a significant number of decisions are not theirs to give away or even to make themselves. Highly controlling organizations and programs may leave youth workers very little discretion about either programmatic or disciplinary issues. Often, adults subject to rigid directives from above may find it easier not “to resist administrators but to increase controls on the youth they work with.”
Resistance by adults offers another barrier. While structural constraints are sometimes very real, they can also be used as excuses to withhold power from youth that adults in any case are not inclined to share. The traditional youth program model sees adults as the king or queen of the program, and the fact is that monarchs do not always abdicate gracefully. No wonder many schoolroom teachers who express relief at having “a good class this year” use the word good as parents of a newborn might talk about having “a good baby” — that is, one who is quiet, docile, and little trouble to manage. Sometimes, however, the main barrier to giving young people choices is a simple lack of gumption. Parting with power is not easy, if only because the results are less predictable than in a situation where we have control. Asking youth to decide about even the simplest issues can be scary.
The last barrier Kohn addresses is resistance by youth. Most discouragingly, adults sometimes find that their willingness to let young people make decisions is met with an apparent reluctance on the part of the youths. This is really not so surprising, given that most of them have been conditioned to accept a posture of passivity at school and sometimes at home. After a few years of being instructed to do what you’re told, it is disconcerting to be invited – much less expected – to take responsibility for the way things are. This resistance takes three primary forms. The first is simply refusing: “That’s your job to decide,” students may protest. The second is testing: offering outrageous suggestions or responses to see if the teacher is really serious about the invitation to participate. The third is parroting: repeating what adults have said or guessing what this adult probably wants to hear. (Thus a fifth-grader asked to suggest a guideline for class conduct may recite, “We should keep our hands and feet to ourselves.”)
Of course, whether the last point is true – whether we really are looking for students who take risks and make decisions – is the first question that each of us must answer. The structural and attitudinal barriers erected by educators often seem impregnable, with the result that students continue to feel powerless and, to that extent, burned out. For decades, prescriptions have been offered to enhance student motivation and achievement. But these ideas are unlikely to make much of a difference so long as students are controlled and silenced.