Engagement, Pathways, Policy, Promising Practices, Teaching

Young People Speaking Back From the Margins

The line I want to take in this article is that how we position young people has a profound bearing on how we deal with them, both in terms of policy and practically. In doing this, I want to draw upon some of the issues that have emerged from my own research with young people in Australia over the past two decades or so. The young people I have worked with are predominantly from backgrounds where they, their families, and their communities have been put at a disadvantage through the effects of social, economic, and political forces and by the flow-on effects of globalization that have effectively devastated their communities and lives. Their diminished educational opportunities and subsequent life chances have been dramatic, even to the point of being catastrophic. Having said that, these young people are not hapless victims, nor are they passive recipients of deficit categories like “at riskness”, placed upon them by the media, politicians, agencies, and some academics. Rather they are active agents exercising choices and making decisions about their lives in situations that amount to speaking back.

I want to explore what is happening when young people from contexts of disadvantage adopt a position of making choices against the institution of schooling that appear to be against their own long term economic interests and that may have the effect of further exacerbating their apparent marginalization. I want to reflect upon how they go about making lives for themselves while speaking back to notions of mainstream schooling and – in many cases – finding their way into alternative and more amenable forms of learning. Another way of putting this is to ask the question: what are the conditions around schooling that young people speak back against, and what are the alternative conditions they argue need to be brought into existence for them to re-connect to and become re-engaged with learning?

These young people from the most complex of backgrounds are involved in making all kinds of decisions around their own identity formation.

What is going on in young educational lives?

One thing that gets conveniently overlooked when schools are prevailed upon and assailed by so-called “reforms” from outside, driven by external agendas, is that the young people whose lives are most closely and directly affected, and who are the most intimate witnesses of schooling, are the group (along with their teachers) that is the most actively denied an official voice. There is rather an irony in all of this because in almost all other aspects of their lives these young people from the most complex of backgrounds are involved in making all kinds of decisions around their own identity formation. They are significant figures in holding families together economically through part-time work and in dealing with the complexities that come with family dysfunction and wider social fragmentation and disintegration.

A number of themes come through repeatedly and most consistently around what repels these particular young people from school and turns them into exiles from the social institution of schooling:

  • School treats them as immature – as if they were infants or small children.
  • It fails to respectfully acknowledge their lives – their class backgrounds, the communities they come from, their life experiences, or their aspirations for the future.
  • It homogenizes them in the way in which one-size-fits-all policies are applied to them – especially around fractious issues like discipline, dress codes, illegal substance use, punctuality, and the like.
  • It has an inability to be flexible around the complexities of their lives – especially around issues that have to do with their lives beyond and outside of school.
  • It provides these young people with no real meaningful opportunity to own their learning – what they learn, where they learn, or how they learn. In this regard, schooling rides over their lives.
  • It has no real sense of justice – in a context where young people often have a highly developed, if somewhat exaggerated, sense of what is fair.
  • It fails to grasp the fact that young people have emotional lives – it is as if they are being asked to park these at the school gate or the classroom door.
  • It is boring and irrelevant. If schools have a redeeming feature at all, it is as places in which young people are able to socialize with their friends.
  • It bears no relationship to the lives these young people want to live beyond school.
  • Schools are, mostly, stifled by uninspiring teaching, made so by relentless testing and other mindless forms of accountability.
  • Teachers, with a few exceptions, are switched off and burnt-out.
  • Many of these unsavoury aspects are held in place by parents who have been sold the idea by political regimes and the media that schools are places of unregulated choice, consumption, and extraction – league tables, calibration, image, and impression management – all in the interests of continuous comparisons.
  • A toxic and narrow version of vocationalism operates in schools, relegating these kinds of students to low-level tracks that convert them into factory fodder for insecure menial work.

The upside is that, when asked, young people are very insightful and eloquent in describing the recuperative conditions that have to be created for them to re-engage with learning.

None of this is to pillory teachers or castigate schools for the predicament they find themselves in with these young people; the picture is much larger and more complex than apportioning blame in such a simplistic way. As Richard Gibboney has argued recently, these are all artefacts of the way in which “an undemocratic capitalism has brought public education to its knees”.[1] The upside to it is that, when asked, young people are very insightful and eloquent in describing the recuperative conditions that have to be created for them to re-engage with learning – and these conditions are demonstrably different from the ones that repelled them in the first place.

How can we bring young people in from the margins?

Another perplexing irony in all of this is that these young people – who are ignored, silenced, and marginalized, whose lives are ridden over, and who either self-exile themselves from schools or are propelled out of them – are the same young people who have some extremely perceptive views on the very different conditions that can and need to be created for them to learn. Again, there are some consistent themes in what they say:

  • When the learning culture of the school is not one of fear, intimidation, punishment, and retribution, young people who often find schools to be hostile and alienating places find they can learn.
  • When schools welcome these young people for who they are, where they come from, and the strengths and assets they bring with them rather than labelling them according to their past histories, then learning occurs.
  • When the adults who are charged with assisting them are prepared to reveal something about themselves and their own lives as human beings, then a relational basis that is crucial to learning is created.
  • When their teachers convey a sense of genuinely liking these young people for who they are, regardless of perceived imperfections attaching to individuals, family, or social class background, then learning becomes possible.
  • When the institutions they are required to learn in are able to flex around their lives – which is to say, acknowledge in practical ways the complexities of their lives – then an essential foundation for learning is brought into existence.
  • When learning experiences are built around issues that are of interest to these young people, then learning is re-ignited around their passion and desire to learn. They need to see this connection to their lives and the fact that they have genuine space in which to negotiate their learning.
  • There need to be non-authoritative ways of resolving interpersonal differences that do not paint young people into corners. This involves providing dialogical approaches to the resolution of differences.
  • Above all, there needs to be a genuine atmosphere of trust that these young people are indeed capable of learning, and that the role of adults is to provide the necessary support.

What, then, are the impediments to this occurring?

Everything I have said so far sounds eminently reasonable and hardly contestable – and herein lies the major problem. There are several obstacles that present as barriers and result in significant slippage between a reasonable set of propositions and the reality of ensuring that they become deeply embedded in educational practice.

They go something like this:

  • Schools and teachers need to have ways of interrupting their habituated practices to critically reflect upon and question themselves about how they are travelling in respect of the issues noted so far. Put another way, they need ways of doing a collective audit on how they are doing from the vantage point of young people.
  • They need to do these collective self-assessments in a climate of non-retribution and a context in which there is a genuine preparedness to challenge the status quo and to change.
  • They need to be prepared to foreground the issues of advancing young people’s lives as non-negotiable core issues. This requires considerable courage and leadership, especially in a climate and an ethos that celebrates decisiveness, managing people and outcomes, image and impression management, and fixing things through approaches that name, shame, and expose recalcitrants.

Courage can be in very short supply when those in ascendant positions have to be prepared to jettison their accustomed role.

Courage can be in very short supply when those in ascendant positions have to be prepared to jettison their accustomed role, which requires them to demonstrate that they have “solutions”, that they have “can-do” policies, and that they are “results-driven” – many of which may be demonstrably wrong-headed approaches. It requires incredible courage to hold to the line that those in subaltern positions might just have important knowledge worth listening to. Approaching complex, multi-faceted questions in the more democratic and inclusive way being suggested here requires more time, can be considered to be more tedious, can appear more untidy, and may not always appear to be moving in a desirable linear direction. Anything less than the kind of political and policy re-alignment being suggested in this paper can only result in young people continuing to be sold short – and that is not a viable long-term option.

The ideas that form part of this paper come from an Australian Research Council funded project entitled Re-engaging disadvantaged young people with learning.

I express my appreciation to the ARC for its funding support and to the young people concerned for their honesty and generosity in sharing their stories.

EN BREF – Les possibilités réduites en éducation et, ensuite, dans la vie, de nombreux jeunes marginalisés sont dramatiques, au point d’être catastrophiques. Mais ces jeunes ne sont ni des victimes impuissantes, ni des porteurs passifs des étiquettes – comme « à risque » -véhiculées par des catégories de déficits et que leur apposent les médias, les politiciens, les organismes et certains chercheurs. Plutôt, ils sont des agents qui exercent des choix et qui prennent des décisions au sujet de leur vie, dans des circonstances qui équivalent à répliquer. Quand nous les écoutons, ils nous disent très clairement ce qui en fait des exilés des institutions sociales d’éducation. Ils expriment aussi des points de vue très perspicaces au sujet des conditions très différentes qui peuvent et qui doivent être créées pour leur permettre d’apprendre. Seul un réalignement sur le plan des politiques permettant aux voix des jeunes marginalisés d’être entendus et d’avoir des suites peut engendrer les changements nécessaires pour faire des écoles des lieux où ils peuvent s’engager de nouveau dans l’apprentissage.

[1] Richard Gibboney (2010) Why an undemocratic capitalism has brought public education to its knees. In J. DeVitis & L. Irwin-DeVitis (eds) Adolescent Education: A Reader. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, pp. 223-237.

Meet the Expert(s)

John Smyth

John Smyth is Research Professor of Education, School of Education, University of Ballarat, Australia and research leader for the multi-disciplinary cross-university research theme Addressing Disadvantage and Inequality in Education and Health. He is the author of many books the most recent of which is (with Barry Down & Peter McInerney) Hanging in with Kids’ in Tough Times: Engagement in Contexts of Educational Disadvantage in the Relational School (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010).

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