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Opportunity to contribute and participate

October 27th, 2009

Thanks Rachel for your comments on the first thinking piece I wrote from the conference.

The second idea that I found myself musing on as I reflected on the conversations held during the Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century symposia relates to the “opportunity to contribute and participate”. I am curious if you think there is anything  useful or new here that can nudge our thinking forward in terms of what might constitute a 21st century curriculum in practice. The essence of the idea is that young people are living in the 21st century, that they have insights that we can learn from, and that they have a contribution to make ­ and we need to provide the tools and the opportunities for them to do this. In the context of schooling some commentators suggested that young people need to be considered as resource and not a problem to be fixed. Ronald Dahl, a professor of psychiatry and psychology, highlighted the fact that although early life is very important in shaping the brain there are other important times too. He suggested that adolescence may be a unique time with new interactions developing between neural pathways. It is a time when thinking and control systems are getting stronger and with scaffolding, he thought, this energy can be used to ignite passions; to take action in purposeful activities. Another speaker, Jacquelynne Eccles, said it was young people who led the de-segregation of schools in the United States and asked “how can we encourage them to take responsibility – to understand that they have the opportunity to make changes”. She used a wonderful metaphor of leadership, calling for young people to be “thermostat leaders” – changing the climate of the society and for them not to be as many leaders ­ merely “thermometer leaders” ­ who just read and report on the climate.

The idea of young people having the energy and ideas to shape a more positive  future was picked up by other speakers. It was suggested that many young people are interested in contributing, in making a difference to current global challenges, such as global warming, and are open to being engaged. However, the opportunity to participate in this way is often limited and as Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, suggested we often say, “don’t get distracted, concentrate on school stuff” rather than saying “here’s a window of opportunity to work in the community”. A number of examples were given that illustrated how powerful such experiences can be for learning. One commonly used is for older students who are struggling to succeed at school to have the opportunity to teach younger children. This strategy takes what the older kids have to give, recognises this and draws on it, and so provides a context for building confidence and the courage to continue to learn. To be able to contribute, participate ­ and lead ­ young people need not only to be given opportunities; they also need to be given the tools to take up such work.  Further they need to think they have something to contribute. This was an idea raised by researcher Peter Benson whose work involves talking with young people and he too took the position that young people were not vessels to be filled up but flames to be lit. His research, which involves interviewing young people demonstrated that while about 75% of young people can identify and talk about what really interests them, and the other 25% can do so with gentle probing, the significant adults in their lives (such as parents and teacher) frequently were unaware of this interest. Overall, Benson’s research has shown that: (1) everyone can describe what gives them joy and satisfaction, what Benson calls their “spark”; (2) young people yearn for authentic relationships: (3) they want opportunities to nourish the “spark”; and (4) they are keen to live in a community where they are seen as a resource not a problem to be fixed. He wasn’t suggesting that “sparks” should necessarily relate to a vocation, in fact he argued that they shouldn’t be turned into a vocation too soon. What was important was nourishing this interest/passion as it was this that helps people thrive and so feel compelled to participate and contribute in the world of today. He suggested that we should be asking all young people the following questions: what is your spark; who helps nourish your spark; who knows of  your spark; what gets in the way of your spark; how can I help?

There aren’t really any new ideas in all this either but perhaps it is helpful to think about them in the context of notions of our notions of participation and contribution, one of the key competencies in the New Zealand school curriculum. What do you think?

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