Just as student centered learning requires a partnership between youth and adults, building public understanding for change must be built upon this same fundamental partnership between the two largest stakeholder groups in education.
Yet, time and time again, students are overlooked as co-constructors of learning and players in education redesign. Unfortunately, there remains a pervasive societal belief that high school students are too young, too immature, or not yet wise enough to contribute in a meaningful way. This could not be further from the truth.
Of course, educators bring a wealth of professional expertise to school redesign efforts: a systems level perspective, a wide array of skills accrued over time and responsiveness to change over time. Less understood is the fact that young people hold a perspective of the learning experience adults cannot fully fathom. They are highly invested in shaping the world that will hold their life story and they possess a deep desire to make a difference now. Young people have the wisdom, creativity, and proven capacity to partner in school remodeling efforts, ensuring its integrity.
For youth, working closely with adults toward shared goals seeds the skills and confidence for lifelong learning and civic engagement. For adults, working closely with youth creates the opportunity to learn from the insights and unique perspectives of youth, often renewing their professional sense of purpose and shifting teaching toward more student-centered practices.
The integrity of this working partnership is tied to mutual respect, equity in an on-going exchange of ideas and input, and shared responsibility. When young people are challenged to bring forth their best efforts, adults similarly rise to the occasion. Both parties in grow in their understanding and commitment to change, grappling with the complexity of the school change process from the diverse perspectives of both key stakeholder groups. Youth-adult partnership unleashes a previously unknown source for problem solving and change.
Communications wisdom tells us that the “messenger” matters in building public understanding and support for change. Because the public at large generally grossly underestimates the capacity of young people to take meaningful roles in shaping the world, students are often the “unanticipated messenger” in school change efforts – a powerful and largely untapped role. When young people address community groups, teachers or their peers on behalf of change, people often unlock their defenses. They remind us that, across generations, we share the deepest of desires regarding education, thereby opening the door for change.