Last year, we co-created 100 Days of Conversations About School to inform our understanding of what students, educators, families, and community members think about the purpose of school. It’s evident after listening to 500+ voices within 100+ conversations that the research, theory, and practice of a progressive, human-centered education is needed. At Human Restoration Project, we take great pride in our ability to back up our practice with ample research. But it’s one thing to read data – it’s much more powerful to hear the impacts of schooling directly. We’ve organized our findings into our four values statements:
Learning is rooted in purpose finding and community relevance.
Overwhelmingly, participants shared that having the freedom to choose projects that had a real impact were their most empowering learning experiences. Whether it was working in a career program, tackling an art project, or being out in the community – young people wanted their learning to matter. And, they shared over and over that they desire choice.
Social justice is the cornerstone to educational success.
To have an empowering learning experience, one must recognize the impact that race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and other marginalized identities conflict with our ability to create opportunities for all. Young people desire to stand up and make a difference, moving beyond their classrooms to advocacy, activism, and having an impact on society.
Dehumanizing practices do not belong in schools.
In many scenarios, sadly but truthfully, participants spoke about how rejecting the education system was needed for them to learn. And for those who embraced academics, what kept them empowered were teachers who cared about them and their well-being. It was readily apparent that young people needed supportive teachers who advocated for them and taught them to overcome challenges and succeed.
Learners are respectful toward each other’s innate human worth.
Young people and educators go through a lot. With constant turmoil in the news cycle, on social media, and in our daily lives, what was empowering was the recognition and advocacy of mental health. Participants noted the importance of therapy, educators considering mental health, and the ability for them to be helped and help others. Having an emotional connection in the classroom was frequently mentioned.
What was not mentioned
Listening across all of these conversations, it’s clear that many assumed importances about school are not on the minds of young people or adults. Although these ideas may dominate discourse in educational politics or district mandates, it’s clear that they are not aligned with young peoples’ needs. No participants spoke about:
- Fearing “learning loss” or falling behind due to the pandemic.
- Obtaining a ton of factual information or covering all of the standards of a curriculum.
- Desiring more explicit instruction or educators telling them what to do/know (as opposed to inquiry-based or community-driven learning).
- Wishing for more control in one’s education, such as disciplined classrooms.
- Opting for small, manageable, guided tasks over more intense, holistic projects.
- Wanting to “get ahead”, being more successful than other countries, or for some kind of individual economic gain over others.
Of course, this is common sense for those who work with young people and listen to them. The reason why we curate research and listen to young people is that we want educators to realize that they’re not irrational. Sometimes the cognitive dissonance of enforcing traditional school policies and practices feels off: you know that something is wrong, but that’s just the way it is. When students tell you that school doesn’t work for them…it isn’t just your classroom!
Yet, there are pockets of educators and schools across the world making radical changes that recognize in order to create a human-driven education system, we need to examine the structures of the classroom. Pressing forward and armed with this knowledge, we need to bring about a grassroots movement toward change. We must embrace the same values we advocate for in the classroom, using our personal experience and relative social/political capital to advocate for purpose-finding, social justice, ending dehumanizing practices, and embracing mutual care for all.