We have been conducting our school, a residential year nine leadership school, for 12 years now. As the founding principal, I have been in the privileged position of being able to observe so many changes and evolutions as we grew into one of the largest year-nine only schools in Australia. Some may question that bold claim of size, but the numbers stack up this way, with our 135 students in three campuses living with us 24/7 for 63 days at a time, with four new intakes a year. Every term we have a new intake of students, boys and girls, from most of the 270 or so government education secondary colleges across Victoria.
This has provided us with rich background and observation on an enormous cross-section of both the Victorian socio-economic and educational landscape. Far from an ivory tower view, it has enabled us to get down and dirty with so many students, families and schools and really understand the issues in contemporary education. But the most amazing thing is the consistency in outcomes and feedback from all participants and their families and schools. They want more: every child in our education system needs to have this experience or something like it. But what is that “experience” that they all seem to be clamouring for?
It has taken a long time for me to realise the clear and underlying reality of what was happening. In the early days of our operation, we used to deflect the many naysayers and antagonists with details of the excellent and bespoke year nine curriculum. We would discuss at length the social enterprise and community-learning project embedded into our curriculum, still considered cutting edge and amazingly engaging for year nine students. Those detractors would laugh haughtily and patronisingly suggesting “you don’t need to go to the hills to do that sort of stuff”, and they are right. It can all happen in schools right there in the ‘burbs: and it doesn’t as a general rule. It does at our school.
So we pursued research and sought to really understand what it was that made students both want to go to school with us (this IS year nine, remember, the most disinterested year group), what made our program create such strong learning and social bonds and why these long-term outcomes kept reappearing. In our research and feedback, students, families and home-schools alike would refer to the “changed student”, the “transformation” of an individual. Parents would ascribe adult-like behaviours to their children upon return from our program and moreover, the behaviours more often than not were retained: they stuck like mud. Schools would often talk about the focus a student had returned with, the drive, the goal setting and aspiration now present. True, most students have reintegration challenges but so do we all after a similar salient and life-changing experience. Teenagers are just not as well equipped emotionally, nor are schools structured such that facilitating such a change can happen without a certain need to exhibit that wonderful teenage emotional response.
The process for many teenagers in coping with such stressful events is one of following a cycle of sad-mad-bad: sad is the emotion felt about the end of a salient experience. Mad is the teenage coping strategy and bad is the behaviour we witness. Luckily it passes! And when it does, and it will, good things really do happen!
We sought to understand the changes and outcomes that were expressed in the words so often used: transformation. The term is often used in contemporary literature about leadership, and I would suggest ill-advisedly and in an uninformed way. My research has taken me to Canada and to first-nation’s people, embedding me in leadership retreats in the Rockies and undertaking courses to understand the concept and construct of “transformation”, especially when it is applied to adolescent learning. I have visited schools and centres across Nth America with the support of a Churchill Fellowship. My understanding is clearer, but not totally transparent!
At age 14 or 15, adolescents are going through the time of greatest growth, change and cognitive development in their lives. Our paediatric and adolescent psychologist are better able to describe these, but we all witness the behaviours! They are going through a series of emotional, neurological, cognitive and physical upheavals and our school systems can only at best pay lip service to these most significant waypoints in the human life. I do not intend to suggest that traditional cultures have the complete answer, but somewhere in our pre-industrial era societies, the notion of “it takes a village to raise a child” rang true, and teenagers were raised by the village and given access to what we now realise is a rite of passage to adult-life. We just do not, at all, do that in schools today. Not systemically anyway. We need to recreate the village and the rite.
As a result of this apparent disregard of the developmental needs of teenagers, what we do is wring our hands in despair at the naughty and disruptive behaviour of our teenagers and seek to apply more standardised testing to understand the success of our schools against national standards. Then we punish those schools and do diagnostic tests on the schools that do not come up to standard. And we medicate and sedate those students who display “abnormal” behaviour or even threaten to become over excited and over stimulated.
We need to fundamentally change the way we do education to and with adolescents. We need to create a teaching and learning approach and use a curriculum content that addresses these developmental needs of teens. If we do that, student outcomes will improve. Attendance will improve, retention will improve. Literacy and numeracy will improve. Teacher retention will improve. We talk about the need to do things better and have improved student outcomes: it is not happening with a system driven by standardised testing. Everyone wants schools to get better and student outcomes to improve. Imagine if it was suggested that schools should get worse! It needs to be driven by a system underwritten by an understanding of the needs of adolescents.
It would be my humble opinion that if we changed this one aspect of education, the middle-years, and used a more informed and more holistic way to create the content and pedagogy, we would have many beneficial spin-offs with early intervention of potential youth-at-risk issues as well.
We need in education to recreate the adolescent rite of passage and provide a meaningful way for young people to transition into adulthood in a complex and fast moving world. We have a model of how we can achieve this in Victorian Education, one of the most progressive systems in the world. The model is the School for Student Leadership. Our challenge is to help our leaders and policy makers to get behind this and support the idea becoming ubiquitous.