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Will Learner Voice Lead to the Learner’s Revolution?

Brodie is an interesting kid; not precocious or in any way insolent, but also not afraid to share his opinions. He’d been going to one of Melbourne’s leading schools when late last year he decided it was time he and the school parted company.

It was about that time his father, Nicholas, a local realtor, was asked to come to a meeting with Brodie’s principal.

“Brodie appears to have a lot going on in his life,” said the principal.  “We know he’s already successfully running his own business, and I really don’t think we’ll be able to help him further in his endeavors. He’s told me he thinks he should be running his party entertainment business full time, and I agree with him.”

And that is exactly what Brodie is doing right now.

He started his business at fifteen, and by the time he entered Year 11 at school he was earning more than some of the adults he connected with. But he did still need his dad (and any other adult he could find) to drive him to his gigs two or three times a week.

So was Brodie a dropout? A rebel? Or could we call him a revolutionary?  By traditional measures, he didn’t make the school completion statistics and therefore some might say he was a failure.  So how should we describe the increasing number of young people making similar choices?

We all have Brodies in our schools, and we know why many like him leave before completing high school. So why do we still count them statistically as “dropouts”?  For many, it can be the best decision they make in their lives because it frees them to follow a passion which can be both rewarding and enjoyable.

Yet there appears to be widespread community consensus that 12 or 13 years of formal schooling offers our students the best choices in life. Is that really the case for every child in our modern world?  Did I miss the meeting that decided that trade apprenticeships or internships for sixteen-year-old kids weren’t a worthwhile choice  that they should consider?

Just last week one of Australia’s most successful businesspeople under forty, Ruslan Kogan, was quoted as saying that he had “little respect for formalized learning,” saying that “by the time there is a course for something it has become old technology.” So the real question is fast becoming how do schools keep up? Is it possible that for many of our kids staying in school actually holds them back?

Why are our models of schooling so tightly structured in ways that limit the opportunity for kids to make choices such as Brodie did, or indeed even take a gap year for fears they will “miss out” or maybe lose their thirst for learning?

In New Zealand they have taken this thinking one step further with a large coalition of leading national and multi-national companies publishing an open letter to the New Zealand public promoting alternative career pathways:

As businesses, we acknowledge that the skills we are looking for in prospective employees can now be developed through a range of pathways. While traditional tertiary education has its place, it is one of many pathways to employment. Internships, apprenticeships, new micro-credentials, on the job training, online courses and badging are all effective ways to learn. For many, the time and cost of gaining a tertiary qualification without certainty of employment means we all need to think outside the box to connect people to jobs and opportunities.

As such, we confirm that for a range of specific, skilled-based roles in our companies, we do not require tertiary qualifications. These may be roles in technology, sales, marketing, customer service, management, manufacturing and operations to name a few.

In adopting this recruitment policy, we hope to attract a more diverse workforce with wide-ranging experience. We appreciate there are many highly skilled people with practical experience, self-taught skills, passion and the motivation to learn on the job if given the opportunity.

When we think about why schools need to change, surely this call by the wider business community is one that we must respond to.  It’s obvious that we urgently need to break the rigidity of our traditional school model and be a lot more flexible in where, when and how students engage in learning, at every level.

And while many adults in the room seem hesitant, cautious, or bewildered by the prospect of serious change, look out, because there’s increasing momentum to suggest that while we’re all busy debating, discussing and delaying the inevitable, it may be students who end up taking the lead role.

While we know the circumstances that lead to the Parkland student rallies were unique, it was nonetheless the first time that we witnessed our high school students really flexing their voice muscles. And it was the students who succeeded in maintaining the rage around gun control because they had access to the social tools, they knew how to use them most effectively, and they led the national debate for weeks as a result.

It was a time when they learned their voices mattered, and while that certainly touched students in a very emotional way, how long might it be before we start seeing students leading the call for school change?

We talk about how our students now have unlimited access to pursue passions, to make choices about what, when and how they learn, and yet we are still teaching to a predetermined curriculum of “essential learnings,” all the while knowing that the gap between what students need and what formal schooling offers is growing wider by the day. Aren’t we just wasting our student’s time when they have so much choice, so many opportunities for learning at a much greater depth than has ever before been possible?

Be really careful what you wish for, because if learner agency lives up to our highest expectations, then maybe, just maybe the forces for change might come from within. And if those voices are heard by parents, then they may indeed lead a “revolution.”

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