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How Can We Fix Education? Listen to Young People

Youth have an answer for us—not to the "why," but to the "how"—if we all would just listen.

Daily news stories and countless blog posts detail the state of learning, education, and schools in America. It is a fervent conversation, but it's one led by adults: policymakers, school board members, school administrators, teachers, and parents. Despite the best intentions of adults, there is a critical aspect of transforming education that's clearly missing. Young people are not being invited to participate or to be a part of the decision-making process. And, as this debate about changing education goes on feverishly across the country, an entirely different dialogue is occurring among young people.

In the last month, two youth voices have been center stage—Jeff Bliss, a student from Texas, and nine-year-old Asean Johnson a student from Chicago. Both students are examples of how young people nationwide are frustrated with adults' inaction and are taking matters into their own hands. Certainly, when it comes to education, young people know what they're talking about. They spend more than 50 percent of their waking hours either attending classes or doing homework. Yet in schools across the country, despite a national average dropout rate of 25 percent—up to 42 percent in some communities—and low classroom engagement rates of 33 percent, students are not being asked why? Why are you choosing to leave? Why are you disengaged? Why are you protesting? Why doesn't the system work for you any longer?

As important as these questions are in helping us understand where young people are, answering them only offers an opportunity to release pent up anger, frustration, and cynicism. They don't provide any possibility for change and they don't facilitate a closing of the distance between young people and adults.

So how do we move forward? We believe the answer lies in listening.

Listening seems a simple act, but it requires a deep caring, a complete absence of agenda, and a delight in hearing from young people. Creating a space for the purity of youth voices to emerge is a sacred act and we should approach it as such. At Imagining Learning, we lead Listening Sessions, a three-hour process that combines the creative design processes of storytelling and appreciative inquiry, and helps students articulate their opinions about their lives in a space of trust and openness.

We work with teens, ages 13 to 19-years-old, and ask questions based on the word "HOW?"—How would you create a learning journey for yourself and others that you would love? How do you want to learn? How would you make a school no one wants to drop out of?

But we don't just ask questions. During the final section of the session, participants express themselves artistically by co-creating and sharing 4 1/2 foot by 6 foot paintings, which are visual representations of their ideal learning experience. This process is important as they unlock a vision about what education can be while providing a way for them to activate the power of their voices in a way that they feel seen and heard.

Here is an example of what students produce in Listening Sessions:

"This is not so much a blueprint as it is an abstract expression, trying to capture how it might feel to be there.

The bright colors represent energy and vitality. The person with the many paths coming from their gut represents the fact that the school gives the students the ability to make their own choices and those choices will lead to many paths. Because those paths are uncertain, the footprints represent the walk from one door (on the left) through the unknown to the other door (on the right). While you don't know where you are going, you do end up where you want to be.

The vines with hearts represents growth, life. The heart represents being treated and treating others with love. The symbol is a combination of the equal sign and the plus sign and stand for inclusion and equality. The person with the movement in the upper left of the painting gives the sense that the experience is motion."


Student responses during to the sessions have been overwhelmingly positive with us often being asked, "Can you come back tomorrow?" They ask us to return for two reasons. One, they feel invited into the process of changing education for the first time. Two, through our act of trusting and believing in their ability to offer meaningful contributions to the educational conversation, they feel seen and heard—by us and by each other. Indeed, the first thing we usually hear at the end of a Listening Session is, "Thank you for listening, no one ever asks us what we think." Our adult hosts have also said they see the teens transform right before their eyes.

To date, we have led 20 Listening Sessions in seven states, predominantly on the West Coast and in the South where we recently conducted six Listening Sessions in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. We intend to lead at least 50 more all across the country with students from all backgrounds and walks of life.

By repeating Listening Sessions with young people from all walks of life, all over the country themes are beginning to emerge that can help create a national vision of what young people want in their education. This "collective voice" can be the starting point of a new conversation, an intergenerational conversation about education.

We are not waiting for youth to reach a breaking point. We are proactively engaging young people by providing positive venues and space for them to express their ideas, stories, and voices. They have an answer for us—not to the "why," but to the "how"—if we all would just listen.

Click here to add asking young people how they would change education to your GOOD "to-do" list.

This project will be featured in GOOD's Saturday series Push for Good—our guide to crowdfunding creative progress.

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