Reflections on Youth Forum Switzerland 2019: Sustainability through Sustaining our Ability to Care

Since having experienced the student-led YFS event in my own school that simply blew me away in terms of its sheer professionalism, slickness and magnitude, I have been pondering on some of the biggest takeaways for me and what they now mean for our school community. Some things have certainly stuck with me and I feel that I would like to be able to articulate what they are so that we can look forward and consider what comes next. In my role as experiential learning coordinator, I see it as my duty to help students and teachers to come to terms with what just happened and to translate words into actions. We need to find an approach to everything we do that underpins the beliefs and hopes that we have seen emerging. How does the current, overwhelming sense of hope and anticipation for change become a reality? What does sustainability mean in our context? Is ‘sustainability’ the term that we are looking for, or should we be talking about a framework for global citizenship perhaps, where sustainability is just a part of a wider approach to our learning? How are we sustaining our ability to act as changemakers? I will try to answer these questions by focusing on some key words and messages from YFS 2019 and then conclude with a proposed framework for our pedagogy that could well offer some guidelines for ethical, collaborative, sustainable practice.

2.We need to get angry!

To get to a point where we feel motivated to change something, we need to have experienced a feeling of anger about it. Feeling angry means that we have recognised an area of injustice and we are moved by both our emotions and our reason to address it. Indeed, Oxfam recognised some time ago that a global citizen is ‘outraged by social injustice’ (Oxfam, 2006) and it is this outrage that can take us beyond a more passive stance of recognition and understanding to a more determined active stance. There was talk at YFS about young people becoming involved in democracy and feeling that their voices are heard, so yes, if we want our students to become more political, we have to enable them to discuss, engage and participate. Our role as teachers in this is to facilitate and support a space that is both safe and brave (Cook-Sather, 2016); if students are going to take risks, then they need to feel that they are in an environment that supports them in doing so. Debate, critique and dialogue with people with opposing opinions is a good thing, and we could all learn a little about what it means to experience this and get through the other side without judgement. As Trevor Downham from Genesis in South Africa said in his talk at YFS, “feeling glad, sad or bad is not enough; you need to get mad!” This is indeed something to consider when we think about the purpose and future of our exposure to and engagement with other communities through our service learning, both locally and internationally.

2. We should strive to be significant rather than successful

I wonder what this means to us? If we aim to be significant human beings rather than successful ones, what does this look like in terms of our own behaviours and actions? In hearing Trevor from Genesis South Africa speaking in the same session at YFS where he mentioned anger, his comparison between significance and success also made me think. In our world, we tend to judge ourselves and others in terms of our success if we have a well-paid job, a nice place to live and if we have managed to secure positions or achievements that we or society has placed upon us. Do we, however, ever stop to think about our own success in terms of the effect that we may have had on other people? Is success ever measured in kindness, patience or love? If we begin to think of our own personal behaviours and attributes and how we apply them in interpersonal circumstances, we may just begin to understand the idea of what being significant looks like, rather than measuring what we do in terms of success. If, like Trevor, we witness an individual dying of AIDS, and that moment is the one that changes everything we do and try to do, we may just be in a position to understand what significance looks like. I would say that as teachers, students and simply as human beings, this shift in our thinking could help us to address those same injustices that we might be acting against as a result of our anger.

3.Authentic student voice means authentic participation

In talking about youth and democracy, a grade 9 student advocated for the fact that it was time for young people to speak out and stand up for what they believe in. I am not sure that many people would argue with that; we have all seen what can happen when young people do not make it out to the polling stations. Yet I sat in the session entitled ‘Democracy is Fragile’ wondering whether there is a tendency to talk only about polling stations when we are talking about youth, voice and democracy. If there is indeed a need to encourage more young people to become more politically active and to use their voices, then surely there is a need for them to learn what democratic participation looks like. If we think about our general school practices, to what extent are we creating conditions for authentic student voice? Are we in danger, for example, of having a student council and claiming that this is our effort at incorporating student voice? To what extent could our efforts be said to be ‘tokenistic’ or ‘manipulative’, (Hart, 1992) suiting a very much adult-led agenda? Should we be having students involved in different committees or teacher working-groups, such as grade level or curricular teams or professional learning communities (PLCs) ,or could we have students sitting on a council representing different areas of the school, for example fundraising or PDWs? In addition, if participation is also about co-creation, to what extent do we allow student ownership of the way that our units evolve? If we were to take an inquiry-led approach that began with student assessment of what could be interesting or meaningful to them, or where there could be an authentic need in the community (this would be a service learning cycle of inquiry, Berger Kaye, 2010), then students would very much be able to experience what partnership looks like. I am sure that nobody would agree that students are merely vessels to be filled with information (Freire, 1970), but rather that they are individuals with rights to participation (UN Convention on the rights of the child, article ….). Therefore, if we want to consider what democracy might look like for the young people under our care, then we could start by considering how our structures and curriculum provide spaces for collaboration and democratic participation. We cannot advocate for voice if we are not providing and encouraging it; cliched or not, it still rings true that practising what you preach is the best way to get people on board.

A framework for a Pedagogy of CARE

In order to move towards a more ethical practice of collaboration and participation, with a sense of social justice at its heart, my own practitioner (teacher) inquiry undertaken just recently with a group of students led me to develop a proposed pedagogical framework of principles and attributes. Before YFS came into being, a group of seven grade 11 students, named ‘Team Change Makers’ worked together with me on a collaborative CAS project that saw us researching the topic of service learning and how it could be more ethical and meaningful in our school. As a result of our research and inquiry, and the implications that it could have for practice in our school and beyond, the ‘Pedagogy of CARE’ came about. In light of the thoughts about YFS above, I will give an overview of the principles and attributes of the framework here, including some food for thought about ways forward for our school.

The word CARE serves as acronym for four principles (consciousness, action, responsibility and experimentation) and four learner attributes (conscious, active, responsible and experimental). The principles are the values themselves and the attributes are these values in action. The principles and attributes are all intentionally underpinned by the stance and the act of caring, hence the intentional use of the acronym CARE. They all interact and connect with one another to form a complex, non-linear, non-hierarchical framework, which I envision as a pyramid model as shown below (figure 1).

pyramid model
Figure 1: Pyramid Model for a Pedagogy of CARE
In the model, each principle is joined by each attribute on each face, showing that it is possible to combine them all with each other e.g. one could engage in a practice of experimental responsibility or conscious action.

The following short descriptions give a very brief overview of the principles and attributes that belong to the framework, and make links to what could be a more ethical and sustainable approach to our practice in school as a result of the YFS event that took place.

1.Consciousness / being conscious

This principle is about being critical and aware of the ourselves and the world around us, and through this criticality, we are moved beyond a passive state to an active one. We develop a sense of responsibility and feel driven to take risks and experiment.

The inclusion of this principle is inspired by Freire’s (1970) concept of conscientização, or ‘critical consciousness’; a dynamic process of action and critical reflection upon the world in order to transform it. Being conscious is about being engaged in an ongoing process of critical reflection that allows us to see ourselves as ‘historically formed creatures capable of learning and transformation’ (Stevenson, 2012, p. 148). It is about being aware of our place in the world and questioning the structures and systems within which we find ourselves.

If we want to be able to sustain our ability to be conscious after YFS, I suggest that we work towards a critical approach to our community partnerships, where we identify genuine, sustainable needs and reflect carefully on the power relationships between us and them.

2.Action / being active

The principle of action is about exercising agency with critical intent. Action is related to consciousness as described above, however it takes the learner beyond a mere process of critical reflection or ‘disposition of critical intent’ (Habermas, 1972; Kinsler, 2010) towards being able to exercise agency in a situation (Elliott, 2005). This agency is exercised through practice which is oriented towards an ideal.

A learner who is active goes through processes of inquiry that are geared towards fighting against the unjust practices or conditions that one uncovers through being critical. An active inquirer strives to bring about change and to achieve social justice through engaging in a practice that is in itself democratic. Being active is the process of becoming an engaged, doing subject rather than a passive object. In the process of action, we translate democratic values into democratic behaviour, and we are involved in ‘sensuous human activity’ (Bernstein, 1971, p. 11) or praxis.

If we want to be able to sustain our ability to be active after YFS, I suggest that we assess our own behaviours and look for opportunities to make direct and lasting change in collaboration with others. We should not rely on others to tell us what to do, rather take initiative and lead from the front.

3. Responsibility / being responsible

The principal of responsibility is about listening; it is an act of reciprocity and ‘mutual affection and care for one another’ (Fielding & Moss, 2011, p. 48). Responsible practice is a ‘person-centred’ education (Fielding, 2011; Fielding & Moss, 2011) that is about the relationship between person and community.

A responsible teacher or adult listens to students and facilitates their voices being heard, guiding them in the process by being open, honest and flexible. A responsible school leadership team listens to the voices of teachers and responsible students listen to each other. Responsibility is also about respect, mutual understanding and an appreciation of individual subjectivities and perspectives; it is a two-way, reciprocal process.

If we want to be able to sustain our ability to be responsible after YFS, we need to evaluate our own relationships with other people in and beyond our school community and to ensure that we are providing for opportunities that allow for different voices to be heard. We also need to consider cultivating a sense of both environmental and social responsibility through being conscious and active.

4. Experimentation/ being experimental

Experimentation is when teachers and students, as co-inquirers and co-learners, are willing to think differently, to take risks and to try out new ways of doing things. It is also about a willingness to be resilient in the face of the consequences of our actions.

An experimental learner is willing to put oneself up for scrutiny and to open oneself up to both critical self-reflection and to critique from others. If this critique is also complimented by responsible practice, then there can be no danger of it being damaging or harmful.

If we want to be able to sustain our ability to be experimental after YFS, we need to continue to look for opportunities where we engage in critical dialogue with each other, even if this might mean that we come up against conflicting viewpoints. By first creating safe spaces where relational dialogue can involve problem-posing and critical self-reflection, we can ensure that brave spaces can also become part of our practice.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I propose that we see such an awe-inspiring event as YFS as a springboard to action, and that we continue to drive the cog wheels of momentum as much as we can. The key to making anything meaningful is this momentum and an investment in its sustainable nature. As I see it, caring is at the heart of ethical learning, hence the ‘Pedagogy of CARE’ outlined here. As teachers, we may begin from a stance of caring through personal experiences or emotions, and we want our students to experience and feel something similar. We may care about our students, education or certain social injustices, and we work towards sharing our passion with others. Ultimately, caring is the beginning, middle and end of an ethical teaching and learning practice, and, indeed, a human existence. Is this what Trevor meant have meant by being significant? I would like to think that it does.

References

Bernstein, R. J. (1971). Praxis and action: Contemporary philosophies of human activity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cook-Sather, A. (2016). Creating Brave Spaces within and through Student-Faculty Pedagogical Partnerships. Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, Spring 2016(18).

Fielding, M., & Moss, P. (2011). Radical education and the common school: a democratic alternative. Abingdon: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury.

Habermas, J. (1972). Knowledge and human interests. London: Heinemann.

Kinsler, K. (2010). The utility of educational action research for emancipatory change. Action Research, 8(2), 171-189.

Oxfam (2006) Education for Global Citizenship – A Guide for schools. Oxford: Oxfam GB

 

 

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