Young people leading learning

Being able to get online enables pupils to access learning opportunities that they want to. It also enables them to publish their own ideas and expertise and to help other young people learn. Young people can become leaders in learning. The key question is whether schools stimulate and support this, or ignore and belittle it.

It is a powerful incentive to engage in an activity when your friends are enjoying themselves through involvement with it and using it to extend their skills and knowledge. Good schools try to provide opportunities for this, through sport and clubs. But when this involves physical space, it also involves teacher time and cost.

But if a school has online space there is virtually no additional cost in allocating spaces for activities. Pupils are easily capable of constructing and managing online activities. There are only two things left to concern the school, safeguarding pupils who engage in the activity - and having the courage to let pupils lead.

Safeguarding is relatively easy, it just needs care. Online spaces can be restricted to specific groups and online activity can all be monitored and recorded. Once an acceptable use approach has been communicated and discussed with pupils, issues and problems can be policed as they arise and freedoms granted as pupils become sufficiently responsible to manage them. Start small and local with a single class or small group of pupils and widen access as the right culture develops.

Having the courage is harder. What if the pupils independently learn what a teacher has planned as the topic for future lessons? What if the pupils engage with topics that teachers or parents find contentious? What if pupils want to engage with an activity that the school staff feel they do not have the expertise to support? Those pupils with online access independent of the school can anyway create online activities through which to learn and can invite their friends to participate. Is it sensible to compartmentalise “school learning” as learning that must be led by teachers? I don’t believe many parents would agree with this. And many parents would welcome the school taking a lead in guiding young people with regard to which online activities to engage with, to help them avoid activities that do not help (or harm) their child’s development.

Young people leading learning - their own and that of others - is probably the biggest and most important paradigm change that online access brings. It enables re-balancing of teaching and learning - more learning (much more learning) for a similar input of school staff time and cost. This does not replace teachers; only a few pupils will have the drive and competence to fully manage their learning, most will need the stimulation and guidance of teachers. It enables teachers to be more effective and to get greater job satisfaction.

What can a school do to stimulate this?
- Get pupils posting online reviews of books they have read.
- Allow pupils to create and manage online sites to support extra-curricular activity and sport.
- Give each form an online area for class discussions.
- Set up galleries in which pupils can post images of their work that others can comment on.
- Publicise websites that young people have developed around their interests.
- Involve pupils in designing areas of the school’s online platform.
- Set up a team of pupils to lead on e-safety.
- Get pupils to build their own online store of work they are proud of, or of things they want to display such as pictures of pets or their heroes.
- Set up social networking for individual groups or classes.
How many examples do you want? Here’s a final (real) example for you to conjure with:

A secondary school has an online platform that has an area where students are allowed to initiate school-wide debates. In the first few months of the area being available to students there were 30 discussions initiated by pupils. Some of these debates attracted a considerable number of viewings and posts. For example, a debate on whether the British National Political Party, which espouses extreme views on race, should have been invited onto the BBC Question Time programme, there were 365 posts into the debate and 1948 viewings of it. The school has around 1200 pupils so you can see this debate engaged a significant percentage of the pupils. The standard of the debate was high, with issues raised such as how the nature of the town where the school is situated may be leading students to have certain views - it being a small town well away from cities, with an almost entirely white population.

Another student set up a forum asking “Can you still believe that God exists when things like the Haiti earthquake happen?”. 24 students replied to this forum with their views, and there were 254 viewings of the forum. Some of the students posted very deeply-thought views which obviously reflected their own struggles with belief and faith. There was important learning happening here, in an area of the curriculum that is not easy to teach.

When the school looked at which students posted to these debates, it was noticeable that several of the students engaging with the debate were students who often did not engage well with school work or ‘official’ student voice activities through the school’s house structure.

If parents have a choice, to send their child to a school with these kinds of online activity happening, or to a school that is only using their online platform to support class teaching, which do you think they should choose?