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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings, Student Voices

Creating a National Collective Voice of Young People

“School is constantly causing us to forget who we are in the first place. I’m not dropping out, I’m choosing to leave. I’m choosing to not follow their plan. Yes, it works for a lot of people, but most of them are only in school because they’ve all become too oblivious to themselves and too scared to decide what they want to do with their lives. Then again, you can’t blame them because they’ve been held up by the school system – being led from one thing to the next – their whole lives.

By staying in school, I feel like I’m just taking the easy way out. I don’t need a structure to live on, I feel like I’ve got an IV hooked up to me, and the worst part is people think we live on it. We don’t. I tell them I’m leaving and they look at me with such disappointment…”You could do so much” “You have so much potential.”

Going to school should not define your life. I don’t want to look at living as a math equation, having to solve it and keep following these rules. What’s the point of being on this life support when we all end up dying anyway? We all end up the same.”

— Paris Kouns, 16 years old

I found this heart-wrenching quote on my daughter’s MySpace site one day four years ago, just days before she quit school.  She had been in public schools and excellent private schools, and still, at such a young age, her insight and sense of defeat echo what I have been hearing over and over for the past four years as I have been conducting Listening Sessions with teens across the country.

As Paris’ piece makes us aware, there is little to no real invitation for student voices in the discussions about education reform/reinvention/transformation.  There are a few courageous young voices around the country, many of whom are members of this blog, as well as The Student Union. There are places around the country where students are expressing their dissatisfaction with the current system and in some cases founding their own schools. But these are isolated from each other, except perhaps in the small Facebook and blog worlds dedicated to changing education.

But, far and away, the predominant attitude in education that young people encounter seems to be that the “grown-ups” know best. Hidden behind this may be an unconscious, deep-seated belief that young people cannot contribute to the transformation that is necessary. Why else wouldn’t they be invited into the process?

As many of you are – I am a passionate believer in the wisdom, the creativity and the insightfulness of our young people.  They are smart enough to see that the system does not work. They are creative enough to have many outstanding ideas about how to change education. Most importantly to me, they hold a deep wisdom about how lifeless the system has become – and the courage to speak it, if given the chance.

In creating Imagining Learning, four years ago, I embarked on a remarkable journey to listen to young people. Imagining Learning is committed to emerging a space for a national collective voice of the wisdom of young people on the reinvention of education. We are a “hollow bone”, providing a structure and experience in synthesizing information, through which the voices of young people can be heard in a manner that is unmistakably clear and forthright.

We are doing this by leading Listening Sessions around the United States with teens, ages 13 – 19, from all walks of life.  A Listening Session (click to see a short video) has been designed to be appreciative in nature, so there is no conversation about what is wrong with education. A Listening Session creates a space that is safe, free from judgment and empty of anyone’s voice, except those young people who are participating. They encourage young people to tap into their inner knowing – into a voice that has been there all along – and emerge a new set of ideas and beliefs about what could be achieved if given a blank slate from which to hold all young people in the future.

The final vision that emerges from each group of four students is in the form of a 4’ X 6’ painting.  Each painting contains a story, a collective vision if you will, of how each particular group of students see possibilities for learning in the future.  They then share their vision with other students who have been creating their own visions and with those of us fortunate enough to attend.

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At the end of each Listening Session, we ask students to let us know what they experienced. The first thing stated is usually, “Thank you for listening. No one is asking us what we think.” Then another sense emerges of what is possible. They have been told for so long what to do that the very idea that they can create their own vision is a revelation.  Finally, they realize that they hear their own voice in the visions that have been presented.

Here are some comments we have heard (all ages are as of the time they participated in the Listening Session):

“This has given me a new perspective on education. Usually it is about training for facts and knowledge. Education that is about who you are, want to be and preparing for the future is more important.” – Sam, 17

“Usually I only talk to my parents about school, but they think I am complaining. It was nice to come here and talk with people who understand me.” – Riley, 14

“I like how optimistic this approach is and how positive our input can be.” – Ankober, 17

“I wish this school had been made a long time ago.” – Aaron, 15

“I wasn’t going to have kids, but if you build this school, I will have them.” – Andrea, 18

“I never thought there could be a more favorable alternative to school.” -Emma, 14

I do not offer these statements as a way to justify or promote what we are doing, but to tell you that there is a tremendous acceptance (sense of defeat?) in young people that education will never be changed by adults.

After the Listening Sessions have been completed, our vision is to launch an initiative, that together with young people, presents their collective vision to the nation and creates intergenerational dialogue all across the country.  There are many individuals, groups and organizations working to help bring student voices forward.  Every bit of effort is needed to move the massive sedentary foundation of education.  We laud them for their work and happy to join them in this effort.

In the coming months, we want to lead Listening Sessions in the South, Mid-Atlantic and the Mid-west and Southwest.  We have done most of our work to date in the west. If this article resonates with you and you would like to participate in some way, either by sponsoring a Listening Session in your community in the areas aforementioned (there is no cost), or spreading the word, or volunteering in other ways, please let us know.

You can check us out our website, and  Follow us on Facebook.

I fully believe in the power of the voices of our young people to lead a transformation of education. Their voices are filled with hope, compassion, innocence and bold ideas. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain if we but listen.

Join us June 13th 2012 on Teachers Teaching Teachers at 9PM ET / 6PM PT  to talk about our work.



20 thoughts on “Creating a National Collective Voice of Young People

  1. Congratulations Charles on your initiative. Your enthusiasm is powerful and your mission on target. Young people have voices that need to be heard and valued. Collaboration must occur among parents, educators, students and all stakeholders for real reform to be realized.

    A few of us on Twitter started a conversation about a year ago regarding many of these issues. As we set up our chat on the 2nd & 4th Thursdays at 8PM EST USA and call it #schools2life . I also set up a LinkedIn Supoort site so people could share ideas and have an opportunity to write beyond the 140 character Twitter chat limit. We have developed “CookieChats” and initiated a PowerPoint presentation for interested schools. Our first one was shared in Chilie late last year.

    Here are the links for you and your readers if you have an interest. #schools2life (2nd & 4th thursday chat 8 PM EST and LinkedIn Support Site Discussions 24/7 are at My Twitter is @EdwardColozzi

    Let’s keep in touch and collaborate:) EdC

    Posted by Edward Colozzi (@EdwardColozzi) | June 13, 2012, 5:49 pm
  2. If one really wants to know why the chicken crossed the road, ask the chicken.

    I will be following you with great interest 🙂

    (from one who dropped out)

    Posted by Brent Snavely | June 13, 2012, 5:54 pm
  3. There’s this accepted idea in community development that in order to really work with a community (especially one that you’re not originally from), that you need to involve the community. So, when I work with a community in Thailand, I’m not going to tell them what they need, but hear what they want and then use my resources to help that happen.

    I never really made the connection until a minute ago, but I don’t see how a school would be any different! Schools are communities, too.

    Amazing stuff!

    Posted by aliciarice | June 13, 2012, 7:29 pm
    • Thank you Alicia. Yes, I believe schools are communities too, or could be viewed that way if we shifted the lens that we are looking through. By listening, we are opening the possibility for young people to really feel seen and heard and in the process, empowered to make their voices known. Listen to Mackenzie Amara’s comments on ( her participation in one of the Listening Sessions. I am sure in industry after industry, there are many voices waiting to be heard. We all have something inspiring and insightful to say if someone would listen. Thanks for noticing!

      Posted by Charles Kouns | June 18, 2012, 5:16 pm
  4. Hey Charlie,

    I love your post, and I admire your work and your wisdom. Such a simple idea, so beautifully executed. Your website is gorgeous. I am really glad to know that David is now an Imagining Learning Steward. What a team! Congratulations on all the good work you have done and will continue to do into the future.

    Posted by Paul Freedman | June 14, 2012, 3:24 am
  5. I love this post, it definitely challenged my thinking as a pre-service teacher. This post inspired a post of my own for a blog that I have for a online course at the University of Regina education program. Here is a link to my post, would love to hear some thoughts!

    Posted by janebrundige | June 15, 2012, 5:36 pm
    • Hi Jane! It was indeed moving to read my daughter’s words on your blog. I relived the emotions I experienced the first time I read it and felt the anguish all over again. It is so uncomfortable a feeling that I embrace every time, so I will remember there are many more for whom this writing applies and there is much to be done. Pardon my lack of knowledge, but what is a pre-service teacher? Where are you based?

      Thank you again for Listening so deeply.


      Posted by Charles Kouns | June 18, 2012, 5:20 pm
      • Charlie,

        I am an education student at the University of Regina. Pre-service teacher is the term we use when referring to a student who is in their pre-internship (3 weeks) or internship (4 months). I am currently finishing my last classes for my Bachelor of Education, and then will be embracing on internship in the fall.

        Thank you for your honesty and sharing your experiences. Voices such as your own, and the messages they have, create learning experiences for educators to grow and challenge themselves to do better.


        Posted by janebrundige | June 19, 2012, 3:24 pm
  6. I would love to know how your daughter, Paris, is doing. She was so incredibly eloquent, she must have ended up doing well! I hope she managed to continue her education i.e. keep learning, perhaps teaching herself – but what she loved, was really interested in. If she wanted/needed additional schooling, she could always go back to it later. As a homeschooling Mum, I am not a fan of schooling as a provider of education. My aim is to teach my (presently quite small) children to love learning and hopefully they will pursue it, especially those parts of it that mean something to them, because they love it instead of because they’ve been told to. Great piece. Loved the art work and very best of luck to you!

    Posted by homeschoolingpenny | June 16, 2012, 2:02 am
    • Thank you for your questions, Penny. I will say that she is going to be a mom in a month and is planning to enroll in the fall in school to begin her education of becoming a veterinarian. She is passionate about animals and has even founded a nonprofit to rescue animals from being euthanized. Her journey has been one of growth and healing and I thank you for your interest.

      Like you, I don’t believe you have to teach a child to love learning, you just have to hold a space for their natural curiosity and delight in learning to continue to flow forward into ever increasing possibilities. That is the hard part — staying ahead of their amazing minds and always noticing and being present to what their inner hearts are exploring. Keep up the wonderful work!!


      Posted by Charles Kouns | June 18, 2012, 5:26 pm
  7. Thanks Edward. Sounds wonderful. We appreciate the comments and support!

    Posted by Charles Kouns | June 18, 2012, 5:09 pm
  8. Charlie, seeing your daughter’s words here (after your sharing them with me a few months ago) still had a powerful effect on me. Students like your daughter keep me motivated to keep working for change. Thanks for the inspiration. I’ll be sending you notes about your website soon. I’ve already looked at it, and it’s SO lovely!!

    Posted by jaimerwood | July 9, 2012, 10:40 pm


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