An Education Worth Having: Student Voice and Agency

Brad Evans
Head of Senior School

When considering the question “What is an education worth having?” there are myriad of responses, thought processes and viewpoints worthy of consideration. It is certainly a complex question, which in turn produces many complex answers. In determining my own answer to this question I have drawn on my experience working with young people in schools, elements of academic research, and a more philosophical consideration of how education may need to be applied in the future.

For me, an education worth having is one in which the student or learner is central to determining what is learnt, how it is learnt, and why the learning is taking place. Students need to have a voice in their learning for it to be meaningful and useful in the future, not only for them as individuals, but more broadly for society as a whole.

Unfortunately, there are many systemic factors at play in our current education system which limit the flexibility that teachers and schools have to provide a significant amount of student directed learning, particularly in the senior years.

Crowded Curriculum

Using the captive audience of my Year 12 Economics class we had a robust conversation around the economics curriculum asking:
  • What did you think you would learn in Economics?
  • What do you have questions about now you have developed a level of understanding about Economics?
The responses were interesting and the longer we talked the more our conversation extended beyond the economics curriculum. Some the questions raised included: 
  • What is Cryptocurrency? How does it work? Is it worth investing in? Will it replace money?
  • Will we have a global currency one day?
  • Are off-shore and Swiss Bank accounts real things?
  • What happens now interest rates don’t work anymore?
  • How will I afford my first house?
  • How does the stock market work?
  • What are the logistics of setting up to pay tax?
  • Which side of politics align with my personal values so I can be engaged citizen?
  • What will the effect of Brexit and a trade-war be on Australia?
I believe that conversations like this could take place in any classroom. They are well-considered and relevant questions from students moving in adulthood in the 2020’s. Unfortunately, none of those questions raised by my students are given serious consideration in the Year 11 and 12 Economics WACE curriculum. The curriculum is foundational in nature and many important fundamental economic concepts are taught, however there is limited capacity for students to apply these fundamental concepts to bigger real world problems and issues.

ATAR Driven

Whilst our teachers and students find great value in posing important and relevant questions such as those posed by my Year 12 Economics students, there is little time to explore the answers.  The Year 11 and 12 curriculum is strongly focused on teaching students what they need to pass their ATAR examinations.   Returning to the original question – is this model helping us to deliver an education worth having?

Fortunately, as a school we many passionate students and teachers who make accommodations to enable further exploration of their subjects. These include breakfast and coffee meetings, classes in the library, lunchtime clubs, academic extension options in our Friday afternoon co-curricular program, and a range of electives in our Catalysts program, which all aim to provide opportunities for student directed learning.

Student Centred Learning

On a simplistic level, the easy wins in an environment of student centred learning come about due to the learner’s motivation and empowerment. Self-directed learning that is practical, relevant and delivered in the learner’s preferred medium of information exchange maximises the opportunity for authentic learning. The quote below from Kristina Kaput summarises the benefits of student directed learning:

 “A large body of research has found that meaningfully involving students in their education can increase their academic achievement, motivation, effort, participation, and engagement in their learning. When given choice in their learning, students engage in deeper, richer learning, display more on-task behavior, and the learning environment becomes more collaborative. Research also shows that when students are given autonomy in their learning they are more likely to better develop their 21st century or “character” skills in critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, creativity, grit, perseverance, and time management. These are some of the most sought after skills for employers.”[1]

I believe the need for education to have student agency and be student directed has more to do with the purpose of education, and the relevance of its future application.

The world is currently under threat by dual forces; climate change and the destruction this brings to our natural environment, and the growing inequality of wealth. Evidence of both exists everywhere we look. The outlook for the future appears bleak if you consider the impact the former problem will have on the latter and the potential social upheaval this may bring in future decades.

Scientists, economists and academics from many fields around the world are now beginning to discuss timelines remaining for earth, threshold populations at current consumption levels and many other statistics that fill us with fear. I recently read the following on a Scientific American blog from guest author Kate Marvel a renowned climate scientist and science writer who works with NASA and out of Columbia University.

“The point is, climate change is staggeringly fast on geological timescales, and relatively slow in comparison to a human lifetime. Given the poverty, racism, and inequality in the world, climate change is seldom anyone’s number one problem. Until, one day, it is… but there are reasons to be optimistic. We make vital decisions under uncertainty all the time…we can understand the unfairness that climate change will exacerbate, and work toward a more just society.  We have the tools—science, policy, technology—and the creativity to imagine a better world that outlasts our own lifetimes.”[2]

Despite the real threat of these issues coming into effect in most of our lifetimes, I am optimistic that the solutions to these problems do exist. This optimism comes from my vocation as an educator and my belief that tangible and impactful solutions will come from the students currently in our schools. If we expect our future generations to solve these problems, we must empower them to have an input in determining the what, how and why of learning. These are the students who need to gain utility from their education, not just for themselves but for a better world.

As we continue to explore what is an education worth having, we will ensure that our students have a key voice in answering this question. By giving them some direction and input into what their education looks like it will become for them, an education they believe is worth having.

Brad Evans
Head of Senior School
Guildford Grammar School

Works Cited

Kaput, K. (2018). Evidence for Student-Centred Learning. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Education Evolving.
Marvel, K. (2018, July 30). Climate Change: We're Not Literally Doomed, but... Retrieved from Scientific American:

[1] (Kaput, 2018)
[2] (Marvel, 2018)

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12 Mar 2020 - 10:38 AM
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