Kareem El-Ansary, 2019 Youth Representative to the United Nations, completed a marathon listening tour last year. The issues raised were as varied as the young people themselves, but one key message remained constant: better supporting young people starts with listening more.
During his tour, he visited 56 locations around Australia and conducted 233 consultations at a diverse range of organisations, from schools to non-profits to juvenile detention centres.
How to better listen to young people requires some thinking, although Mr El-Ansary notes it doesn’t have to be overly engineered. “At our consults we would make sure that everyone would be sitting in a circle at the same level, no hierarchy. We made sure to ask broad questions, we didn’t go in and ask a whole lot of specific personal questions about their lives. We spent a significant portion of the time building trust, getting to know each other a little bit,” he says.
Some spectrum activities followed, posing open-ended statements like ‘I feel positive about the future’ where people can give a thumbs up, down or in the middle depending on if they agree or disagree. Then came an opportunity to call on people to explain why they responded the way they did. Even if they felt uncomfortable explaining their answer, it still got them to start thinking about how they voted and about the question. Usually what you get is a snowballing effect where one person raises a point, and someone else is like ‘I’ve been thinking the same thing for a while’ and that gets the conversation going.
The need for consultation was nowhere more apparent than on the issue of education, which young people appear to care about a great deal. The problem is that many young Australians feel the education system could cover more areas of practical importance to them, like how our political and economic systems work. Where these subjects are being covered at all, too often the content is the dry mechanics of parliament and financial institutions, rather than how young people can engage with politics or navigate the tax system. By making education more relevant in this way, young people believe it could be a major force for addressing many of their other key concerns.
Mr El-Ansary points out that he did come across schools and teachers that are already doing this. “One teacher had developed this activity where each member of the class determines what sort of job they want to do, they look at the average wage according to ABS data and they break that down to work out a weekly budget. Then they draw cards, a bit like Monopoly and it’ll say something like ‘you got a busted tyre, it costs $200 to replace’ or ‘you got your tax returns of $400 this week’, and they have to factor that into their budget. It was interesting to see how some teachers are actually making it fun and at the same time teaching kids how to manage money.”
These are great examples of creative education at a local level, but what young people are really calling for is a systemic overhaul of the education system. The ATAR system especially has come under fire, with young people arguing for more project-based learning to better reflect the world of work that awaits students after school.
Education is one of many issues of concern to young people, but it’s their key concern overall and is affected by other key issues such as environment, mental health, discrimination and violence. It’s critically important that they’re given a seat at the table when it comes to deciding what and how they’re taught.
Mr El-Ansary will present at the 2020 Mental Health & Wellbeing of Young People not-for-profit educational seminars by Generation Next, on the topic Listening to Young People – Programs that Work. For more information or to book, please click here.