Think-Ed: Youthful but perhaps feeling youth-less.

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ
11 October 2010

I turned 14 in 1960 and at that point still went everywhere on my bicycle, was still happy to go out with Mum and Dad, girls were an absolute and total mystery life was unrelieved happiness. We listened to the radio to the Everly Brothers, Jim Reeves, Elvis Presley and Connie Francis. Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini was about as daring as it got. We got some excitement out of films such as The Magnificent Seven and Spartacus. I do not remember suffering any angst nor do I remember any talk about the angst that I was going through – radio programmes such as Night Beat and Life with Dexter never got that serious.

But things have clearly changed and the community is now quite consumed by issues of youth.

Now the question definitions show perhaps the change. The United Nations takes as its working definitions as “children” and 15- 24 years being “youth”. This might well have been able to be sustained back in the sixties but these days this seems hopelessly out of kilter with reality.

The 14-year old of today is sophisticated and independent compared with the 14-year old that I was. The lives they lead is tinged with an ersatz independence that allows them to make decisions about their lives and what they do and when they do it. Inevitably these decisions are not always good ones.

The recent disturbing Auckland incidents of teenage drinking that have ended in death have brought home with grim severity the world of young people final act of the Coroner’s hearing was the evidence of the dead youth/child. “We had no idea,” was their distressed conclusion. No idea that their lad was developing binge drinking habits that eventually became the instrument of death. The fact that the boy was at a reputable boarding school seemed only to underline that fact that no-one is necessarily safe.

I have long been interested in the fact that 14-year old, fourth formers, Year 10’s, have long had a reputation in schools for being adrift and difficult. Now this has to be kept in perspective. Many fourth formers are simply getting on with what is expected of them – school work, sport, music or whatever. But many seeming are not.

The age of 14-years features significantly in studies of disengagement from education – it seems to be something of a defining point in many young people’s development. If they have their stuff together at that point they are likely to go on to enjoy conventional success then they are in some trouble.

And trouble it is. As recently as 2009, 8.5% of 14-year olds are stood down. This might seem to be exceptional but it is at the clear peak of the stand-down pattern (the fact that 1% of 10-year olds might be worthy of more attention!). What is it about our education system that produces this statistic?

It is likely that it is a cluster of issues around the purpose. If young people are seeking adventure and excitement at that point in their lives, then some of them need renewed purpose. Why are they going to school? Where is it all headed? They need direction and purpose suggestion that there is no purpose that they can see in what they are doing.

That purpose in education terms is certainly to do with future directions. What are they going to be doing with all this stuff that they are learning? What kind of job will they have? Will they have a job when so many do not? Will they make a positive contribution to their family, their community, the world?

If they are to have this in place at age 14 then whatever process is to see that it is there and solidly in place will have to start well before that time, perhaps as early as age 12. This then leads to a question about the processes through which a young person prepares for secondary school and the advice given to them.

It might also raise questions about the nature of secondary scholl courses and programmes – should they offer wider choice right from the start in addition to the general academic option that currently seems to so often be the only choice.

Perhaps the average fourteen year old today is well and truly ready to roll their sleeves up and enter the adult world of work instead of facing prolonged childhood. Could it be that the explanation of the behaviours of a fair group of that in that troubled and troubling year which irritate us as teachers have their origins in this?

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