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Breaking Down the Educator/Student Divide at Educational Conferences

By Adam Carter
Breaking Down the Educator/Student Divide at Educational Conferences

It has become painfully obvious that, due to a changing workplace, a globalized world, and an uncertain future, we as educators need to adapt our model of education to fit the needs of our students and adopt a more 21st-century outlook. Countless articles, TED talks, and scholarly studies have emphasized the urgency of creating schools that step away from a staid, traditional style of education in order to implement more student-focused learning. And several times a year, teachers, administrators, and guest speakers convene at educational conferences to tell one another what they should be doing to help their students receive a more engaging, real-world, 21st-century learning experience. It’s encouraging to know these conversations are happening, but there’s one important piece of the puzzle that’s missing: the students. Why do we lock students out of educational conferences, when it’s their education we are discussing and planning behind closed doors? Due to this perceived shortcoming, Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) and OWN Academy recently set out to create a new model that includes students in the conversation. At their Future of Education Now (FOEN) Conference last November, WAB invited OWN Academy to run a student track within the event. The inspirational results presented a refreshing approach that educational conferences worldwide may want to consider adopting. Twenty middle- and high-school students hailing from four international schools in Beijing participated in the three-day “Youth Changemakers” program. The goal of the program, as explained by Natalie Chan, the dynamic founder of OWN Academy was, “for students to create the world they want to live in through reimagining, redesigning, and re-engineering school. The students gain a wider perspective in a real-world set up alongside teaching professionals to get first-hand insights and challenges.” Being a teacher at WAB and a presenter at the conference, I volunteered to help Natalie Chan run the program. Also part of the team was another WAB teacher, as well as a WAB graduate currently studying at University of California - Berkeley who came home to mentor the students. Before the conference, students filled out a survey to identify their major strengths and record their overall impression of their schools, documenting what they liked and disliked and in what ways they felt their schools could improve. When they met on day one, they reviewed their answers; based on their strength profiles, they divided themselves into three groups that would tackle the program’s different tasks: website/text, video, and presentation. They then discussed their goals for the conference and came up with a mission statement: “In order to be supportive, personalized, and academically successful, a school should be student-centered, feature numerous approaches to learning, and offer curriculum with real-world connections with mentor support.” From there, the students attended the sessions, which ranged from keynote speakers by inspirational educators such as Sir John Jones, Rosan Bosch, and conservationist hero Jane Goodall to more specific sessions like the Future Role of Artificial Intelligence in Education and Neuroscience. Students had a chance to not only sit in on workshops, but actively participate. At a workshop I delivered entitled Student Media Creation, I was able to ask students questions like, “Did creating podcasts make you feel more engaged with the unit?” Several teachers told me after the session that the students’ feedback in the workshop provided them with really valuable evidence of why they should adopt some of the digital tools I introduced. Besides participating in the sessions, the Young Changemakers were also able to interview the speakers afterwards, which yielded some really insightful conversations. Meanwhile, they convened in a “war room” of sorts in order to start creating their website, edit their video, and plan their presentation for the Closing Ceremonies. After just three days, the students got on stage to explain their project, display their website, and show their video. They touted the benefits of initiatives such as flexible schedules, project-based learning, and mentorship programs. But perhaps the main gist of their message to the conference attendees and organizers is that schools need to include student voice in their plans of building curriculum and implementing new programs. At the end, the audience had a chance to ask the students questions, providing the ultimate “flipped classroom.” As John D’Arcy, Deputy Director of WAB and conference organizer pointed out, “For all of our schools, the future of education is about creating ‘schooling’ that is relevant, significant, and has an authentic purpose. Natalie, with her team of educators and students, created an experience that was all of these things and produced incredible results, as evidenced by the standing ovation the students received for their work—perhaps the most authentic and meaningful assessment they could have received.” This sentiment was shared by the students. Anvith Anand, a Grade 7 student from WAB, reflected, “This was a great opportunity for us as students to be involved in this process and recognize our potential to help create change in our schools.” As one of the facilitators, it was inspiring to see the teachers actively listening to what these students had to say. But the students themselves noticed as well; at one point, WAB Grade 11 student Katarina Krajnovic explained to the audience, “Seeing you teachers out there actually taking notes about what we are saying is adorable.” Sure, her comment elicited a lot of laughter, but it perfectly encapsulates the beauty of this model. Student voice is not a buzzword we as educators should whisper about, it’s a concept that needs to be discussed and planned for with students, by students, and for students. After witnessing the success of this new model of student involvement in educational conferences, it seems to me that any educational conference, in order to be a true success, should embrace a program like this one to make sure that students’ voices are a part of the conversation, not simply an afterthought. The website the students created can be viewed here: OWN Academy ( is a Hong-Kong based educational organization that aims to empower youth to be changemakers in the future.

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