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Youth Learning on Their Own Terms

reviewed by Lawrence Baines - February 14, 2008

coverTitle: Youth Learning on Their Own Terms
Author(s): Leif Gustavson
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415954444, Pages: 208, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

The movement to standardize teacher education is gaining momentum. At a recent conference a dean of a college of education at a major research university advocated for a uniform national program in which all teachers would be taught explicitly and purposefully how and what to teach (Ball, 2008). The dean assailed the notion of teaching as an art and suggested that teachers only be allowed to enter the profession after being able to exhibit predetermined sets of skills and dispositions. Apparently, the dean already knows what a teacher should do to send student achievement through the roof and wants to compel every teacher in the nation to act on the epiphany. The plan laid out during her speech was that of a brave, new generation of teachers, possessing certifiable skills and dispositions, whose effectiveness would be rated against a checklist of approved behaviors.  

This futuristic vision of flawless Robo-teachers interacting with grateful student-units provides stark relief to the real world of public schools as depicted by Leif Gustavson in his book, Youth Learning on Their Own Terms. This book is a collection of observations of three typical fifteen-year-old boys who go to a public high school in Philadelphia.  Gustavson identifies these students by their ethnicities and creative talents. Ian is a white, budding writer; Miguel, a Puerto-Rican graffiti-artist; Gil, an African American “turntabalist” (someone who creates music by playing around with old vinyl records). Gustavson has known two of the boys since they were in seventh grade.  

All three students, blessed with talent and full of dreams, are bored out of their minds at school.  However, their ennui has absolutely nothing to do with the absence in their lives of certain kinds of instructional techniques. Clearly, no New Age Robo-teacher could change the hearts, minds, or futures of Ian, Miguel, or Gil in the slightest.

Only two strategies—compassion and choice—seem to work with these real teens.

Although compassion may be neither measurable nor cost-efficient, Gustavson’s encouraging presence in the lives of these students positively influences their goals and decisions in and out of school. The empathetic Gustavson not only helps Ian, Miguel, and Gil with academic matters, he chauffeurs them around town, attends their extracurricular events, keeps in continuous contact through email (email conversations are scattered throughout the text), shows up at their homes and converses with their families, and responds to urgent cries for help when the phone rings in the middle of the night.

Despite his indefatigable dedication, Gustavson repeatedly blames himself when these adolescents encounter failure—and all three face myriad hardships, both academic and personal, often bordering on the tragic. Nevertheless, with Gustavson’s steadfast support and genuine affection, one never doubts that the kids are going to be all right.

The second strategy, choice, is made explicit in the title of the book, Students Learning on Their Own Terms. One of Gustavson’s most compelling observations is the marked contrast between the sterile environment in school and the adrenaline-inducing, creative environments that the boys inhabit outside of school. If the enthusiasm, knowledge, and determination that Gil reveals when composing reconstituted songs on the turntable, that Ian shows when writing poetry, and that Miguel displays when spray painting murals on the sides of public buildings, could be replicated at school, these three uninspired learners could be transformed into honor roll regulars over the course of a single year. It is the intensity and drive displayed during out-of-school flow experiences that mark their best hours. When given options and the freedom to pursue their own interests, Gil, Ian, and Miguel demonstrate that they are capable of making quantum leaps in their creative and intellectual development.

However, Gustavson warns against attempting to co-opt student interests to serve predetermined academic goals:  

The marginal status of these creative practices—the fact that they are not appreciated in the mainstream—is what, in part, gives the practices power. The subversive nature of these art forms contributes to the interest youth have in them. A pedagogical stance where these practices are viewed as units of study, objects to be examined, takes this power away and can render the practices lifeless in the classroom. (p. 23)

Rather than colonize student interests, Gustavson urges teachers to strive to acknowledge and hone the unique, natural talents of each boy and girl. “We need to think of our pedagogy as being a vehicle through which youth like Gil, Ian, and Miguel…can bring their ‘intrinsic’ skills to bear on classroom learning” (p. 5).  Unfortunately, as schools continue to align themselves with a burgeoning, mandated curriculum, less time can be devoted to pursuing activities of a student’s own choosing. When teachers are required to teach to the test, any interest shown by the student beyond the sanctioned curriculum could be viewed as off-task behavior.

Indeed, experimentation and students’ pursuit of idiosyncratic interests are antithetical to the purposes of outcomes-based education. Gustavson writes, “Opportunities to invent or perform ideas on the fly are almost nonexistent when learning outcomes are predetermined” (p. 146).  Paradoxically, research in both the hard sciences and social sciences over the past two thousand years confirms that it is experimentation that leads to innovation. Adherence only promulgates obedience.  

Rather than compel a “paint by numbers” curriculum, Gustavson suggests a focus on “ownable dilemmas,” that is, the analysis of current, real problems facing the student, school, city, state, nation, and world today. He writes,

I suggest that in order for classrooms to truly honor the way youth work on their own terms, we need to move beyond thinking of their work as products and instead understand them as habits of mind and body that youth develop and employ in order to create personally meaningful learning experiences. (p. 133)  

The current culture of distrust that permeates public schooling has created learning environments that are neither personal nor meaningful. In response, Leif Gustavson suggests a humanistic plan of action based upon compassion and choice. Current educational leaders are formulating increasingly technical solutions--more mandates, this time focusing upon predetermining how and what a teacher should teach. However, trying to solve the problems of public schools through more vituperative, technical decrees is absurd. Coercing teachers into exhibiting specific behaviors is a misanthropic, dispiriting travesty, reminiscent of Joseph Stalin’s malevolent conception of communism. Meanwhile, a generation of immense promise, represented by Ian, Miguel, and Gil in Youth Learning on Their Own Terms, is forced to look for joy and meaning outside the classroom walls.  


Ball, D. (9 February 2008).  The work of teaching and the challenge for teacher education.  Keynote address, presented at American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education Annual Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 14, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15000, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 7:01:13 AM

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