Volatile and Vulnerable: Engaging adolescent learners through advocacy and mentoring programs

Year: 2012

Author: Hutchison, Kirsten

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Since 2000, a number of state and commonwealth reports have addressed the problems of adolescent disengagement from schooling, early school leaving and consequent unemployment and disengagement from society. A common thread in these reports has been the importance of establishing a positive learning experience for students in the middle and senior school. The importance of a one-to-one relationship with a caring adult in determining student's attitudes to schooling, their learning progress and decisions to complete their education is supported by a number of significant Australian studies (Butler et al., 2005; Brookes & Milne, 1997). Overviews of school reform programs, in the search for common characteristics associated with effectiveness, have pointed to one-to-one relationships between a student and an adult as an essential component of programs leading to positive outcomes (Mukherjee, 1999). They argue that the empowerment of students in interaction with teachers is empirically supported as one of the best ways to improve student outcomes, especially for vulnerable students, since positive involvement with teachers is associated with engagement, well-being and achievement.  (Osterman, 2000).

The broader longitudinal study from which this paper originates, sought to examine firstly the impact of an Advocacy model of student support on adolescent engagement in learning, with a particular focus on students in regional, rural and low-socioeconomic metropolitan areas. The notion of student advocacy is informed by the person-centred and relationship-focused theory of Rogers (1961, 1983) and his theories of therapeutic growth and the facilitation of learning In addition, the study examined the effects of the deployment of an electronic Student Self-Assessment Inventory (SSAI), a suite of online questionnaires relating to students' goals, attitudes, learning preferences, school connectedness, emotional wellbeing and challenges in learning, designed to increase student's self-knowledge and provide teachers and students with material for focused conversations, when used as a component of school-based mentoring and advocacy programs.

Drawing on a selection of learning biographies, developed through interviews with secondary students over three years, this paper outlines some of the complexities involved in adolescent disengagement with schooling and explores the impact of the Advocacy model on the students' experiences of schooling, learner identities and aspirations. It argues that relationships with teachers and advocates/mentors are critical aspects of engagement in learning for secondary students and that in conjunction with tools fostering self reflection, such as the SAI, lead to enhanced connectedness and commitment to learning, to the school community and to students' aspirations.