January 2017 – Davos, Switzerland: mountains and money. Motifs of the annual World Economic Forum summit; an annual gathering for the world’s elite and an accidental catalyst for an authentic student-led learning experience.
You know the drill by now – for one week a year, the 11,000 strong population of this model village swells by over 100% as the world’s wealthiest and most influential citizens swarm to attend the WEF. Ordinary citizens complain bitterly but make a fortune renting their shops and houses to mega-corps who turn hairdressers into business hubs and watch-shops into Wall Street. During the summit, tourists are replaced by phalanxes of black suited security personnel herding fur-clad dignitaries from one planet-altering meeting to another. Meanwhile, those struggling in the snow are watched by the next arrivals as they swirl downwards from the waiting formation of luxury helicopters circling the town. Floating between the two are an army of snipers doing their best to blend into the snow covered roof tops on which they’ve been posted. It’s their job to ensure that this artificial reality is safely sustained. But why am I writing about it? Because this year, I was there – in amongst the oligarchs and the plutocrats, presidents and political correspondents – to attend the Open Forum, (the fringe event for the slightly less elite) and celebrate the achievements of some very talented students.
A year earlier, a small group of ISZL students attended the Open Forum, listened to some inspirational panel discussions, spoke to some leading change makers, recognised how lucky they were to be there but came away feeling that something was missing from what they’d seen. What was it? Youth. The Davos experience is a divided one. It’s deliberate – to ensure that the event itself is as hierarchal as the world it aims to analyse and claims to understand. There’s a ring of steel around the central conference centre where Bezos, Ma, Gates and Stormy’s ex all spoke and then on the other side of the sniper towers and razor wire is the high street where lesser execs mingle with the general public. People under 35 are in the minority; people under 18 virtually invisible. This lack of a meaningful youth presence catalysed the beginning of a process that saw the students decide to host their own conference – a youth forum organised by students, for students.
Over the course of the next year, the student group grew to assimilate a team of teacher coordinators. Together we planned an event loosely modelled on Davos that would see over 30 world class speakers take part in a full day of panel discussions and TED style talks. We made contact with the WEF and visited their Geneva headquarters where the organisers of the Open Forum graciously quizzed our students and shared supportive tips. This would prove to be the beginning of a positive professional relationship. At every subsequent stage of the process, students were at the centre of the designing, planning and execution of the event. Logos and posters were produced, video trailers made, formal invitations typed and sent, panel discussions and questions prepared and panels moderated. In terms of making this ‘real’, within our context, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Timed to take place the week before the WEF, the date for the Youth Forum Switzerland acted as a real reminder that this wasn’t a simulated class task or artificial project – this was the most authentic form of assessment. As carefully curated visuals emerged and morphed into a series of stylish event posters, awareness of January 18th 2018 began to percolate beyond the confines of the team. The students realised that what they were producing would affect a community far beyond their own and this gave the learning something that often seems to be lacking: relevance.
Fast forward to March 2018 and I find myself celebrating the Youth Forum at the Learning2 conference in Luxembourg. Project based learning and authentic assessment are cat nip to progressive teachers and the Youth Forum is going down well. Un-conference sessions offer opportunities to share my experiences of the event and to celebrate the passion of our students. As I revisit the event, I also realise that what was ultimately a very successful experience offered numerous opportunities for failure. As teacher coordinators, we tried to find a balance between overloading students with admin tasks and involving them in the right level of detail driven discussion. Mistakes were made. We often expected too much from busy students (some preparing to take final exams) and we expected them to cope with instructions and suggestions coming from a group of untrained event planners building their model in realtime. Ultimately, we learned as much as they did.
Back to the closing session of the Open Forum 2018 and 2 of our student organisers have been asked to share a summary of our event with the audience. They are on the stage recently vacated by Al Gore and Malala Yousafzai and have just been introduced by the Managing Director of the WEF. He name checks the school and jokingly refers to the Youth Forum as competition before playing our summary show reel of the event. As the students speak, their passion and pride is clear. They are not talking about a project or an essay, an educational artefact to be forgotten over time. They are describing an experience, a shared moment of relevance at the beginning of a series that could take the Youth Forum in many directions. They created it. They executed it. They own it.
Click here to see Chanine Enthoven’s Youth Forum show reel.