How Can Education Serve our Young People? - Papers & Essays



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How Can Education Serve our Young People?


In this paper I would like to explore the question of how formal education can serve the young people of our society. Rather than cast a wide net, I'd like to focus on one example of a program that attempts to meet a particular way of helping youth. This is "Core of Life", developed in Australia to help young teens take responsibility for their own learning, particularly around issues relating to pregnancy, giving birth, and parenting. Both the importance and limitations of this program will be examined.

Education Today ? how to be relevant?1

Much has been said in the popular press and other media about how young people lack control or morals, and that schools and/or parents aren't giving proper guidance to them. Young people today are living a very different life from those of previous generations, and their relationship with adults and schools is changing. I'd like to avoid comparing either today's youth or today's schools to those of earlier generations. The question of whether things are "better" or "worse" now than before will not be looked at in this paper. Rather than judge or moralize about either youth or schools or modern day society, I think it would be more helpful to look at some different ways that young people can be helped to live well as society undergoes the many changes that always occur.

A TV show was created in 2006 about upper primary school age children in the UK who are so-called "unteachable kids" because they weren't able to control themselves or sit quietly during the usual classroom lesson. Broadcast on BBC, the national television network in England, this reality show called "The Unteachables"2, shows possible ways of working with young people who are unable to cope with a normal/usual schooling system where they are expected to sit still and listen to teachers for a large part of the day. Such children are judged by society in general, and schools in particular, to be unteachable and unreachable.

Adults in power in such children's lives spend much time telling them what to do according to how they see society, and very little time listening or trying to find out what the children they are working with want/need/envision. And of course, if you don't take the time to listen, you won't take the time to help such children learn to take responsibility for their own lives. The producers and teachers on "The Unteachables" recognize the importance of listening, and the relationships in this show were built on this starting point.

When schools and adults can make an effort to listen to young people non-judgmentally and recognize that they have the ability and power to make informed decisions, then young people can begin to take responsibility for their own lives. Potentially vast change can take place in our schools and communities and in the relationship between young people and those who have the possibility of helping them develop.

There are models of school systems and programs where young people are listened to and given the opportunity to learn to take responsibility for their own actions, rather than to simply follow rules. This is the essential approach used in "The Unteachables" and in schools like Summerhill, Montessori, Rudolph Steiner, Reggio Emilia3 and others with similar philosophies. The Core of Life is another program with similar goals.

An Example of Listening to the Needs of Young People: Core of Life Program

In 1999 Tracy Smith and Debby Pattrick, two midwives in the community of Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia, decided to create a program to work with a situation they had noticed in their work and in their communities: more young women were having babies and had little idea about how to care for them. Also, the information which both young males and females had about birthing issues tended to be both unrealistic and sketchy.

"Core of Life was designed in response to youth requesting the real story. We visited local high schools following lengthy discussions with teenage mothers who spoke of ignorance and misinformation as a contributor to their current situation. High school students were asked what they currently knew and what they would like to know. Answers were unanimous - they wanted to know the real story, open the doors to maternity and let them in."4

Addressing real life issues that face young people is not something most schools deal with5. Curriculum is set by older people who, being from a different generation, have different perspectives of what should and shouldn't be, of right and wrong, of important and unimportant. So if teenagers are having more babies at younger ages, the usual approach is to tell them to stop it, or, if slightly more liberal, to give them more contraceptives or make abortion available. But to actually give them a chance to take responsibilities for their own lives is not a common approach.

Yet this is the approach that "Core of Life" took. On the Core of Life homepage, these words appear:

"Empowerment - Core of Life encourages adolescents to take responsibility for their own health and well being."6

When Libby Wilson, the director of the Rosebud Hospital on Mornington, heard about the ideas of Ms. Smith and Ms. Pattrick to create a program to work with teenagers, she was enthusiastic about the concept and encouraged the two midwives to develop their ideas.7 With the support of Ms. Wilson and others over the past ten years, the idea has grown and about 50,000 teenagers have taken part in the Core of Life program.8 Perhaps more importantly, about 1000 facilitators (including teachers, midwives, community workers and other health/education social service professionals) have taken part in Core of Life training sessions and workshops.9

But it's important to look beyond these numbers to find out about the quality of learning that takes place in this program. Finding out what is being learned and how it affects young people's lives is what I think is really important in looking at a program.

Let's examine Core of Life to learn about the goals of this program and the results of it being in operation for the past ten years. For this information, I am depending mostly on media reports published by Peninsula Health, the organization on Mornington Peninsula in New South Wales, Australia, that originally supported Core of Life workshops, and a 75 page report published in June 2008 by Elton Consulting independent consulting company in Sydney, Australia. I also exchanged personal email with Tracy Smith, one of the original designers and implementers of the program.

Here's an explanation about why Core of Life was developed and what it is trying to do according to their own media report:

Core of Life really has three aims. The first is to introduce teenagers to the realities of pregnancy and birth; the second to encourage them to take responsibility for their own health and well being by increasing their knowledge and awareness of their choices. The third is to increase support for breastfeeding, and to assist in making pregnancy and birth experience more rewarding for future parents.10

The goals are expressed in slightly different terms in the Evaluation Report:

Core of Life aims to highlight the physical, emotional and social consequences of pregnancy and parenthood, as well as focusing on the needs of the new baby to allow for optimal development and opportunity in life. It outlines key issues involved in having a baby, and local supports and resources....Core of Life has been designed to create a realistic awareness of the short and long term consequences of pregnancy and parenthood for young girls and boys.11

Later the report notes that another important aim is to "enhance awareness of risk behaviors in the adolescent such as smoking, drug taking and alcohol abuse as it relates to pregnancy, birth, breast feeding and early parenting, and to create an understanding of the impact of substances both immediately and in a child's future development."12

Previous times have seen youth excluded from seeing/being informed nor understanding the realities of this part of life. In some places young women are educated but certainly young men have been excluded in the most part. How then do we expect them to appreciate the incredible responsibility that comes with being pregnant, giving birth and the most important task of parenting.13

Another objective is to "encourage young adolescent males to foster a deeper respect and awareness of the pregnant woman's body and the process of childbirth as well as to embody a greater understanding of the responsibility of fathering a child."14

The target group specifically was "young people aged 12-17 who are at risk of early pregnancy."15 The goals were to be achieved by a two step procedure: providing workshops for facilitators who would then hold "educational sessions (usually 2-3 hours in total) with young people, usually within a school context, such as health class".16

Program implementation was described carefully in the evaluation report. First of all there is a 2 day facilitators workshop training. Attendants are usually school nurses, teachers, or midwives. They are provided with a manual and CD-ROM to help them conduct their future sessions with young people. A Facilitators Kit is available which includes necessary materials and information for conducting a workshop for young people. Follow up support is provided by a website and monthly meetings with a project coordinator. The cost for these sessions and materials is usually covered by local health, educational or community organizations or state or national grant funds. Core of Life received over a million dollars in funding from various national and state funding sources between 2005 and 2008.17

After the facilitators have received some training and materials, they are then responsible for organizing educational sessions with the target group. These sessions are co-conducted by at least 2 facilitators, one usually a mid-wife and the other from health/youth/education background. The sessions were meant to be presented in one 80-140 minute workshop or over a few weeks in modules, depending on circumstances.

Class size is kept small ? 24 maximum ? to encourage intimacy, respect and discussion, and multimedia, role playing and other methods are used to engage the participants. The sessions are run within current community or education programs by people from the community to encourage young people to feel a link between themselves and the various support services available to them.18

Upon reading the program's plan for holding educational sessions, I felt concerned about the number and length of the sessions. The evaluation report comments on various issues around this:

      Core of Life is designed to be delivered in sessions lasting between 80-150 minutes, or in modules over several weeks. However there appears to be significant variation in the length of sessions being delivered. The main challenge is finding a suitable slot in the school timetable.
      In many cases it seems that the whole session is being condensed into 50-60 minutes, the length of one school period, as it can be hard to find a double period and curriculum pressures mean that only one lesson can be allocated to it. In these instances facilitators agree that this is insufficient time to get through all the information, and that more time is needed. They tend to drop out some of the group activities or skip some sections altogether. Either way, the messages to young people from the session are limited, thereby impacting on the effectiveness of the program.
      More commonly sessions are delivered over 2 hours, and even then many facilitators felt that it is hard to fit all the content into this time. Some felt that it was preferable to deliver in a 2 hour block, despite the timetabling challenges of finding double periods, as this was more conducive to discussion than 2 single periods where students take time to get back in the right frame of mind. Others preferred two sessions over 2 weeks, on the basis that young people can get more out of it with a break in the middle. In schools in the Albany case study, the program had usually been delivered over 3 hours (3 consecutive weeks), enabling comprehensive content and discussion.19

From this report, it's clear that a great deal of variation existed in how these sessions were held. When Core of Life was started and on a rather small scale, I think scheduling these sessions in the best way for the youth, would be the key factor. What kind of arrangement would allow for 1) gaining the students' trust by listening to them to find out where they were at as a starting point; 2) trying to find the best way for the particular chemistry of the group to get into the issues of the program. 3) helping the young people.

The idea of doing this in a meaningful way ? not just "presenting" or "delivering" or "going over" these vital issues facing young people ? seems to me to be something that would take much more time that they are talking about here ? 100s of hours, rather than 2 or 3. The issue of time might be something that could be worked around in community schools, where time outside of school ? even evening or weekend workshops - might be arranged to continue discussions, but as the comment noted, in urban schools, this would be much more difficult.20

In the final section of the Evaluation Report, in the section called "Key Issues for Further Consideration", various important questions are raised about the length of the educational sessions.

A significant number of both facilitators and young people expressed a view that the educational sessions... were not long enough to convey all the content of the program. .. Many teachers are trying to fill all the contents into 1 55 minute lesson, while the program is designed to be delivered over a minimum of 80-150 minutes. It would seem unrealistic to expect that one lesson will have a significant impact in changing the knowledge and attitudes of young people with regard to pregnancy, birth, breast feeding and early parenting. If the program is to be at all effective, it would seem that the content needs to have sufficient depth to make an impact on the knowledge and attitudes young people now hold and this is difficult to achieve if much of the content is cut out or techniques to reinforce learning are removed.21

Yet, despite these restrictions of time, more than 90% of the facilitators found great value in the program for the following reasons:

- It encourages students to make informed choices
- Knowing that help is available and where to go to get support
- It provides correct information from a reliable source
- It addresses the myths and glamour of birth and babies22

Furthermore, the evaluation feedback in post-tests of the young people who were involved in the sessions was quite positive, reporting changes in knowledge and perception regarding the targeted information. About 80% of responding students reported positive learning outcomes about having increased understanding of newborn children's needs and care, having increased sense of responsibility for having children, having increased awareness of the effect of alcohol/drugs during pregnancy.23 However, more than ¼ of the students were either negative or unsure about the scheduling of the sessions, if the sessions were presented in interesting and fun ways and nearly ½ of the respondents said they would not or were unsure about recommending this program to their peers. Unfortunately, what I consider the most valid form of evaluation ? interviews conducted and analyzed by neutral figures ? were very limited due to budget and time constraints.

Certain problems were encountered in trying to evaluate this program. For the purpose of evaluation the program was seen as having 3 main parts: 1) the development of the training program by the Core of Life team and the quality of the content; 2) how fitting and effective were the training workshops for the facilitators who were responsible for taking the program to youth; 3) how effectively was the program taken to the young people by the facilitators.24

Steps 1 and 2 were under control of the Core of Life project, but step 3 was not; that is, what happened in the classrooms with students was not something which the Core of Life managers could take responsibility for after the training of facilitators. The evaluation report recognizes this as an important challenge in evaluating the program itself, but to judge the effectiveness of the program of course step 3 was the most vital part since the program's goals were relating to effect the knowledge and behavior of young people; the training of facilitators was only a means to an end.25

During the first years of the program, Core of Life had more control of what was actually presented to their target group. The numbers of facilitators they worked with, the proximity of the interaction that went on, the opportunity to work again with facilitators who were having problems in conducting the educational sessions with students, and even being a part of those sessions themselves, was no longer possible when the program spread out to many different areas in the country. This is often a problem when programs that are successful in a small context expand to a much larger context.

A further restrictiveness to evaluating Core of Life, to my way of thinking, is that it wasn't possible to do any long term evaluation. The report admits that the "potential impact of the Core of Life program in reducing teenage pregnancies, improving health and support during pregnancy and supporting early parenting can only be assessed in the longer term."26 Yet there is little long term evaluation of the effect of this program, even from the earlier days, except importantly, the statistics for pregnancy in young teens in communities where the program was introduced dropped significantly. Since [Core of Life] was implemented on the Mornington Peninsula (in 1999), teen birth rates at Rosebud Hospital have been cut in half.27

Other problems were encountered in the evaluation process by the team doing the report. The collection of date from both facilitators and young people was less than expected, due to not being able to collect feedback electronically on the website and not finding an engaging way of getting feedback from the young people who had attended the workshops. Furthermore, budget restrictions limited the number of case studies which could be undertaken.28

Given the concern on all participants' and evaluators' part regarding the important issues around the length of COL sessions, I think it would be useful to close this paper with a general look at how such formal programs can impact our youth in meaningful ways.

Importance and Limitations of Core of Life

In an article in the Teacher's College Record of Columbia University New York, Inadequate Interest and Resources for Youth's Socialization by Sharon L. Nichols & Thomas L. Good ? June 28, 200429, the authors state:

Youth also receive inadequate guidance and socialization around sex. Even though there is strong evidence that abstinence-based education is ineffective (e.g., US Department of Health and Human Services, 200130), the Bush administration continues to fund abstinence-based approaches to sex education. This position is in direct conflict with what parents and youth want which is more, not less, information on sex. A 2003 survey found that when asked what are the biggest concerns facing 15-17 year olds today, an overwhelming majority of both parents and teens reported that sexual health issues (such as STD, HIV and pregnancy) were the biggest problems, above sexual violence or other physical violence; using drugs; discrimination because of race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation; drinking too much; smoking cigarettes; or depression or other mental illness (Hoff and Green, 200031).

Although the above report is almost a decade old and country specific, there is little reason to think that the situation has changed much or is different in Japan or Australia. So I think it can be agreed that Core of Life is attempting to focus on issues of great importance to young people.

However, it's extremely important that the limitations of such formal programs be recognized. I raised the question of how anything can be meaningful or done in 2-3 hours of classroom time to Tracy Smith and I think her response is valuable:

In many sessions in our local community young people would tell their own birth stories, some distressing and confused, others joyous, but each contributing without judgment - as I say being born is the great leveller. The timely ability to debrief these stories (mind you some are teachers stories too) is golden. In most sessions youth are encouraged to stay back and ask any private questions which creates an opportunity for prevention and early intervention education that is essential for these kids and would have otherwise not existed. Having at least one presenter with a background in maternity care creates the opportunity for factual, helpful grass roots style support.

We have found with this program that

  1. The sensitivity and relevance of "local" presenters is paramount. If the two presenters are from the local community it makes a huge difference in safety and richness of discussion
  2. The images used in the program need to reflect local content. It is not as effective showing pictures of African women in a Japanese setting. Some are good as they show diversity but the majority need to reflect the youths own community.
  3. School curriculum time is precious. Schools are very tight in scheduling so in every school it is important to battle for as much time as possible. Ideally 3 x 90 minute sessions in a school is opportune and more is even better but tricky to get.

Now this may seem miniscule and ineffective but we firmly believe if the information is well prepared, presented by sensitive enthusiastic, empowering presenters then our data shows it can be very effective.

Certainly our communities across Australia are demanding this education in an ongoing capacity with some heading into their tenth year of sessions with it firmly integrated into curriculum which of course is ideal.

We must also remember how crucial it is to adopt adolescent learning styles to our education. Interactive participation, use of media, action and change between dynamic presenters, the avoidance of lecture style teaching, use of props, relating information to everyday life are paramount for success.

We must remember our initial target group - at risk youth.
These young people congregate at various locations and it is indeed a specific task of ours and each community to identify these locations and cleverly plan how we can involve these young people in the program. Youth workers, community staff, NGO staff and community leaders have been able to deliver this education in a variety of settings - youth outreach programs, youth groups, camps, drop in centres etc.

Also a key element is to ensure that each young person educated in COL is now fully aware of the local services available to support pregnancy choice, and families. In having local presenters they often are representative of these services and therefore allow youth to interface directly to see that they are sensitive approachable and non judgmental.32

Ms. Smith clearly recognizes the limitations of what can be done in 2-3 classroom sessions. Not only does the style of learning need to be adapted to young people who might not be open to "sit and listen lectures" or textbook reading, but the need for the whole community to become involved in supporting their need for knowledge and services in regard to these vital issues.

Core of Life, thus needs to be so much more than a class activity. They are now exploring ways of expanding their web activity to support their work. For example, the potential for blog activities as a way of support hasn't been explored yet.

But this is a ten-year young program, willing to grow and learn from and with the young people they are trying to support.

Appendix 1: Core of Life Objectives and Strategies33
Core of Life Objectives
1.To empower local communities and larger numbers of adolescents nationally through improved access to evidence based information on Pregnancy, Birth and Early Parenting via the Core of Life program (inc. rural, remote, indigenous and multicultural)
  • Identify key target areas within Australia using selected forms of evidence from Commonwealth/State departments as indicators for priority Core of Life ... training and sessions
  • Identify key stakeholders within target areas and develop key community partnerships, both indigenous and mainstream
  • Enlist personnel from these key organisations to train as Core of Life facilitators
  • Liaise and collaborate with a variety of community members nationally to develop appropriate resources and training for indigenous and multicultural community members
  • Provide local facilitators the methodology and guidance for adjusting Core of Life material to meet local organisational, cultural, linguistic needs within their specific communities
  • Commit time and resources to continual promotional and professional education activities e.g. Conferences, Expo's etc.
2.Improve the understanding within the general and youth populations about the importance of preparation for parenthood
  • Increase community awareness of Core of Life objectives and activities in promoting positive parenting practice
  • Increase the capacity of Core of Life to provide male role models as part of the Core of Life facilitation team to promote a stronger father/child relationship
  • Build upon the program components to reflect an increased emphasis on preparing for parenting eg. relationships, finances, support
3.Improve awareness of responsibility and needs embodied within being pregnant and caring for a newborn amongst the general adolescent population
  • Provide evidence based information to male and female adolescents about the realistic challenges of becoming a new parent inc: pregnancy changes, giving birth & physical/emotional needs of the newborn
  • Provide specified information to young males/females re the financial and moral responsibilities of becoming a parent
  • Develop follow up activities on aspects of parenting inc: sleep & settling, play & interaction, feeding, etc to be available in the student workbook
  • Encourage Maternal Child and Youth Health Nurses in key target areas to train in Core of Life to increase early childhood representation in Core of Life team
  • Incorporate the promotion of electronic babies to Core of Life training and make ordering information available to new facilitators and schools
4.Improve the outcomes for children born to teenage mothers in the communities undertaking Core of Life activities
  • Improve awareness/access of local health care services by pregnant teenagers and their support team earlier in pregnancy
  • Improve access to prenatal healthcare by teenagers in target regions throughout Australia through promoting the role of a midwife and their non-discriminatory value in pregnancy childbirth and early parenting care
  • Provide comprehensive education re the adverse affects of drugs and alcohol during pregnancy, birth and early parenting
  • Encourage schools to view the introduction of Core of Life as a whole schools approach and encourage young mothers to remain engaged in the school community
  • Encourage schools to adopt policies of return to school support for young mothers
  • Provide education to mixed teenage audiences to ensure information is being accessed by young males as well as females
  • Commence a peer trainee sponsorship training program including support, follow up and vocational guidance to young mothers. They will act as a role model in becoming part of the team presenting to youth within their local community.
  • Encourage the use of Core of Life in Teen Pregnancy Clinics across Australia to provide a portal for evidence based education of supporting partners, parents, grandparents
5.To increase support for breastfeeding amongst the adolescent population
  • Increase access to appropriate, engaging adolescent education regarding the advantages of breast milk for a newborn baby
  • Continue with engaging activities during Core of Life program related to the issues surrounding breastfeeding in public
  • Increase awareness amongst teens of supports for breastfeeding mothers and their partners within their local communities
  • Increase education on paternal support measures for encouraging long term breastfeeding practices
6.Provide ongoing support for facilitators, youth, schools, agencies engaging in Core of Life activities
  • Revisit specified high-need regions nationally, that have received training (prior to funding period) and assist where necessary with implementation and roll-out of Core of Life sessions and involve them in national data collection
  • Provide complementary introductory sessions to schools and organisations experiencing difficulty in funding commencement of Core of Life sessions
  • Updating the website
      Secure facilitator section
      youth section
      general public section
  • Electronic, phone, video conferencing
  • Training of regional coordinators
7.Maintain active research and sound evaluative philosophy through the course of the project
  • Website feedback, hits, etc
  • Ongoing evaluation of training and facilitation
  • Extensive comprehensive evaluation tools
8.To maintain stringent measures within Core of Life systems management, business management and promotional measures to enhance opportunities for long term sustainability
  • Identify specific regional centres to liaise/negotiate staff for 'Train the Trainer' role in permitting sustainability of Core of Life activity locally
  • Develop key community business partnerships locally and nationally
  • Utilize Info Tech, finance, executives, corporate counsel, community agencies, etc., to provide support to program maintenance, sustainability and growth
  • Business/management support


  1. By "relevant" in this context, I'm talking about relevancy to young people about their own lives and learning.
  2. There are numerous websites about this show, but this is a good place to go for further information:
  3. Two informative books have recently been published about the Reggio Emelia approach to learning: Scheinfeld, D., Haigh, K., Scheinfeld, S. (2008). We are All Explorers: Learning and Teaching with Reggio Principles in Urban Settings, Teachers College Press, N.Y., NY. 191 pages. ISBN 978-0-8077-4908-1; and Wien, C. (Ed.) (2008). Emergent Curriculum in the Primary Classroom: Interpreting the Reggio Emilia Approach in Schools, Teachers College Press, N.Y., NY and NAEYC, Washington, D.C. 176 pages. ISBN 978-0-8077-4887-9.
  4. Smith, Tracy. "Re: article about Core of Life" E-mail to the author. 12 February 2009.
  5. Manning, Chris, "Core of Life Final Evaluation Report", Elton Consulting, Sydney, 2008, p19.
    Most sex education in schools focuses on how and why not to make babies than on how to take care of yourself and your baby if you do get pregnant.
  6. and click on "About us", and "Introduction"
  7. This story reminded me yet again about how important it is to have responsive and supportive leaders at the top of organizations, leaders that can encourage those working with them.
  8. Peninsula Health Media Release: "Local Midwives Win Innovation and Leadership Award", 24 November, 2004. available on website: and clicking on "resources", then "VHA Innovation and Leadership Award" to open a pdf file. This media release notes that "over 16,000 students" have attended Core of Life sessions from 1999 to 2004. The Manning "Core of Life Final Evaluation Report" covers the 3 year period from 2005-2008 and says on page 2 that during this time, "approximately 32,000 young people had exposure to the Core of Life materials.
  9. Manning, p2
  10. from the internet:, the homepage of Core of Life.
  11. Manning p7
  12. ibid, p8
  13. Smith, Tracy. "Re: article about Core of Life" E-mail to the author. 12 February 2009.
  14. ibid, p8
  15. ibid, p1
  16. ibid, p2
  17. ibid, pp 9-10
  18. ibid, p11
  19. ibid, pp 34-35, section 6.4.5 Length of Sessions
  20. I raise this issue to point out my feeling that there must be tremendous differences between a program being developed and introduced into a few schools or communities with very close personal supervision and taking such a program state or nationwide. Unless such issues are dealt with at the planning stage, it seems to me that the effectiveness of a program would be severely threatened.
  21. ibid,pp62-63
  22. Manning, p.48
  23. ibid, p51. See Chart, "Learning Outcomes"
  24. ibid, p6
  25. ibid, p6
  26. ibid, p15
  27. Peninsula Health, Media Release, 24 November 2004 "Local Midwives Win Innovation and Leadership Award." Available at:
  28. Manning, pp13-15
  29. the article can be seen online at
  30. US Department of Human Health and Human Services. (2001). The Surgeon General's call to action to promote sexual health and responsible behavior. (2001, July). Washington, DC: US Department of Human Health and Human Services. Retrieved January 16, 2002 from
  31. Hoff, T. and Greene, L. (2000, September). Sex education in America: A view from inside the nation's classrooms. Menlo Park, CA: The Henry Kaiser Family Foundation [online]. Available at:
  32. Smith, Tracy. "Re: article about Core of Life" E-mail to the author. 12 February 2009.
  33. ibid pp19-20