It was through the Forum’s work in “youth transitions” that the Learning Choices arena became increasingly apparent. Also known as alternative education or flexible learning, it was called “Learning Choices” by the Forum to emphasise that young people should have a say in deciding how they best learn, regardless of their interests, abilities, backgrounds and personal circumstances.
Learning Choices caters to “disengaged” students, those who have lost their connection to learning, and may not be motivated or able to finish high school. The Forum’s interest started in 2003 when Tjerk Dusseldorp and Kerrie Stevens visited a number of successful programs in Canberra. The importance of this innovative work was quickly recognised, but the isolation of the practitioners was also noted. Inspiration also came from Forum staff visiting programs in the US and Denmark. This ’hands-on learning’ encouraged the Forum to auspice two expos; these subsequently lead to the development of a national network of alternative practitioners, and a country-wide Learning Choices database on the Dusseldorp Forum website. In 2017 the database was moved to the management of Edmund Rice Education Youth + and can be found here. The Learning Choices’ work drew national attention to the issue of widespread student disengagement, and resulted in a renewed focus on “hard to teach” students and their learning needs. The impact has been far-reaching, with changes in educational practice in many schools and communities and on-going policy change around Australia.
National Expos: 2004 and 2006
Dusseldorp Skills Forum hosted the first national Learning Choices Expo in 2004 in Sydney. More than 200 practitioners attended and 20 programs from across Australia were featured in an action-packed two days at Sydney Olympic Park. A decade later, this event is still talked about. Practitioners, students, educators and student teachers all took part. A key feature was that the students presented, rather than their teachers, about their experiences in learning choices programs for the expo’s adult audience. Student teachers from the University of Western Sydney – dubbed the ’Hoonz Goonz’ – were trained to support the students polish their presentations. For many of these UWS pre-service teachers, the expo was the first time they had worked with “disengaged” students. Later, many reported that the expo was a turning point in their journey to becoming a teacher. They saw these young people in a different light, it gave them a new focus on teaching and classroom management and they found out about programs that they never knew existed. In 2006, a second Learning Choices Expo with more than 500 participants was held in Maroochydore, Queensland. This included a focus on indigenous learning programs. Local schools, TAFEs and programs eagerly participated as did teams from New Zealand and the United States.
Learning Choices Expo 2006 had workshops on cooking, hip hop and photography.