Broadening Horizons and Fostering Independence by Barry Power
16 June 2023

Broadening Horizons  and Fostering Independence – Student Agency at Year 9

Barry Power BEd | Head of Year 9

As our children grow, they pass through a number of developmental stages surrounding agency or the control they can exert over their own lives. Starting as wholly dependent on others to fulfil their immediate needs, infants quickly learn to investigate the world around them. As they become toddlers, they struggle with limits and restrictions, seeking freedom to explore as they wish. Pre-schoolers come to better understand social norms and become more skilled in negotiating permissions and primary school children gain a better understanding that their wishes often conflict with the needs of others. And then, we arrive at adolescence, a stage at which the weary and perhaps cynical parent or educator may be tempted to suggest that our children and students regress to toddlerhood, where those struggles with limits or restrictions may lead to behaviours perilously close to being described as tantrums!

This crucial moment, where teenagers attempt to achieve greater agency in their own lives, is a guiding principle in the Year 9 program at Westbourne. Consideration of this developmental need is infused in our Collaborative Project subject, which is the tentpole of our Year 9s experience at the Geoffrey Ryan Centre; however, it is also a key element of providing a broader range of elective choices, of facilitating stronger self-determination from our student leadership group, and of the standalone Year 9 area, which provides our students with a safe space to function free from the pressures of other year levels.

All these elements are buttressed by Wanganyin, which is our city excursion program at Year 9. Wanganyin is a Woiwurrung word meaning ‘we, including you’ as opposed to ‘wanganyinyu’ (meaning ‘we, but not you’), which encapsulates the concept of our students gaining a better understanding of their place within the broader Melbourne community. In essence, Wanganyin at Westbourne seeks to encourage students to investigate their sense of agency as they reach adulthood and become contributing members of their local communities.

In visiting a range of destinations across the city, students are exposed to different aspects of Melbourne’s social, cultural, historical, and political contexts. Through targeted reflection tasks, they then seek to unpack how their own need for personal agency is combined with the need to understand the world in which they live. Traveling to each excursion in their mentor groups, they are then selected into smaller groups who capture footage on the day and use this to create a group submission that investigates what they have learned in their city adventures. While younger children primarily view their agencies in silos with some understanding beginning to develop regarding those who are immediately impacted by their actions, Wanganyin helps our Year 9s to grapple with the intertwined nature of cause and effect across an entire city. In doing so, they are able to develop a stronger understanding of the limits of their agency and which of those limits are appropriate or which can be positively challenged.

At a micro level, students also gain valuable life skills that should allow them to be better negotiators at home for greater freedoms. We scaffold the support systems in place heavily at the start of the year, so that information about how to use public transport,  meeting and departure times and general logistics for each day is clearly and repeatedly communicated. As the year progresses, these structures are slowly removed, until by year’s end, students are capable of engaging in our version of The Amazing Race, where they are wholly in control of how their final city excursion logistics run. It is always exciting to see students who were dropped to their first city excursion in first term being fully confident of zipping around Melbourne on a mixture of foot-power, trams, trains, Ubers and beyond by the last week of the school year.

So, while our students are enjoying their trips to SYN Radio, the MCG, the Big Issue and numerous other venues, they are achieving important waypoints on their path to adulthood. Knowing the importance of student agency in becoming successful learners at the VCE level and beyond, the Wanganyin program holds a special place in their growth in this sphere. If nothing else, perhaps it means that they may be able to make their own way to their next commitment in the city, giving parents and guardians a little more agency in their own lives!

Barry Power | Head of Year 9