Is shared how they found a sense of agency in their learning only when moving into an alternative schooling environment where they had more of a say in how and what they they learned. They share the challenges of navigating a learning system that doesn’t cater to neurodiversity or disability and where they didn’t feel a sense of belonging. 

After prep in Perth, Is began primary school in Melbourne describing it as ‘a not great time’ as a whole. Questions Is asked at the time included: Why am I learning this when I know it already? And why do they have to teach it to me in this way?

Today Is recognises emphatically that most of their learning journey hasn’t actually been in school saying ‘I have learned more in one year in my job than in 13 years of formal education’.

Looking back, Is describes the main struggle as being with the speed of learning being too slow as well as what was being taught. Is now realises their ADHD and autism were not getting any support but at the time felt that ‘I’m not the person this learning program was made for’.

Is clearly felt they were the problem rather than the system.

With access to accelerated learning into high school, Is finished year ten a year early. While glad to be able to access this program, it had its issues. On paper, Is was fine – academically and socially – scoring well and sitting with people at lunchtime. But being in a physical learning environment with the same people every day and being bullied by many of them took its toll.

‘People just didn’t understand I was disabled and needed extra support.’ In contrast and with hindsight, Is described the super low contact hours of online learning a few years later during COVID as really good.

As high school years progressed, Is’s mental and physical health declined. Is stopped attending school as it was exhausting and traumatic. But in year 11 (while doing year 12 subjects) turning up to enough classes to pass and be assessed remained essential. Is describes getting to the point where ‘I was just going to my classes to pass my assessments and not to actually learn’.

At this point Is realised the whole experience was not conducive to their education success acknowledging ‘I’m the only one who knows how I learn’. Is then enrolled in TAFE to finish year 12 subjects with a VCE. With COVID interruptions, the online experience ended up having a surprisingly positive impact.’So it was pretty much entirely online and self-led which was really good for me’. While the online experience wasn’t perfect, Is expressed a sense of agency for the first time. It was ‘on you’ to do well or not and no one was holding your hand or prescribing everything, Is explained.

Is is also clear about what didn’t work about online learning – particularly for someone with auditory processing challenges and ADHD. ‘In-person teaching is easier for my brain and ability to pay attention as the zoom screens and overloaded sensory content gets very tiring.’

While loving some things about school (like sociology) Is describes a general experience with education as ‘a system that was created for a certain person to learn a certain thing and tick a certain box’. In a world of uncertainty, this approach left Is feeling like they were not learning – full stop.

In reality, Is now knows they were learning a lot, it just wasn’t being recognised, celebrated or included. The pressure and focus was around doing certain things a certain way rather than on the learning outcomes or relevance to life.

Is expressed surprise that life literacy wasn’t a learning ambition. Understanding the what and why of things like Medicare, voting, government roles, going to the doctor – Is sees these things as related to the knowhow – rather than just learning a subject through knowledge. Is comments ‘At school I felt like I was learning to write an essay to get good grades rather than to really learn about the writing process and explore the world around me to be able to analyse it.’

When thinking about learning ambitions Is talks about acknowledging more of what a person has done by showing young people that they are worth all of these different things – they are made up of these things and so much more than the boxes that are being ticked within our current education format.

In channelling their inner 15 year old Is’s advice is: You don’t have to settle for bad. You are allowed to challenge it and you are allowed to want more’.

Is also describes some particulars from their learning journey:

Hating group assignments – mainly because one person ends up doing most of the work and the purpose of the group work isn’t clear.

Having an ally as a rare diamond in the rough (a VCE coordinator) who actually cared about Is as a person and what they needed from their education (a huge part of how Is kept going).

Many things at school not being acknowledged, with Is feeling bad about their experience at school with mental health issues, physical and disability challenges, being queer – all due to severe bullying and lack of support. 

How many of these life and learning challenges could become strengths if they were part of the learning landscape through learning ambitions.

Many of the things they did in their learning journey were seen as not relevant – like working in a fast food outlet or similar.

Some highlights from Is on the learning ambitions include:

Learner agency: 'A lot of people think you have agency because you get to pick your subjects in years 11 and 12. I think real agency is really lacking. Agency is about having the capacity to change things, to drop out or do something else.'

Connectivity: 'I see this as including more space for people to learn about issues or experiences people have around being queer or First Nations or whatever else. We need this space to enable us to better connect with each other in a school setting about different topics that are relevant.'

Learning staples: 'I think there needs to be better integration so that education becomes more about building up a person’s skills and understanding and interests and passions.'