Youth Confidence in Learning and the Future

The attitudes and actions of young people are a barometer of the health of a society.

The Canadian Education Association (CEA) has just completed a research project that looked at young people’s confidence in their learning environments and their future. We know that students’ future trust in institutions is significantly shaped by their school experiences, in particular by whether there is an open climate for classroom discussion and student participation in school affairs. Research into young people’s optimism about the future can provide clues about their interest and capacity to make a difference in the world. The results of this survey tell a good-news, bad-news story. While young people approach adulthood with a confidence in their own ability to succeed – a critical ingredient for success – they appear to have waning faith in social institutions or their ability to influence them. Students were most positive with respect to future orientation and aspirations and least positive about the future of their community/country and the “fit” or connection between school and their life/learning outside of school.

The initiative engaged over 1,000 Ontario high school students (Grades 9 to 12) who completed an online survey in school. An additional 75 young people participated in facilitated sessions organized by the social planning councils either early in the process to inform the development of the survey or later on to give feedback on the research findings.

The research focused on these dimensions of youth confidence:

  • sense of trust;
  • level of engagement;
  • feelings of empowerment or efficacy;
  • degree of “fit” or connection between in-school learning and lives and /earning outside of school;
  • confidence in the future – future orientation, confidence in their personal future, confidence in the future of their community/country, aspirations.

Research highlights: What students told us

Young people’s confidence varies considerably by dimension. Students were most positive with respect to future orientation and aspirations and least positive about the future of their community/country and the “fit” or connection between school and their life/learning outside of school.

Youth are very future-oriented, with high aspirations. Almost all students (95 percent) reported that they intend to graduate from high school, with somewhat fewer (88 percent) indicating that they intend to graduate from college or university. Close to 90 percent of students said they think a lot about their lives, with 84 percent reporting that they have dreams for the future, although a smaller proportion (72 percent) said they know what to do to make those dreams come true.

Young people are far more confident in their personal futures than in the future of their community or country. Only 35 percent of students agreed that “in the next five years, my town or city (or Canada) will be a better place to live” compared with 73 percent who believed that “in the next five years, opportunities will open up in my life” and “I expect to achieve more than my parents did” in terms of career and income. Even in the face of a labour market and an economy that are failing them, young people continue to be optimistic about their personal futures. Some think this means that today’s youth are better equipped to deal with uncertainty than previous generations. Young people are hopeful and hope has transformative powers.[1]

There is a significant disconnect between students’ in-school learning and their lives and learning outside of school. As the table shows, only 53 percent of students were positive about statements related to “fit”. For example, only 58 percent could see connections between their courses and their lives outside of school, with even fewer (52 percent) reporting that what they do or learn outside of school is relevant to school courses and only 44 percent believing that their teachers are interested in what they are learning or doing outside of school.

Ontario high school students are required to do 40 hours of community service as a requirement for their high school diplomas. Only 57 percent of students found this a useful learning experience, although 71 percent felt that the program makes a useful contribution to the community. 

Although moderate overall, students’ level of trust is low with respect to the mainstream media and people in their communities. Only 38 percent of students thought that most of the news in the mainstream media was true. Fewer than half, 48 percent, reported that they trusted “most of the people in my community,” even though 62 percent felt that young people were welcome and respected in their community, and 70 percent said their rights were usually respected.

With respect to trust in school, 49 percent of students said they had someone to discuss personal problems with in school, while 73 percent reported having at least one adult they could discuss school problems with.

While a low level of trust in the mainstream media can be interpreted as healthy skepticism, a low sense of trust in others may signal that community cohesion and social networks are becoming weak.

Students feel empowered to stand up for themselves, but most do not think they can make a difference in their schools and communities. Over three quarters of students said they felt comfortable standing up for themselves both in and outside of school, with almost as many, 70 percent, reporting that they “sometimes stand up for others who are being put down or bullied.” On the other hand, only 51 percent said they had opportunities to make their school a better place and even fewer, 47 percent, believed they had opportunities to make their community a better place. Between a quarter to a third of students responded that they were “uncertain” about some of these questions, suggesting that they may not know about opportunities that exist to improve their schools and communities.

Students are more positive about their engagement in school (67 percent) than in their community (57 percent), although neither is high. Over 70 percent of students said they were interested in most of the courses they are taking in school, and 72 percent reported that, in their school, students were encouraged to discuss and question things. However, only 45 percent said they often learn something so interesting that they can’t stop thinking about it. This is consistent with CEA’s research initiative, What did you do in school today?, which found that only 43 percent of students were intellectually engaged, despite much higher levels of social and academic engagement.[2]

With respect to community engagement, only 51 percent of students reported that there were enough interesting things for young people to do in their community; a somewhat higher proportion, 55 percent, said they participated in at least one program or activity. Two-thirds of students indicated that they would vote in elections when they were old enough to do so. Interestingly, while not a particularly strong indicator of engagement, the response to this question was more positive than any of the others related to engagement, suggesting again that lack of opportunities or knowledge of opportunities may be an obstacle for young people’s community participation.

In the spring of 2012, CEA and the Hamilton Social Planning and Research Council sponsored a community forum and youth consultation on Searching for Certainty in Uncertain Times: Youth Confidence in School, Community and the Future. Close to 100 people, about a quarter of them youth, participated to discuss the research findings. Three panelists were asked to suggest some strategies for improving youth confidence.

With input from students, the five social planning councils have prepared written reports with the detailed findings and implications for their local communities. 

[1] R. Bibby, et al. 2009. As cited in Freiler.

[2] J. D. Willms, S. Friesen, and P. Milton. 2009. What did you do in school today? Transforming Classrooms Through Social, Academic and Intellectual Engagement(Toronto: CEA, 2009).


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