Redefining School: Educational Spaces for Adolescents’ Engagement in Learning
Members of school systems around the globe recognize the challenge of educating adolescents to enable them to thrive in a rapidly changing world. They are faced with the complex task of designing educational spaces that combine more traditional instructional school settings with the “real world,” that is, the tangible world surrounding the school as well as the digital world connecting schools to the wider world. This contribution shows how adolescent students’ engagement in learning can be supported by redefining schools’ settings for learning and by designing hybrid spaces that provide complex, authentic, and demanding tasks in real-life settings to enable deeper learning.
KeywordsSchool Adolescents Partnerships Learning environment Hybrid learning space Holistic education Digitization Deeper learning
In a world that is shaped by innovation and becoming increasingly complex, it would be unreasonable to believe that the field of middle-level education could remain unaffected by ever-changing societal expectations, demands, and pressures related to the role education and educators play in preparing adolescents for life and work. Adolescent learners require an education that prepares them for a rapidly changing and, in some ways, unpredictable world (Trilling & Fadel, 2009). Given the level of change they will have to deal with as adults, this education must allow them to survive and thrive but, most importantly, unleash their natural curiosity and empowers them to contribute to a world in transition (Yee, 2015).
The good news is: Adolescents’ learning needs can be aligned with twenty-first-century learning environments. Educators today understand learning as deeper learning (Bellanca, 2015; Fullan, Quinn, & McEachen, 2017). This implies that teachers must go beyond facilitating mere knowledge acquisition and encourage the development of problem-solving skills as well as the power to act (alone and in teams) in different situations based on sound knowledge (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012; Sliwka, 2018). But how exactly does the learning environment meet these needs? How can traditional education spaces be developed to better support the core aim of schooling: individual student learning?
Adolescent Students’ Learning
Understanding the unique developmental needs of adolescent learners provides the key to ensuring their learning success. There is ample research evidence about the stages of physical, emotional, and social development and transition occurring for these learners (George, 2009; George & Alexander, 2003; Yee, 2015). Yee (2015) has recently shown that schools attending to how these changes impact teaching and learning can become remarkable places of learning that are responsive to the unique educative needs of early adolescents.
Schools that are unaware of these particular needs and how to respond to them tend to lose these kids. Many researchers have shown that adolescent students become increasingly disengaged and disconnected from their learning (Balfanz, 2009; Hancock & Zubrick, 2015; Spork, 2014; Wang & Holcombe, 2010; Wormeli, 2011), a situation which can lead to devastating consequences. Klinger, Mills, and Chapman (2011) found that only 21% of girls and 16% of boys reported “liking school a lot” (p. 52) by Grade 8. Furthermore, only 52% of girls and 54% of boys described their “teachers [as being] interested in them,” and only 72% of girls and 70% of boys believed that “most of their teachers were friendly” (p. 54). Other studies have confirmed adolescents’ lack of meaningful connection to school. The conductors of the large-scale 2010 Canadian survey “What Did You Do in School Today?” showed that 42% of adolescents are either apathetic or anxious towards their learning in mathematics, and even more, 48%, are so in languages (Willms & Friesen, 2012; Yee, 2015). There is ample evidence underscoring the importance of a closer examination of the factors that contribute to the establishment of developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning environments for students between the ages of 11 and 16.
Adolescent Students’ Engagement in Learning
We know today that student learning strongly depends on their learning engagement (Sliwka, 2018; Yee, 2015). Engagement refers to students’ enthusiasm, curiosity, involvement, and excitement and must be understood as a “growth-producing activity in which the individual allocates attention in active response to the environment” (Friesen, n.d., p. 1). Engagement in this sense implies that people learn best when doing things that are challenging and of deep interest to them. Adolescents who are engaged can more easily cope with setbacks and obstacles (VCOSS, 2016, p. 4).
When they feel strongly engaged, students enter a state in which they are so focused, so intensely involved in their learning that time seems to vanish and deeper learning takes place. Csikszentmihalyi calls this state “flow” (1990); Friesen defines it as “intellectual engagement” (2007) and distinguishes it from merely playing by the rules and “doing school.” The authors of an OECD report describe this level of engagement as “the most intense pleasure the brain can experience in a learning context” (OECD, 2007, p. 73).
To challenge students and to provide them with opportunities to reach their full educational potential, teachers must engage them behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively (Ockenden, 2014, p. 6). For this kind of engagement to be stimulated, students require a learning environment with incentives to show a serious emotional and cognitive investment, use higher order learning and thinking skills, solve complex problems, and construct new knowledge. Research shows that teachers can achieve this deep learning by creating authentic learning tasks, teaching the curriculum through real-world problems that need to be tackled. The closer the connection between learning and real life, the greater the effect on student engagement in learning (Kvalsund & Hargreaves, 2009; OECD, 2007).
Schools should open up to their communities to the world around them.
Schools should actively embrace the digital world that their digitally native students already live in.
Creating and Connecting Learning Spaces for a Holistic Education
The idea of teachers and schools working closely with the community to enhance learning for their students is not a recent pedagogical idea. Early twentieth century proponents of progressive educational concepts (Reformpädagogik) in particular began to align in-classroom learning with their students’ outside environment. More recently, schools have adopted these reformist ideas to create a more balanced education, with teachers trying to achieve excellence and ensure the equity and wellbeing of students at the same time (Böttcher, Maykus, Altermann, & Liesegang, 2011; Kolbe & Reh, 2009; Sliwka, 2018). This move to a more holistic education achieved through bringing real-life issues into the classroom and letting students learn in real-life contexts outside the classroom can, for example, be observed in many of the schools that have won the German school award (Der Deutsche Schulpreis, n.d.). Those running these and other German schools predominantly name two different motivations for codesigning learning in collaboration with outside partners: On the one hand, some schools collaborate to enhance their curriculum through a variety of projects the school would not be able to offer all by itself. These schools consider themselves the center of the learning process. Their collaboration can be described as “low-cost cooperation” (Dizinger, Fussangel, & Böhm-Kasper, 2011, p. 116) or the “complementary model” (Böttcher et al., 2011, p. 109). According to this model, schools and partners are collaborating in the same space, in most cases the traditional school building. This cooperation takes place in simultaneous or successive activities. Schools open their doors, but not their organization.
Two things are decisive here. On the one hand, students need to acquire competencies that are based not only on understandings of concepts, ideas, facts, or processes and procedures. Skills like critical thinking, creative problem solving, cooperation, and collaboration are intertwined with this process (Trilling, 2015). Teachers should help students work on an academic mindset (Farrington, 2013), in other words developing personal qualities like self-efficacy and a growth mindset (Dweck, 2009), performance qualities like goal-setting or reflection, and social qualities like using collaboration and social capital for reciprocal learning and mutual support (Trilling, 2015).
On the other hand, the use of spaces for learning should always be based on the core principles of “Universal Design for Learning” (Rose & Meyer, 2002). Thus, twenty-first century learning spaces should provide multiple means of representation, meaning the input is represented in multiple ways so that everyone can “gain access to it that way they are going to benefit from it” (Rapp, 2014, p. 3) and multiple means of engagement, as in different types of learning tasks. To make student learning visible, these spaces allow for multiple means of action and expression, in other words giving students choices in how they want to show what they know and what they can do with their knowledge.
Whenever the concept of school is widened to encompass a whole range of spaces beyond the traditional classroom, students can be appreciated with all their strengths and weaknesses and work with different approaches, assignments, and social settings (Istance & Dumont, 2010, p. 326). Learning tasks can range from tasks assigned by teachers to tasks coconstructed by teachers and students and tasks chosen and designed by individual students. All these types of situations are needed at a school whose educators view the enhancement of “learning engagement” as a key factor and a priority for adolescent development. There is room for many different formats: Although there may still be a need for a traditional lecture format that presents theoretical knowledge necessary in building a sound knowledge base, there will certainly be group assignments that are thoroughly predesigned and constructed for scaffolded learning. In this kind of setting, self-constructed and self-directed learning activities by individual students or small groups of students are also a normal part of schooling. Redefining school by a new way of looking at and using space in learning usually goes hand in hand with a shift towards more authentic learning. Adolescent students’ learning is enhanced by enabling many different experiences: Listening to a lecture by a bee keeper on the potential extinction of bees and the implications on our ecology and nutrition in the school building, taking part in a service learning project in a retirement home for elderly patients with dementia, or setting up an art exhibition showcasing the student’s own art work in a local museum (Sliwka & Klopsch, 2018).
These examples illustrate how redefining space in schooling not only impacts the way lessons are taught, but also on students’ experiences beyond the classroom setting.
Redefining Schools as Multiple Hybrid Spaces for Learning
An effective way of creating new learning environments for adolescents is to build networks between schools and partners based on common learning goals. These jointly defined goals ensure that learning projects are based on the concept of symbiosis rather than coexistence. To make this work, it is important to initiate change through bottom-up approaches rather than top-down regulations by the school administration (Gräsel, Jäger, & Willke, 2006). “Symbiotic” here means acting together from different starting points: Partners, teachers, students, parents, and school administrators coconstructively develop one collective learning space involving multiple different subspaces for learning. This way, the multiple perspectives can be equally taken into account rather than imposing one teacher-centered perspective on all the other partners involved in the enterprise of redefining spaces for learning. But what should be the guiding idea for this joint venture? This brings the argument back to the starting point—the gloomy diagnosis that many adolescents in traditional schools lose their intrinsic interest in learning between the ages of 10 and 14. Loosely-coupled, low-cost approaches to school partnerships can be an interesting addition to traditional schools but will not help to solve this fundamental problem. To enhance learning for all adolescent students, to make it interesting and relevant for them, schools must provide authentic and demanding tasks in real-life settings for learning. In this crucial phase of human development, the core developmental task young people have to work out is the question of personal identity: Who am I? What are my talents, interests, and passions? Where do I want to go, and how do I get there? (Sliwka, 2018). To open up schools, to redefine them beyond a mere “building with teachers in classrooms,” to make them hybrid and connected to the real world has never been as easy as it is now. The digital revolution has made it easier than ever before to get in touch with potential partners, to communicate on an ongoing basis, to coconstruct a conception of learning in multiple and relevant ways. All of the teenagers in our schools are digital natives. Their world and their personal lives are more connected and fluid than ever before in human history. Why not learn from them and redefine schools to encompass many spaces instead of just one? Spaces in which adolescents can discover learning as the most exciting possible journey on the way from childhood to adulthood.
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