Many students are unengaged in their learning—how schools can create opportunities for participation

Students dissect owl pellets
Editor's note:

In the lead up to the Center for Universal Education’s annual research and policy symposium “Citizens of the Future: Innovations to Leapfrog Global Education” May 21, 2018, guest authors from the education innovations community will contribute their unique insights to this blog series on the topic. Access all of our content on innovations here.

Just as the futures of students depend on their schools, so do the future of schools depend on the students. Most students in classrooms today were born at the turn of the millennium. The world is changing rapidly, demanding new knowledge and skills, and offering new learning environments and ways of learning. Yet educational institutions often continue to look at reality through the rear-view mirror.

In Brazil, my home country, this contradiction has created additional challenges that sit alongside the chronic problems which have long jeopardized the quality and equity of public education. While solutions to many of these issues remain elusive, one thing is certain: we will continue to struggle to move forward without the active participation of students in the process. In this case, involvement means not only understanding how new generations learn, but also relying on their collaboration to introduce in schools innovations with which their teachers are unfamiliar.

Many of the main trends in education are intrinsically related to increased student participation in the educational process. Personalized learning, for example, requires that the individual characteristics of students are increasingly considered, and that they have greater autonomy and flexibility when choosing what and how to learn. New technologies have also created conditions for students to become more autonomous and to make choices.

Hands-on learning fosters authorship through encouraging students to put their knowledge and skills into practice by creating projects and products. Curricula focused on 21st century skills also call for more active pedagogical techniques, which not only broaden student engagement, but also develop their critical, creative, and purpose-based abilities, allowing them to remain proactive throughout adulthood.

Even tendencies in school management and the school environment require the greater engagement of students in the decisionmaking processes, with more horizontal and collaborative relationships between educators and pupils, as well as spaces and infrastructures that are more connected with the reality of today’s generations.

More than a practice, participation must be understood as a principle capable of reorienting the way students are involved in their pedagogical process. Only then will it be incorporated into schools not as an occasional event, but as a value inherent in the school community.

Promoting student participation, therefore, requires the willingness of administrators and teachers to share information and power. Openness, dialogue, understanding, and cooperation are key factors in this process, which must balance the responsibilities of educators with contributions from students.

On the one hand, it is vital not to underestimate the potential of the students, even when they are young children or seem unengaged. But it is also important not to romanticize such learners, nor make participation a burden. Engagement needs to make sense and match the abilities of students, as well as collaborate with their learning and development, which are the key goals of every school.

Participation should also consider the students’ culture, rather than forcing them to fit into models of the adult world. A playful approach, as well as art, culture, and digital media are some of the elements that can enhance the contribution of children, adolescents, and young people. The intention is to take these young people seriously, but also to respect their own forms of organization, expression, and contribution.

Student engagement is strengthened when the school creates opportunities for listening, choosing, co-authoring, and co-responsibility.

Listening: Consulting students about their own educational process, when they share opinions on a variety of subjects from everyday issues, such as school infrastructure and classroom activities, to more complex matters such as changes in curriculum and school organization.

Choosing: Allowing students to make choices regarding their educational process, whether choosing between different pedagogical activities or ways of learning, or selecting the subjects they wish to study, to mention just a few examples.

Co-authoring: Fostering the participation of students in learning processes that stimulate authorial productions, starting with simpler creations and progressing to involvement in the elaboration of more sophisticated projects such as writing a book, producing a video, or solving a problem in the community.

Co-responsibility: Engaging the students as agents of innovation in education, promoting their participation in discussions and initiatives aimed at improving their daily school life or even creating solutions to more challenging educational problems.

Everyone can be an agent of positive change at school and in the community if they are encouraged to empathize with, be concerned about, and commit to common issues and collaboration. Teaching institutions that foster this kind of attitude in their students not only rely on their contributions to strengthen their own schools, but also prepare them to be proactive citizens outside the school environment.

Since 2015, Instituto Inspirare has promoted a range of initiatives to encourage the participation of Brazilian students in improvements in education. The Our School In (Re)Construction survey heard from 132,000 students about their current school reality and their ideal school. The Make Sense platform, meanwhile, stimulates educational systems to listen to students and involve them in design thinking workshops to solve the problems of their schools in tandem with educators. The initiative has resulted in creative and interesting solutions that encourage and support school principals and teachers to visualize ways that educational institutions can be relevant and engaging for students.

After joining the Make Sense, a group of middle schools from Alagoas State in the Northeast of Brazil heard from their students that classes were boring and too disconnected from their lives. One of the solutions prototyped to solve the problem was the Box of References. The idea was to invite the students to make a list of their favorite songs, books, blogs, YouTubers, celebrities, and deposit them into a collector box. Teachers would then use the lists to better understand their students and design learning activities connected to their interests. Although simple, the solution proved to be very effective in engaging students and improving their relationship with their teachers.