“Will my child get lost in an innovative learning environment?”
I was asked this question at a parent hui recently, and the conversation that followed touched on a number of very important points that all educators might find useful to explore. When asked to explain further, the parent said they were worried that their child would go into a big open space with lots of other students running around and that without someone to ‘look after’ their son or daughter, the child may get lost. As the conversation progressed, an educator in the group reminded us all that based on current achievement evidence plenty of learners are getting lost in our existing system, and that we should all focus on ensuring every child’s needs are met, regardless of the physical environment. The conversation then turned towards how schools can foster a sense of belonging to ensure that all learners felt included, safe, and that there were high expectations of them and their learning.
Schools in the 'industrial' style often provided a sense of belonging that centred around a single teacher and a single physical space: “I'm in Room 20 with Mrs Barton.” However, as organisations provide a wider range of spaces (and collaborative teaching teams) to meet learner needs, it's important that schools, kura, and centres implement systemic structures to ensure a sense of belonging is developed for every learner. So, how do we ensure all learners have the advantages of a collaborative innovative learning environment (ILE) without losing a sense of belonging?
Create inclusive environments
An inclusive education is one whereby “all students are welcome and are able to take part in all aspects of school life,” (New Zealand Ministry of Education, 2015). Seemingly innocuous decisions such as, which furniture or technology is purchased, or, how learners are grouped together with educators can influence how many potential barriers to inclusion (therefore learning) exist. Questions we might ask about how inclusive our learning spaces are include:
- Does the furniture within an environment allow easy access for people using wheelchairs, walkers, strollers, or crutches — including learners, parents, community members, and whanau?
- Does the amount and density of furniture add to, or decrease the anxiety levels of students who don’t like feeling penned in?
- Are the noise levels in an environment appropriate for all learners? Can learners hear what they need to and find quiet spaces when they need to?
- Are technologies and approaches that support learners who have impaired vision being used well in the environment?
Provide secure attachment figures
Attachment theory is an area of psychology that proposes that children make the most progress when they have a strong attachment figure in their lives. Studies have demonstrated a range of positive benefits including “higher grades and standardized test scores compared to insecure attachment… greater emotional regulation, social competence, and willingness to take on challenges.” (Bergin & Bergin, 2009). The impact of this research for schools, kura, and centres centres around the need to develop positive relationships. If children haven’t developed strong attachment figures in life, they are particularly vulnerable in education, and researchers have found that it is particularly important for these learners to have a primary attachment figure in their early childhood centre, school, or kura. (Mayseless & Granot, 2001).
Some schools, kura, and centres link their practice to research by providing a primary attachment figure in the form of a 'buddy' teacher or educator for each learner (this buddy teacher often also forms a single point of contact to strengthen partnerships with home). While the buddy teacher doesn’t prevent the development of strong relationships between learners and the other adults in the learning environment, they are a strategy to ensure children who are most vulnerable have wrap-around support provided to them. Tracking, accountability, and responsibility for reporting each learner’s progress can also rest with both the buddy teacher and the wider team.
Design belonging ‘into the building’
A number of the physical elements of the built environment can contribute to a sense of belonging for learners (or, at least, the removal of a sense of alienation). The use of internal glass walls and doors increases visual connectedness between learners, their peers, and teachers so they know they are never far away from their teachers and peers. Spaces that offer good sightlines while eliminating blindspots, unactivated edges and unsupervised spaces can decrease bullying and increase pro-social behaviour. Good building design supports passive supervision of learners, but it also ensures that learners have adequate spaces to ensure they don't feel cramped or threatened (Day & Midbjer, 2007).
Honour and celebrate language, culture and identity
Acknowledging, welcoming and celebrating culture is also crucial to the development of a sense of belonging. Research in this areas shows that learners do better in education when:
i) their identity, language and culture are valued as an essential part of who they are; and
ii) when what and how they learn reflects and positively reinforces this identity. (New Zealand Ministry of Education. (2009).
Effective practice in this area includes:
- Moving beyond surface displays of Māori culture (like taniko borders on wall displays) to deep engagement with biculturalism and the Treaty of Waitangi (organisational structures and arrangements drawn from Te Āo Māori including key concepts that underpin curriculum and culture; architectural forms embedded into building and landscape design; planting plans that promote native plants of particular importance to Māori etc.
- References throughout the school, centre or kura site to Māori history, worldview, and mythology: signage, artefacts, and curricula that strengthen and honour connections to maunga, awa, wāhi tapu, constellations, culture, and history.
- Strong collaborative partnerships between schools, centres, or kura, and stakeholders that focus on ways to honour, promote, and build on identity, language, and culture. This collaboration is essential to ensure Māori and Pasifika learners enjoy and achieve education success as themselves.”
Extensive research shows that similar approaches contribute to the success of Pasifika learners (indeed all learners). In particular, “the right to be included appropriately in all processes of education” promotes learner success. (Ferguson, Gorinski, Wendt Samu, & Mara, 2008) Inclusion is reliant upon schools, teachers, and other students acknowledging the right of Pasifika learners to “be themselves” and to “see themselves and their culture reflected” not only in the physical environment but also in the curriculum (Ferguson, Gorinski, Wendt Samu, & Mara, 2008).
Choose furniture, fixtures and equipment carefully
Historically, one way that schools, in particular, have offered a sense of belonging to learners was to provide learners with a physical home within the classroom (often their own desk or chair). As many schools move towards providing more variety of furniture (standing tables, reciprocal teaching stations, conferencing desks, ottomans, and soft furnishings etc.) they are moving away from allocating each learner a single chair that they should occupy for most of the day.
While this approach reflects the growing body of research into the importance of active learning and movement in learning, there is still a need to offer learners somewhere to put their belongings and equipment. Gifford (2002) refers to the importance of a degree of ‘privacy and ownership’ to students’ sense of belonging. Again, the traditional way that many schools have offered ‘privacy and ownership’ has been through the allocation of a set desk when learners can put personal items without fear of them being tampered with or lost. As the use of individual desks declines, many schools, centres, and kura are offering cubbyholes, tote trays, and other storage tools to ensure students still have ‘privacy and ownership’ within a space.
As schools, centres, and kura respond to changing times by re-examining their physical, social, and pedagogical architecture, it is important that the provision of a sense of belonging is paramount. In fact, the fostering of a sense of safety and belonging is one of the vital tools that organisations have available to them if they are to address educational inequity.
- How are all learners provided with a central attachment figure in your organisation?
- How inclusive are your current learning environments?
- How have you provided deep engagement with learners’ language, culture, and identity?
Note: This post is drawn from a white paper Mark has written called:
Learning environments, belonging and inclusion (PDF Download)
Bergin, C., & Bergin, D. (2009). Attachment in the Classroom. Educational Psychology Review. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-009-9104-0
Bruce Ferguson, P., Gorinski, R., Wendt Samu, T., & Mara, D. (2008). Literature review on the experiences of Pasifika learners in the classroom Report to the Ministry of Education New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
Day, C., & Midbjer, A. (2007). Environment and children. Routledge.
Gifford, R. (2002). Environmental psychology: Principles and practice. Geoarchaeology An International Journal, 17(5), 484–486. http://doi.org/10.1002/gea.10025
Mayseless, O., & Granot, D. (2001). Attachment security and adjustment to school in middle childhood. International Journal of Behavioral Development. http://doi.org/10.1080/01650250042000366
New Zealand Ministry of Education. (2015). About inclusive education | Inclusive Education. Retrieved December 14, 2015, from http://inclusive.tki.org.nz/about-inclusive-education/
New Zealand Ministry of Education. (2009). Ka Hikitia.
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