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Children’s Rights, Student Voice, Informal Learning, and School Reform  

Roseanna Bourke and John O'Neill

Children’s conceptions and experiences of learning greatly influence how and what they learn. Traditional forms of schooling typically position learners at the periphery of decisions about their own learning. Curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment practices emphasize the attainment of system-mandated learning outcomes, and this emphasis predetermines much of what is deemed by adults to be important or worthwhile student learning. Children consequently come to view their school learning in fragmented, individualistic, and narrowly adult-defined and controlled ways. Many state schooling system settings permit only limited choice and decision making by children. However, the history of compulsory education also contains numerous instances of schoolchildren organizing and taking collective action against the wishes of adults on issues that are of concern to them; and of states, communities, and individual schools where radically different schooling approaches have been attempted, both inside and outside the publicly funded system. These “free,” “alternative,” or “democratic” schooling initiatives are part of long-standing “progressive” education counter-discourses that aim to demonstrate the benefits of child-centered and even child-determined schooling. Such initiatives have encountered both resistance and support in schooling systems and consequently offer useful lessons with regard to contemporary discourses around children’s rights and student voice, as well as their contribution to schooling system reform. In recent decades, the combined effects of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and growing scholarly interest in “student voice” research and reform efforts in ordinary schools have increased expectations that children should have a meaningful say in their learning at school. The UNCRC underpins polity efforts to facilitate young people’s active participation in decision making in areas that affect them across the social agencies. Although contemporary “student voice” initiatives offer some promise for more of a “partnership” between adults and children in the ordinary school, they are often conceptualized and enacted at a superficial or tokenistic level. In continuing to position children simply as students who need the protection and direction of adults, schools fail to give adequate attention to the rich ways in which out-of-school learning contributes to a child’s holistic identity, to the learning strategies young people use in their day-to-day lives outside of compulsory schooling settings, and how these might help shape children’s agentic participation in meaningful decision making about what and how they learn while at school. A greater focus on the discursive processes of informal and everyday learning in family and community, and on the learning strengths or funds of knowledge children acquire in these settings, encourages the kinds of school and classroom conditions in which children and young people actively explore aspects of their world that interest them, experience agency in and commitment to their learning, and make choices about who they spend time with and what they prioritize in their learning. Informal learning affords young people the ability to naturally self-assess their learning and develop sophisticated understandings about what works for them and why. When young people actively engage with physical, technological, and social spaces, to advance their learning, they also learn to appreciate the utility of the tools and people around them. All these competencies or capabilities have relevance for what occurs in formal schooling settings also. Getting to know about the informal learning experiences of young people outside school influences the ways teachers think about who their learners are, learning as a phenomenon, and about the pedagogical repertoire they use to develop and enhance children’s capabilities. These pedagogical insights enable teachers to subtly or radically change their approaches to learning, the interactional framework of the classroom, and the teachers’ relations with families and with the local community that children negotiate each day.

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Taking a Well-Being-Centric Approach to School Reform  

Helen Cahill, Babak Dadvand, and Annie Gowing

The well-being challenges of the 21st century are deeply ethical in nature and require activation of collective as well as individual responsibility for the ways in which others are treated. For this reason, school reform initiatives need to equip young people with a wide range of capacities to engage with the challenges of advancing both the wellness of humanity and that of the planet. There is a robust body of theory and research available to inform school reform efforts that aim to accomplish improved individual and collective well-being. This knowledge base emanates from different paradigms and disciplinary traditions. Brought together, these knowledge sources highlight the importance of ensuring that schools invest efforts toward developing ethical, critical, personal, social, and creative capabilities that enable young people to enact care for self, others, society, and the planet. A transdisciplinary approach that expounds on research and theory from diverse disciplines, including well-being education, critical, feminist, and postmodern traditions, and scholarship on youth voice and participation can help efforts toward well-being-centric school reform. Evidence suggests that research-informed well-being education programs can have positive impacts in terms of improved mental, social, and relational health, contributions to learning, and fostering critical thinking skills. These are the skills that are needed by young people to navigate and respond to ethnical challenges with care, compassion, and a sense of responsibility as a relational ethos. Taken together, these advances in thinking and knowledge, derived from different traditions of scholarship, can be harnessed to inform a “well-being-centric” approach to schooling reform that is responsive to the past, present, and future lives of persons, peoples, and the planet. A well-being-centric approach to school reform should harness developments in education knowledge and thinking generated across diverse disciplines within the past 50 years, since the 1970s. This, in turn, requires disrupting the ways in which the disciplinary structures and assessment regimes of secondary schools work as impediments to the transformative change needed to advance student well-being and learning in these changed and challenging times.