Some reflections on how to engage students/people in learning and build learning communities
Hi Everyone! This post has resulted from a class discussion about engaging students in learning and building learning communities.
As this subject provides a lot of paths I could take, I’ll try to reflect upon some studies, but with no intention of going deeper in this post. During our discussion in class, Peter Senge was approached on the topic of moving organizations forward and dealing with comfort zone, development zone and panic zone in a learning community.
I immediately linked Senge’s ideas with some of my readings, mainly regarding Vygostky and Stephen Krashen.
There are many points of view and theories on how to engage students in active learning or how to advance an organization towards learning. A common agreement, usually, sets that to do that so, learning experiences must be interesting, relevant, connected to our reality, inquiring, challenging and reflexive.
Cognitive Psychology has been answering how learning happens inside a brain. Some studies point out how that can occur when it comes to emotion. As an English Language Arts teacher, I have to mention Stephen Krashen’s studies (1988), an American educational researcher and linguist. He set five hypotheses related to second language acquisition; and one of them is called “affective filter”. That is related to emotions such as motivation, good self-perception, self-confidence and a low level of anxiety. Negative emotions combined may move up the affective filter and thus language acquisition process may become impaired. So, positive affect is extremely necessary, although that is not enough to make a process efficient.
Therefore, we could state that learning has a lot to do with feelings and emotions, since you can only learn if you feel emotionally comfortable. Being okay is not enough to make learning happen, but it is a starting point. And that is true for a classroom or for all learning environments.
Broadening our perspective, we could think of schools not just regarding the students’ learning process, but also the orgianization learning process. To implement changes towards a growth mindset and behavior of a learning community, implementers (they do not necessarily must be in administrative position), should have some ideas about it.
We could then link that to Senge’s and his co-authors studies about managing changes in organizations. The authors state that people somehow shape organizations, hence, organizations are a result of what people think about them. Every learning community requires a leadership community or community builders. Not just people in leadership/administrative position. In this sense, the first step to create a learning community is to have some community builders, people who believe they can change things and make things better.
Education follows, or at least should, the society dynamics (not always in the same pace). Everything is changing all the time, but we are not always aware of it. Therefore, learning should be happening all the time as well, but it’s not like that. Learning can only occur when by some means we are challenged. That is related to the zones where learning may or may not occur, which are comfort zone, development zone and panic zone; pointed out by Senge in his studies about challenges to implement changes in organizations.
Comfort zone is where somehow we like to be. We have a great tendency to remain in the comfort zones, although we wish to go to the development zone, where learning happens. As human beings, composed by a variety of feelings and motives, we also want to be pushed in a challenging way. But not at a distance that can drive us to the panic zone, where learning doesn’t happen at all. If we push too much, people tend to get into the panic zone. I'm telling you!
There are individuals in organizations who tend to get stuck, on the other hand, in some cases, organizations get stuck and stop people’s growth. But, anyway, organizations just reflect what people think about them (SERGE, 1999).
Institutional Psychology studies explain why that happens. Most of the time, a set of elements constitute the so-called “institutional forces”. We can’t explain, we just feel that nothing, or almost nothing, is working. Or at least the way we would like it could be. We usually account that for institutional bureaucracy, people’s struggling for power, leadership problems, “the system”, the policies, the curriculum or simply human/group behavior. No one is to be blamed, but at the same time, who/what is?
When people want to move on and the “institutional forces” keep holding them back, they tend to get frustrated and that is infectious. Danger ahead!. We have to keep our eyes wide open to that. Otherwise, our willingness may fade away and we can’t explain why. That might happen to a whole school community: teachers, students, administrators.
We face many contradictions in any organization. Sometimes, teachers are in the panic zone, administrators in the comfort zones and nobody in the development zones. They can also be in different zones. Fact is, we can never find everyone in the same zone. And that’s ok.
As developers/teachers and community builders, we can sometimes energize ourselves in the comfort zones, but being aware of going back to the development zone, so that we can really keep on providing our students or people around us opportunities to learn and grow.
There are many practical ideas about how to engage students. The most effective ones, in my opinion, are the ones connected to the constructivism studies; when students previous knowledge is valued and explored. Or when a learning community knowledge is also valued and explored.
Interaction plays an essential role when it comes to learning. As Vygotsky states, learning occurs through social interaction.
No one possess the “box of knowledge”, he/she is one member of a learning community. Learning is never-ending and it is transformed as social relation happens. Each individual supports the other and can provide emotional comfort so that they can proceed to the development zone (Senge) and advance in their Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky).
Learning communities (in educational organizations, in classrooms etc.) are built by believers, supporters and enthusiasts. That can also be positively infectious:)