Student Well-Being Opinion

Creating a Culture of Attachment

By Milbrey McLaughlin & Martin J. Blank — November 09, 2004 10 min read
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Both content and context make students want to learn and demand their full and concentrated attention.

The teacher could not understand it. The only time 10-year-old Paul seemed awake all semester was during a unit on plants in his community. He did his homework, participated in class, and earned good marks. When she asked him why he was so interested, he said: “My Dad’s work is taking care of lawns.”

For Paul, the reason was simple. He wanted to learn about things that he already knew something about and that someone he loved cared about, too. Paul’s experience reminds us that learning isn’t about test scores or even preparing for the future. For most young people, learning matters when it is personal and serves a purpose. When students have an opportunity to use or share what they know, they want to learn more. It is time educators and policymakers paid attention to what our children—and the research—are telling us.

A special 2004 issue of the Journal of School Health documents that 40 percent to 60 percent of all students are chronically disengaged from schools. This “culture of detachment,” argues Johns Hopkins University’s Robert Blum, decreases their prospects for academic success and promotes a variety of high-risk behaviors. Blum says that rather than engaging students and helping them feel a sense of belonging, “essentially, we’re telling kids: ‘You’re on your own.’ ”

According to Temple University’s Lawrence Steinberg, less-than-expected national student performance—including soaring dropout rates and low literacy rates—results not from inferior ability but from low student interest in the content and value of what is being taught.

A 2003 review of research in multiple disciplines conducted by the Coalition for Community Schools confirms that students learn best when they are actively involved in understanding and helping solve meaningful problems. This is true across all ability levels and grades. A 2003 National Academy of Sciences report found that schools successfully engage students when they “make the curriculum and instruction relevant to adolescents’ experience, cultures, and long-term goals, so that students see some value in the high school curriculum.”

If we are serious about leaving no child behind, we must present the content that young people need to meet high standards in a context that has meaning and relevance in their everyday lives.

Despite these findings, many schools that are under the gun to show improved student performance continue to soldier on in the wrong direction. They have narrowed the curriculum, hammered away at direct instruction as a “one size fits all” strategy, and confused high-stakes testing with achieving accountability for high standards. If we are serious about leaving no child behind, we must present the content that young people need to meet high standards in a context that has meaning and relevance in their everyday lives.

Community schools, using a community-as-text approach, are showing an important way to do this. They know that local communities and neighborhoods, whether rich or poor, provide a rich context for learning that matters to children. Because they understand this, they use local resources and issues to meet challenging curricular standards and motivate students—right in their own back yards.

A community-as-text approach to teaching and learning uses hands-on, authentic learning strategies to breathe life into a standards-based curriculum. Service learning, place-based education, environmental education, civic education, work-based learning, and youth development are some of the arenas in which a community-as-text approach is being applied. Though each strategy is distinct, they share common features:

• The community provides the context for learning;

• The content focuses on community needs, issues, and interests;

• Students serve as resources to their communities and as producers, as well as consumers, of knowledge;

• Community-based partners collaborate in teaching and learning; and

• Learning in after-school and community-based venues is connected to core standards and brings together knowledge from diverse disciplines across the school curriculum.

We encourage this approach not as the only way to promote learning or to suggest that schools simply need to do a better job of keeping students amused. We know that motivation and concentration are needed for learning to occur at high levels. Reed W. Larson of the University of Illinois has found that students interrupted in the middle of school tasks report that they were concentrating on their work but not motivated by it. When interrupted with friends, they report the reverse. Activities like athletics or structured volunteer activities—those that are physically engaging and require a variety of skills, knowledge, and personal autonomy—typically combined both concentration and motivation and were most likely to promote real learning. Our experience has convinced us that a community-as-text approach does the same. Both content and context make students want to learn and demand their full and concentrated attention.

The most obvious value of this approach is its effect on student motivation and achievement. Engagement in real issues spurs focused and consistent work, builds students’ confidence in their own abilities, and carries over to other areas of study. In East Feliciana, La., for example, test scores improved significantly in all subjects for students involved in hands-on learning in the woods and wetlands surrounding their school. Research in the different community-as-text arenas confirms the academic promise of this approach.

Equally important is the unique contribution that community-as-text strategies provide to civic engagement. In a world in which democratic freedoms are at the center of global strife, American youths cannot afford to be disengaged from the democratic process. Yet, in the 1972 presidential election, about half of those aged 18 to 29 voted. By 1996, the proportion had dropped to less than one-third. Identifying and taking action on real issues shows young people that their voice, when informed by knowledge and diverse perspectives, can make a real difference.

Teachers and school staff members markedly benefit. Collaboration with community-based educators provides resources and personnel aimed at helping schools meet their achievement goals. Teachers are exposed to new instructional methods that strengthen their teaching repertoires, and their classroom efforts are bolstered by the broadened and deepened subject-matter learning that students acquire in other settings.

For most young people, learning matters when it is personal and serves a purpose. When students have an opportunity to use or share what they know, they want to learn more.

Finally, a community-as-text approach improves the school climate, engages community members, and has the potential to improve the quality of community life. It can change—for the better—how people view schools, families, and students. When a school’s staff works with students, parents, and residents in community-based learning, power relationships become more equitable and mutual respect grows. Community residents better understand school needs and are more willing to support them. They are more likely to identify and use school resources. In turn, students are given the opportunity to become producers, not just consumers, of knowledge. In Howard, S.D., for example, market research conducted by students led merchants to change business practices. Improved sales increased tax revenues. Budget cuts were forestalled, and basic services were maintained.

A community-as-text approach can easily be used to enrich an existing course, but it is most effective when it forms the framework of an integrated curriculum. Ad hoc additions, while valuable, cannot be expected to have more than marginal impact on schoolwide teacher effectiveness, school climate, community well-being, and student success.

Experiential, community-based learning requires a reconsidered view of teaching and learning—one that recognizes the prior knowledge of students and the wealth of teaching expertise available in every community. Schools will need to adapt expectations, policies, and practices to allow the community inside the school, and students to go off site during the school day. New instructional methods may have to be adopted, learning during nonschool hours recognized and built upon, and adjustments made in staffing, planning, and scheduling to make new methods work. In order to make sure new approaches take root and grow, every change must be institutionalized in school policies and curricula.

The experience of local community schools and work in the different community-as-text arenas have shown that all of this can be done. With the participation of school districts, teacher education and professional-development programs, policymakers, and the larger community, we can address key issues that will enable many more children to benefit from this important learning strategy.

Curriculum Development. Numerous national groups already have developed standards-based curricula of this kind, though more work clearly needs to be done. School districts, through their offices of curriculum and instruction, can assist schools by identifying, making available, and supporting the use of such materials. They can also facilitate innovation by providing training opportunities and on-site support that encourages new approaches.

Professional Development. Clearly, teachers and subject-matter specialists must have the skills to develop high-quality interdisciplinary projects. Preservice teacher education, as well as in-service professional development, can help practitioners understand how to study core concepts in real-world settings and link standards-based competencies to existing community issues and resources.

Principal-preparation programs must ensure that school leaders understand, value, and know how to promote community-as-text learning. The Principal Leadership Institute at the University of California, Berkeley’s graduate school of education, for example, teaches community mapping as a way to introduce future principals to the power of community-based learning.

Policy. Educational policy and practices designed to set standards and increase testing have shed important light on where students are failing, but they have done little to encourage methods that might help. The test-focused, rote instruction seen today in many classrooms threatens to crowd out hands-on experiences and meaningful content—the very things we know motivate students to achieve their best. Carefully designed policy innovations can encourage efforts to seek out community-based learning opportunities as an important contribution to effective learning strategies; make it easier to tap existing funding sources to pay for them; and broaden the kinds of evaluation used to determine student success.

Community Institutions and Organizations. Public and private community institutions from a variety of sectors—notably higher education and youth development—are reaching out to schools and becoming their partners in strengthening the curriculum. By sharing their own community-as-text strategies in both after-school programs and school settings, they can help school staff members broaden their instructional methods and tap additional resources. Community-based providers of learning-rich content can also describe what they do in standards-based language and show clearly how it supports school-led learning.

For the foreseeable future, schools will continue to be under pressure to improve test scores. To the extent that community organizations, colleges and universities, and civic and cultural institutions highlight how what they offer contributes to school success—by strengthening positive attitudes, motivation, behavior, attendance, and basic achievement—the more formal relations between schools and community partners will be formed, and schools and young people will benefit.

Community-as-text approaches are showing that students can meet challenging standards when they have a personal stake in what they are learning. Their success should remind us that, like Paul, we need to wake up; search for connections between school, community, and curriculum; and help our children find them. Until we do, most of our children—the broad middle—will meet only minimum school standards. The brightest will not achieve what they might, and the failures will be more than we can bear.


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