Community Engagement for Equity in Education – Beyond the Factory Approach.

In response to the introduction of NAPLAN testing in Australia, Wilson and Hornsby (2014) wrote about a shrinking curriculum and increasing pressure on educators to teach to the test. My experience as a secondary school teacher over the past 9 years has reflected their concerns and I have not been immune from presenting students with a past HSC paper or two to complete. The problem with a narrow curriculum and teaching to the test; Wilson and Hornsby contend, is that it actually serves to reduce overall standards, fosters a climate of competition rather than collaboration and disregards the effectiveness of teaching to student interests and learning needs (pp 41-42).

No longer is there room in the timetable for excursions, guest speakers and community service, these have all been scaled back or disregarded in most schools across the country as we ignore the benefits of community engagement in favour of the ‘factory approach’ to education.

With this in mind, towards the end of the year, I put together a short 5 week unit that posed the following question:

How can we utilise discarded truck pallets in order to develop a solution to homelessness?

I was pleasantly surprised by the student projects and their attitude towards the task. Not only did they come up with some great solutions, there are some samples of their work here, but they also approached the task with enthusiasm and empathy, which enabled me to explore some of the deeper underlying topics with more student engagement and input. It was as if their research and thinking about the project had provided them with an authentic experience upon which to pin their learning.

Stationary for the streets
Stationary for the Streets.

Horton and Heggart (2015) discuss similar findings in their highly successful attempt at promoting global citizenship through their high school course called Hip Hop for Global Justice. They conclude that it was the “willingness of teachers and administrators to explore creative pedagogies that truly allowed the program to flourish. It is our contention that schools can, and should, seek out the intersections of community expertise, student engagement and curriculum opportunities in order to find fulfilling learning opportunities”. (p.69)

And it should be no real surprise that engaging students in community activism improves student outcomes. Research on the effects of community involvement suggests benefits for schools, families, and students, including improved achievement and behavior.

A review of studies into the benefits of community engagement, cited by Henderson and Mapp (2002), includes the following findings:

  • Higher grade point averages and scores on standardised tests or rating scales.
  • Student enrollment in more challenging academic programs.
  • More classes passed and credits earned.
  • Better student attendance.
  • Improved behavior at home and at school.
  • Better social skills and adaptation to school.

The 2012 National School Improvement tool developed by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) includes “School Community Partnerships” as one of its nine measures to improve student achievement and wellbeing. Research has indicated that school-family-community partnerships improve school programs and school climate, increase parents’ skills and leadership and improve children’s chances of success in school and life (Bryan, 2005).

So if we want our students to achieve better results on standardised tests, obtain better outcomes for themselves and become positive contributors to society, should we limit the degree to which are teaching to the test and begin to explore more ways in which we can develop affective community engagement? And not just as a one off event, but within our programs, units of work and ongoing teaching and learning activities? I will be encouraging my professional learning hub to develop one additional unit next year that incorporates some kind of community engagement experience.

Please share your thoughts and experiences relating to community engagement in the classroom by leaving a comment below. I look forward to the discussion.

References:

ACER (2012). National School Improvement Tool. Brisbane: ACER. 978-1-74286-199-9.

Bryan, J.. (2005). Fostering Educational Resilience and Achievement in Urban Schools Through School-Family-Community Partnerships. Professional School Counseling8(3), 219–227.

Henderson, A., & Mapp, K. (2002). A New Wave of Evidence The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement. Austin, Texas: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL).

Horton, A., & Heggart, K. (2015). Engaging the community through a creative curriculum: a hip-hop case study. Australian Educational Leader, 37(3), 66-69.

Wilson, L., & Hornsby, D. (2014). Teaching to the Test. Practically Primary, 19(2), 41-42.

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