As many teachers know, despite great attempts at innovating curriculum or instructional practice, some students still find themselves on the outside, either without interest, investment, or opportunities among their peers to participate in any range of learning activities. Unfortunately, many of these students fall into the same demographics that recent research in the areas of social justice, digital education inequities, and interest-based learning have tried to target: low socioeconomic, ethnic minority, non-native English speaking, or otherwise disenfranchised youth. Despite great efforts on the part of our teachers, these students simply tend to live in the margins of education. This has added to an already increasing call to reform our practices in ways that support student interest and engagement, oftentimes in opposition to standardized assessment and other canonical aspects of schooling.
There have been a number of great studies and articles coming out this past year on interest-based learning and adaptive curriculum – some of which has come from scholars whose work focuses on, and has even influenced, the Next Generation Science Standards that many states in this country are now trying to adopt. A number of scholars have even taken their work outside of the classroom and into the homes of nondominant and disadvantaged youth to study what kinds of personal learning supports (digital media tools, social connections or “brokers,” and opportunities for participation in communities of practice) might exist that can promote informal learning opportunities for students who might have little access to such opportunities in the classroom. By examining how youth participate in such informal learning activities outside of school, there is hope that we may be able to adapt existing classroom practices and structures to afford learning opportunities for youth that promote not just content or skills acquisition, but personal empowerment, autonomy, critical thinking, and community activism – possibilities that many agree exist in far too few of the learning experiences of today’s disadvantaged youth.
Indeed, a great achievement of this recent work has been to expose the dearth in access disenfranchised youth have to such learning opportunities. In many areas, this work has had the effect of prompting schools to adopt more student-centered instructional practices, inquiry- and project-based learning activities, and digital media tools. As such, there has been a narrowing effect in two chief areas of what was once called the “digital divide”: access to digital technologies, and access to learning opportunities in which those technologies might be used to promote agency and empowerment. Yet, a major difficulty of scholarship in this area, as I see it, is that a large amount of research has focused on settings in which youth willingly, or voluntarily, participate in such informal learning practices and communities on their own; after-school and community outreach programs, interest-based online communities, or other arenas in which youth participate in what might be called “productive.” For each student, however, who goes home or to the library after school to engage in Minecraft community forums or produce their own digital media, there are many students who simply do not, either because of other personal responsibilities (such as family care or employment), disruptive home lives, or lack of interest. For this reason, it makes sense to examine the roles that formal environments and institutional structures might play in how and why these youth in the margins either do or do not take up opportunities to engage in student-centered, as well as interest-, inquiry-, and project-based learning activities.
This past June, I presented some research findings on this topic at the International Conference of the Learning Sciences in Boulder. Specifically, my research focused on forms of student resistance to these activities. The group I studied had access to digital media and digital media tools through a one-to-one laptop program, and a progressive, knowledgeable teacher with over 15 years of technology integration experience. In spite of his efforts to introduce open-ended, student-centered, and inquiry-based learning activities to the class, a number of focal students in my study simply did not participate in these activities, or equally disappointing for the teacher, “satisficed” their work, doing the minimal amount necessary to receive a non-failing grade. While we consider the importance of student engagement in informal learning communities and practice, I therefore think it is critical that we examine the structural supports and social mobility of youth in these environments, specifically, “in the margins.” Schooling represents a particular, heavily enculturated structure to which many disenfranchised youth have negative orientations. Beyond promoting instructional practices that foreground student interest and access to resources, I believe it is imperative that we similarly interrogate the social configurations of interest-based learning environments, and how those configurations might inform the structure of schooling. Particularly in how youth see themselves within those configurations, in relation to their peers, to authority, and to institutional structures. This will be a long, difficult process, but it is nonetheless one that I believe is worthy of significantly more attention than it is currently being paid by large grant funding institutions and ed tech start ups.
A colleague of mine once highlighted how we might start thinking about how to ameliorate these problems, tweeting, “Much of edtech creates more access. The affluent have more capacity (financial, technical, social) to use that access, leading to inequity.” In response, I asked, “What can schools do to eliminate this inequity?” His reply: “Design for the margins.” Taking this cue, I think it will be increasingly important to consider what learning looks like in the margins, and what structures produce and reify the existence of those margins – especially in the face of advances in instruction and access to resources. Otherwise, we risk oversimplifying the longstanding inequities that persist today as solvable through high tech tools and money. If twenty years of the “digital divide” have taught us anything, its that the more things change, the more things stay the same. It’s time we begin to focus on the “sameness” part of that maxim, rather than on the “changes” that appear forever on the horizon. Perhaps we can get some venture capital to invest in that, for a change.