Beyond Belonging: What Does It Mean for Learners to Feel Connected?

Jun 8, 2022 | Blog, Learner-Centered School Design | 0 comments

 As humans, we’re biologically wired to seek connection to others. But what does it mean for learners to feel connected to their community? At reDesign, we’re expanding our definition of connectedness to think beyond developing a sense of belonging at school.  

By far the most guilt-inducing notification that I get from my phone is the dreaded “Weekly Screen Time Report”.  Although the precise numbers are between me and Tim Cook, they tend to indicate that I should balance all that Internet scrolling with other types of #connection. That might mean meeting a friend for boba tea, channeling Mother Earth on a trail, pausing to chat with my children, getting into a flow in the boxing gym, or settling into an engrossing story.  Some of these possibilities for connection tap into my inner self, and some are externally driven by other people or sources of inspiration. 

Similarly, there are many types of connectedness that can be foundational to a learner’s growing sense of security, identity, and confidence.  At reDesign, supporting strong, affirmative connections has always been central to our vision for developing learner-centered communities.  But what exactly do we mean by that, and what does that look like in K-12 settings?

In a recent Learning Lab, the reDesign team discussed how research on connectedness in schools primarily focuses on cultivating belonging.  In part, education systems have encouraged learners to develop positive associations with their immediate community to mitigate pressing issues like truancy or bullying.  But, proactively fostering a variety of opportunities for connection has major intrinsic value, given what we know about how interactions with different people and environments contribute to learners’ development.

As a result, we recognized that our framing of connectedness needed to extend beyond building learners’ affinity with their closest circles of influence.  For example, an expanded view could incorporate forming positive relationships with trusted adults and peers with:

    • Feeling supported as a whole person through harmonious pathways for fostering academic, social, cultural, and linguistic development
    • Feeling equipped to contribute to a global community of other living things and recognizing our interdependence
    • Finding a deep level of engagement with concepts, topics, or ideas

What I love about including academic or intellectual connections in the mix is that it addresses the importance of learners being able to make cross-disciplinary links, see relationships between texts, and find relevance to their lives within the curriculum.  Think for a moment about the best assignments you were ever given in school.  For me, they were ones that tied my prior experiences to the content being taught, while getting me into a creative groove or sparking me to investigate a topic more closely. 

When members of our Youth Advisory Council were asked about the most positive parts of school, they described classrooms where “someone cares about how I feel” and projects that involved “talking to and helping each other”.  But, they also explained how school “broadens my perspective of the world”, brings abstract concepts to life, and pushes them “to come up with new ideas”.  When learners are intellectually stimulated by a meaningful and challenging curriculum, they feel invested in (and yes, connected to!) the topics they are exploring.  

And, by considering the relational aspects of connectedness that extend beyond a classroom or school, we can build learners’ academic competencies while fostering their sense of interdependence with other humans and the natural world.  Young people can develop their individual identities along with a holistic perspective towards the grand schema of living things, including their relationship to their environment and other global citizens.  This approach has the potential to be more inclusive of non-Western and indigenous cultural views, while also having resonance with 21st century skill frameworks.

A preschool student shows her teacher and classmates an insect she found during an outdoor science lesson.

So, what next?  Internally, we’re working to think about connectedness through several lenses – across disciplines, within competency-based frameworks for developing relational understandings and skill sets, and as the desired outcome of young people using learning strategies that support deeper engagement with content.  And externally, our partnerships with states and districts are pathways for piloting resources that promote multiple forms of academic and social-emotional connection within K-12 settings.

For instance, reDesign’s learner-centered resources currently integrate attention to connectedness by addressing competencies like navigating conflict, building community, and learning interdependently.  The skills and strategies nested within those competencies include the ability to “engage in discussion”, “build relational networks”, and “recognize and respond to the feelings of others”.   

But, as we collaborate with educators to create and refine customized tools, we’re beginning to incorporate additional competencies like developing connectedness to nature, and designing curriculum maps based on concepts and topics that resonate with young people’s cultural backgrounds, interests, and lived experiences.  We’re also considering how our work can highlight the importance of interdependence while still supporting each learner’s unique growth trajectory.

What kind of competencies do you think are important for learners to develop within an expanded view of connectedness?  How do you think educators can support learners in feeling connected to concepts, topics, and ideas, as well as other people?

The author would like to acknowledge Jen Soalt and Laureen Adams for their significant contributions to the underlying research and thinking behind reDesign’s work on connectedness.  To learn more about how reDesign supports connectedness within learner-centered communities, check out our toolbox of key resources or contact [email protected].

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