Humans are endlessly learning. How to walk, which brand of coffee is tastiest, the best way to calm an angry child – you name it, humans are learning it.
Some learning is informal, while some is institutionalised. The education system – from kindergarten to university – provides a formal learning environment that can shape life-long outcomes, including job opportunities, salary, health and well-being.
Given the importance of learning, we’d better we sure we’re doing it right.
What shapes learning outcomes?
Is it intelligence, effort, genes, or something else that makes a successful learner?
We know that people function better when they feel good about themselves and feel socially connected to others. That’s just common sense, right?
Humans flourish when they feel they belong and when they feel appreciated for who they are.
So, what does this have to do with learning? Well, let’s think for a moment about schools and universities and other learning institutions… classes, friends, crowds, teams, noise – education is always delivered in incredibly social contexts.
If a person’s ability to learn is affected by their sense of belonging and connection to others, are education systems unduly privileging those students who ‘naturally’ fit in?
Unfortunately, the statistics would answer ‘yes’ to that question.
Social class, race, sexuality, and gender are still significant predictors of academic outcomes. And recent international surveys of tens of thousands of high school children revealed that about one fifth of them report feeling that they do not fit in at school.
The irony of education is that when we think of academic achievement, we often make the assumption that it is all about individual intelligence. The question of fit or belonging, rarely enters the equation.
And every week…every semester…and every year, grades, percentages and GPAs, accumulate to create an indelible academic profile, which either opens doors, or quietly but firmly shuts them.
A sense of fit
So, what does it mean to fit in? And how do we help students who feel they don’t fit it?
Fitting in is feeling like to you share something with the people around you, feeling that your sense of who you are – your identity – is positively aligned with the group.
Feeling that being a student is an important part of who you are, and that you identify as a student, is therefore vital for successful learning. So how can we help people claim their student identity, and feel more able to fit within their educational setting?
In a recent book chapter, we investigated this very question. We asked over 300 university students to rate how independent, appreciated and connected to others they felt, and then we asked them about how much they identified as a student, and also how satisfied they were with their academic performance. The data was collected at different time points across the semester.
Results showed exactly what we suspected – when students felt that their life at university promoted a sense of positive autonomy, and feelings of competence and appreciation, both their level of identification as a student and their academic satisfaction was reported to be higher.
Learning, both formal and informal, shapes both who we are now and who we can be in the future. And yet we often assume that learning is an individual endeavour, and we rarely stop to think about learning from a social perspective.
In fact, learning is one of the most social activities that humans do!
Looking at learning in this new way not only allows us to understand why some students get left behind, but will also help us to come up with ways in which we can design educational programs to ensure real learning opportunities for all.
- Sarah Bentley
Read the full article:
Greenaway, K., Amiot, C.E., Louis, W. R., & Bentley, S.V. (2017). The role of psychological need satisfaction in promoting student identification. In K. I. Mavor, M. Platow, & B. Bizumic (Eds.), Self and Social Identity in Educational Contexts, pp. 176-192. Routledge : New York, USA.
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