Curriculum, Engagement, Opinion, Pathways, Promising Practices

Attending to the Agency of the Learner

Students who feel in control of their learning also feel more connected to it.

Even though graduation rates have stabilized in the province of Quebec, failure to graduate remains an acknowledged problem for provincial educators. Here at Concordia’s Department of Art Education in Montreal, we focus on questions of how the visual arts and digital media can engage youth who are at-risk of dropping out. We have studied existing programs, such as Maison Kekpart and have developed and researched a mobile media curriculum. Though these projects are presently focused on the impact that visual arts and digital media can have on a student, we have identified a number of outcomes that suggest student engagement need not be limited to the arts. 

Agency to Move 

We are currently working on a long-term research study investigating the use of visual arts and civic engagement curriculum delivered through mobile media (smartphones and tablets). We are using this curriculum and digital technology with youth who are at risk of dropping out of high school or who have just returned to school to complete their diploma. Our intention was to engage students with learning outside of school through mobile media and art making. Participants shared images, made comments, and responded to the curricular missions posted by the researchers and educators involved. while the study was ongoing, Each week or so we would host after-school meetings to discuss the project. As the project evolved, participants wanted to increase the number of afterschool meetings. Students also used the mobile social network to coordinate the times and places they would meet in order to go on field trips together. When we asked participants why they wanted to come to the afterschool meetings and to go on field trips together, they enthusiastically contrasted these student-initiated activities with their former more teacher-directed experiences of schooling. Most of these students had spent their time in schools under constant surveillance and with restricted mobility. While we had hypothesized that the mobile media devices would enable participants to learn on their own, what we did not foresee was that their use prompted a sense of agency mobility, self-organization, and informal learning among our participants. What we found was that students who feel in control of their learning also feel more connected to it. This effect promises to make school as a whole, less alienating for at-risk youth.

Real World Relevancy: Learning Professional Skills

From our studies, we found that curricula incorporating professional skills and tools engage students in learning. In the above-mentioned mobile media curriculum, we started by asking students to engage critically with their civic environments by asking them what would they like to change to make their community better. For the most part participants were more interested in learning how to make beautiful images and felt they had no power to change things in their neighbourhoods. We noted that before students responded to the challenge of engaging critically with the world around them, they need and want to develop their visual voice and to master the grammar of their visual culture. In other words, they wanted to make images like professionals. Only then did they feel empowered to think about change in their neighborhoods. At Maison Kekpart outside of Montreal in Longueuil, media professionals taught students professional skills in media production. Many of the students when interviewed described how learning professional tools and techniques gave them a sense of accomplishment and the authority to voice their ideas. Students are savvy enough to identify learning that will empower them in the future. Given that students are immersed in visual culture every day, they implicitly know what an authoritative image looks like. They want to know how to make such effective images. Curricula that connect to their everyday experiences and instruction on how to participate as equals with media professionals (adult teachers and instructors) contributed to the highly engaging learning environment at Maison Kekpart.

Incorporating Youth Cultural Practices into Curricula

At Maison Kekpart, we observed how instructors incorporated into their curricula what students did with social media in their personal lives. For example, one media arts instructor noticed that one of his students was an avid YouTube user who posted new videos on an almost daily basis. Recognizing the social currency that is developed through an online presence as a professional himself, he began to model his social media practices by inviting students to follow and friend him online. This practice stands in stark contrast to how many schools approach social media. Instead, Maison Kekpart and their instructors use social media to connect with youth and to model professional practices. What instructors are doing is helping to transform the online cultural practices of youth into professional practices by engaging with them as professionals in the media arts.

While there is no easy fix for engaging youth with their education, we have found that the approaches presented here nurture the sense of agency in the learner. A large part of student engagement in education is based on the student feeling empowered to make choices about how and when that student will engage in learning. The knowledge that students acquire under these conditions makes them feel confident and competent. The knowledge that what they are learning is valued outside of the classroom but is of wide enough application to be used in the conventional classroom.

n.b. David Pariser and Martin Lalonde are affiliated researchers on this project.


Related Reading

Citizens of Tomorrow Project

Youth Practices in Digital Arts and New Media: Learning in Formal and Informal Settings


This blog post is connected to Education Canada Magazine’s Towards Fewer Dropouts theme issue and The Facts on Education fact sheet, How Can We Prevent High School Dropouts? Please contact info@cea-ace.ca  if you would like to contribute a blog post to this series.

Meet the Expert(s)

juan carlos castro

Juan Carlos Castro

Juan Carlos Castro is Assistant Professor of Art Education and Undergraduate Programs Advisor at Concordia University in Montreal. His current research examines how mobile media coupled with visual creative production networks knowledge in urban environments to create educational and civic engagement with teens and young adults. Twitter: juan_c_castro

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