Increasing Engagement in Extended Learning Opportunities Starts in Kindergarten
By Linda L. Carrier, Ed.D
Extended Learning Opportunities, or ELOs, are exciting examples of placed based learning. Done well an ELO can support students in exploring their interests and passions while meeting competency and graduation requirements. But are ELOs being consistently accessed by New Hampshire’s students? Recently former New Hampshire Board of Education Chair Fred Bramante was quoted by the current Commissioner of Education as saying, “It’s been 14 years since extended learning opportunity was created in New Hampshire”.Mr. Edelblut then clarified that Mr. Bramante was concerned about a “lack of follow through” and called for action to address the issue of low engagement in extended learning opportunities. I agree with Mr. Bramante and Mr. Edelblut’s concern. A state level attempt to provide a solution to this issue is being launched through the Learn Everywhere Initiative. Although the initiative has great merit, I’m concerned we are not addressing what may be the root cause of low engagement in extended learning opportunity programs, lack of foundational skill development.
I am privileged to work with educators, both teachers and administrators, from all parts of the state. The concern I hear from them about extended learning opportunity engagement is consistent. Students don’t access extended learning opportunities because they haven’t developed the skills needed to begin to understand how they may benefit from participating in ELOs. The reality is it’s not just that they haven’t developed the needed skills, more significantly education as a system may not have provided students the learning experiences necessary to develop them. Instead opting for targeted solutions that address the surface of the problem and not the deeper contributing issues. The reality is place based learning as a formal learning experience doesn’t begin in high school with extended learning opportunities, it begins in kindergarten with classroom guests and field trips.
Over the past three years the Rural Educational Leaders Network at Plymouth State University(RELN) has been engaged in conversations about how to develop mutually beneficial partnerships with communities and the variety of groups in them. These partnerships are intended to support place based learningopportunities for all students. I have been part of conversations between school leaders and community partners that uncover the need to understand how children of all ages can meaningfully engage in place based learning. As a result of our RELN discussions, I have come to believe that the solution to low engagement in ELOs is the creation of a place based learning model that is predicated on a developmental continuum of learning; beginning in kindergarten and continuing through grade 12.
Created as an outcome of RELN’s work to date,The Place Based Learning Continuumprovides a potential solution to low engagement in extended learning opportunities. Providing a view of placed based learning as a developmental process; implemented, the learning progression in the continuum will support the development of the skills needed for successful engagement in ELOs. The continuum is aligned to the New Hampshire model competencies and the work study practices of communication, collaboration, creativity, and self-direction are both embedded and explicitly included. Development of entrepreneurial and innovative thinking has been included as a parallel developmental process. Those ways of thinking have been included as we believe that they are necessary for our children in their 21st century world, and necessary for the sustainability of many of our rural communities.
Key to the continuum is the purposeful support of a developmental learning process that is framed by the existing state model for ELOs. The suggested experiences included in the continuum are developmentally appropriate for students. Educators and students, are actively engaged in developing questions about placed based learning experiences that can guide the student research process and creation of products and presentations that reflect learning. Central to the continuum is the idea that before students are on their own developing questions and identifying problems that need solving, adults are modeling these processes for them. The instructional scaffolding strategy commonly known in education as I do, We do, You do ensures support for students as they engage in place based learning experiences in a deep and meaningful way.
I believe that students should be able to learn everywhere. But before we deploy resources and energy into something that addresses the symptom and not the cause of low engagement in ELOs hope that we can take the time to refine the extended learning opportunity initiative in a way that makes place based learning an intentionally integrated part of the k-12 curriculum. Perhaps more importantly, that we develop our state place based learning model in a manner that ensures every student is well prepared to engage in extended learning opportunities.