For young people in flexi schools, being interested in their school learning is often a novel experience, and one they value highly. Having been disengaged from and by conventional education, recognition of their existing interests and opening windows to new interests can be a powerful and empowering approach for students in flexi schools (McGregor et al., 2017; Mills & McGregor, 2014; Te Riele, 2014).
Interest may be individual, based on one’s own preferences; or situational, based on characteristics that enhance the ‘interestingness’ of a learning environment (Krapp, 1999: 24). It has a cognitive and an affective dimension.
In terms of the cognitive dimension, interest functions as a bridge between the person (student) and the curriculum content, thereby enhancing learning (Bergin, 1999; Jonas, 2011; Krapp, 1999). This bridge means that fulfilling a learning task contributes to a person’s expression of the self they wish to be (Dewey, 1893; Jonas, 2011). However, such goal relevance is frequently absent for students in conventional schools (Archambault et al., 2009). In flexi schools, however, it is common to use curriculum approaches that are relevant, meaningful, and authentic for young people (McGregor et al., 2017; Te Riele, 2014).
In terms of the affective dimension, Krapp (1999) suggests competence, autonomy, and social relatedness are psychological needs that are relevant to interest. Importantly, this affective dimension is not only about personal well-being but includes connectedness with others. A sense of belonging means students may become interested in something because of shared cultural values, identification with a certain group, or social support (Bergin, 1999; Allen & Bowles, 2012). In flexi schools, positive relationships and fostering a sense of belonging are usually emphasized as core to their work (McGregor et al., 2017; Te Riele, 2014).
Flexi schools come in many different forms. For the research in this presentation, they were defined as:
- offering secondary school-level curriculum and credentials;
- changing the approach to schooling, e.g. through pedagogy, curricular focus, culture, size, and/or staffing;
- catering for students who, for whatever reason, had been rejected by, or themselves rejected, conventional schooling models.
This presentation focuses on three flexi schools in Australia, varying in size, duration, governance and location; and each using interest in different ways. The unusual nature of flexi schools makes confidentiality difficult. In the two research projects this paper draws on the sites all wished to be named, and this was permitted through the approved research ethics protocols. Both research projects involved case study methodology, drawing on qualitative data (mainly interviews with young people, families, and staff) and site documentation (Te Riele, 2014; Te Riele et al, 2015).
The SEDA Program in Darwin offers the final two years of secondary school and uses the facilities of a sports club located on the campus of the local university for its classroom. At the time of the research it had a single class with 22 students (20 male), aged 16–18. At SEDA, sport was used as the organizing focus for its curriculum and was a shared interest of student and staff.
The Skills for Tomorrow program north of Sydney was developed specifically for young mothers as part of the Australian federal government’s Helping Young Parents measure. It offered a basic vocational certificate, commencing with a ten week program at a local community centre, with childcare provided on site. The program had 11 female students aged 19-23. The shared identity of its students as young mothers was central to the interest they had in the program.
The Melbourne Academy is a flexible learning program for young people who experience severe disengagement from schooling, and aims to reconnect these young people with education. It has six sites, with one classroom of 15-25 students each. Staff in this flexi school worked with students to create a learning environment that held interest.
The presentation discusses the ways in which interest is harnessed in these three flexi schools to enhance learning and belonging. It confirms that interest is more than individual responses to content relevance. Learning is meaningful in these settings. Its meaning is made visible in the impact it has on students’ lives as seen in their reflections of what they can now do, and the validation from both within and outside the programme that their learning is relevant and useful to others too. Personal motivation, engagement, and relevance are related to the curriculum offered but also connected to shared interests through belonging.