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Case studies of student engagement

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

In a recent article, Curriculum and Leadership Journal reported on research into the nature of student engagement and how to foster it, and introduced the work being done in the area of student engagement by AITSL's Learning Frontiers unit. As part of this work, Learning Frontiers has looked at a range of innovative, highly engaging learning environments for young people. The current article describes some of these learning contexts.

A new project is examining professional practices that actively promote deep engagement in learning. Learning Frontiers, a part of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) has brought together clusters of schools, called design hubs, to develop teaching, learning and assessment practices that increase deep engagement in learning. The design hubs will involve schools, businesses, social enterprises, professional associations and universities, amongst other partners. Students and parents will also be able to participate.

Research undertaken by the Global Educators Leaders Program (GELP) amongst others indicates that when learning is highly engaging it is connected, co-created, integrated and personalised. In December last year, approximately 250 teachers, school leaders and community members met in workshops across the country to consider how these four principles for engaging learning (design principles) might apply in practice. They considered mini case studies of innovative, engaging learning environments, and discussed which design principles were evident within these learning contexts and what professional practices exemplified these principles. The design hubs, involving schools and other partners, will now use this knowledge created by the profession as a basis for professional practices that increase deep cognitive and emotional engagement in students.

The mini case studies have been identified through a horizon scan undertaken by the Innovation Unit, a not-for-profit social enterprise based in England, which has been collaborating with Learning Frontiers (see, for example, commentary from the Innovation Unit's Valerie Hannon and David Price at the workshop).

The rest of this article describes some of these learning environments, which offer inspiring ideas for teaching and learning.

he Australian Science and Mathematics School

The Australian Science and Mathematics School (ASMS) is a public senior high school for students aged 14–18. The school is located on the campus of Flinders University, in Adelaide, and the curriculum is designed and delivered in partnership with the University's Faculty of Science. The space consists of a learning commons and studios for practical work. Students are able to organise desks in the commons to suit their daily, agreed, social and learning needs. Internal walls are mostly made of glass to 'de-privatise' teaching practice.

ASMS encourages collaborative learning but students shape their learning to best suit their own goals and preferences. Learning is self-directed as far as possible.

A lot of emphasis is placed on metacognition, and on students learning how to learn.

The school specialises in maths and science, and classes in these areas adopt a problem-based pedagogy, with the intention that student are consistently applying their learning to real problems. STEM mentors – professionals working in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths – are invited to provide support to projects, judge exhibitions, and offer opportunities for field work.

Learning how to 'operate scientifically' and 'operate mathematically' are key learning goals for the school's students. This is framed by the need to understand how science and mathematics contribute to society. The program Teaching and Learning in New Sciences focuses on how new developments such as nanotechnology and laser science, which students can witness at Flinders University, have the potential to solve real-world problems.

Hume Global Learning Village

Hume is a local government jurisdiction in the metropolitan area of Melbourne, with a population of around 170,000 people. The Hume Global Learning Village (HGLV) network combines the collective resources of 700+ individuals and organisations working to improve learning opportunities for the Hume community.

In 1999, Hume City Council created the Global Learning Village partnership, connecting a range of potential providers of learning opportunities in the area. These providers include schools, libraries, employment agencies, local business, and the city's Neighbourhood houses – centres for learning and recreation open to people of all ages.

Quest to Learn

Quest to Learn is a small school in New York City, catering to the middle and secondary years. It was founded in 2009 as a partnership with computer game designers. The designers apply insights from videogame design, not only to motivate learners, but to develop a pedagogy whereby young people themselves ultimately become the designers and developers of their world.

Over the course of a year, students tackle 10-week 'missions' composed of a series of quests that pose educationally rich problems. Students solve them through a variety of methods. Students also play a variety of roles, such as scientist, photographer or engineer, depending on what a task requires. At times these solutions involve students in building their own games. Some games are built by learning computer coding, while others involve careful craft and manufacture.



Makerversity, in London, is a space created in 1997 to contribute to the building of a workforce for the 21st Century. Organisations applying to join must show how they qualify as 'makers' of something, whether it be digital, physical, or edible. They must also commit to running workshops and open sessions that help young people and other attendees acquire or develop new 'making' skills.

Each workshop, course or open session focuses on particular skills or crafts. Each of the organisations involved also offers young people the opportunity to apply to them for work experience. Makerversity invites young people and other users to submit ideas about what they would like to learn or teach, and continuously develops its program on the back of this exchange.

Big Picture Learning

Big Picture is a network of schools that base their learning design on three principles: first, that learning must grow from the interests and goals of each student; second, that a student's curriculum must be relevant to people and places that exist in the real world; and finally, that a student's abilities must be authentically measured by the quality of their work. Big Picture schools are radical in proposing that in the 21st century there is no canon of information that all students must know. Instead, they prioritise the need for students to know how to learn. Along with the minimum state graduation requirement, Big Picture therefore sets the end of a BPL education in the form of five learning goals: empirical reasoning, quantitative reasoning, communication, social reasoning, and personal qualities. All Big Picture schools must also commit to 10 'non-negotiables'. These include treating each student as an individual, having small 'advisories' (groups of students who meet regularly to help each other socially and emotionally), and engaging with each student's family. There is also a strong emphasis on professional learning.


PLACE (Parent-Led and Community Education) was set up in 2004 as a way of grounding home-school education. Parents remain ultimately responsible for their children's education, but by working together and with their local government authority, they can create better and richer learning experiences for their children. PLACE, based in Bedfordshire, England, currently serves around 155 students aged 5–16.

Room 13 International

Room 13 International is a network of student-run arts studios in schools and community settings worldwide. There are now almost 50 Room 13 studios, based in schools and community settings. Every Room 13 studio is a space for young artists to work alongside a professional adult Artist in Residence. The spaces prioritise open exchange of ideas, skills and experience across the ages, with children allowed to take the lead.

Studio H

Studio H is a design/build program offered to students in years 8–11, at the REALM Charter School in Berkeley, California. Students design and build real products for the collective benefit of the school and community. Studio H was launched and is managed by a nonprofit organisation called Project H Design, which was founded in 2008 and also runs summer camps and workshops to introduce young people to designing and building.

Lumiar Institute

At Lumiar schools there are no lessons, fixed timetables or traditional teachers. In the mornings the students attend optional workshops on topics that range from film-making to circus training. In the afternoons, groups of students work on self-chosen projects. Half of the teachers work as 'tutors' who advise, coach and monitor the students' progress, supporting them to select three or four projects they would like to work in a term. The other half are 'masters' of particular skill sets, such as engineering or piano playing, and work part-time to facilitate projects in these areas and convey their passion and skills. Students and parents play a key role in school decision-making. The first Lumiar school was set up in São Paulo in 2002.

Other learning environments of interest include:

These and further examples of engaging learning contexts will inform the work of the Learning Frontiers team and schools involved in the design hubs.

Participating in the design hubs

AITSL has announced that the first Learning Frontiers design hubs will be in Adelaide and Sydney, with future hubs planned in other locations later in the year. Educators, schools and other organisations who wish to participate in the work of design hubs are encouraged to register interest on the AITSL website.


Subject Headings

Student engagement
Case studies