14 SES 04 B, Rural Schools and Communities: Challenges and Opportunities across Countries
The content of this research activity deals with the isolation of rural schools (Simone W., Corbett M., 2014) with particular attention to the opportunity to design and propose to the families and the local community a model of schooling that offer a non-standard organisation of times, space and curriculum (Kahn S., Sandrone G., (2011) in order to avoid the closure of the school in the rural context.
According to Hargreaves (2009) one ‘‘reason to pursue research in rural schools is the view that rural schools’ educational provision is inferior to that provided in larger urban schools where there are more teachers and easier access to resources for teaching and learning’’.
In Italy the majority of schools located in rural or internal areas (Internal Area Strategy, 2013) have two risky features: they are threatened with closure due to the reduced number of students enrolled (less than 125); they run the risk to be organised in multigrade classrooms (Kornish, 2006; Kaloja, 2006). This latter characteristic is regarded by the families as a low quality learning offer for their children, as Dewey refers to ”education in rural places ends up in inequality instead of equity for all, and so do not fulfill their core purpose” (Dewey, 2004) .
The international literature lacks of examples about the management of multiage classroom by teachers and its effectiveness in term of learning (Veenman, 1996). More recently Smit&Engeli (2015) and Beihammera & Hascherb (2015) have investigated more deeply into this topic. Smit&Engeli (2015) concluded that “teachers need a set of pedagogical practices based on a more integrated curriculum” not one curriculum for each age group (Hoffman, 2003). Their research identified seven central element of mixed age teaching, two of their seven elements can be identified in the described case study: differentiated and individual learning and flexible and multiage grouping. Beihammera & Hascherb (2015) focalised their investigation on a model of Differentiated Instruction.
The observed school is located in a small rural isolated area of Italy, that suffer the risk of closure since 2014. In order to contain this risk an agreement has been signed by the local community, the school leader and the families. The school leader and the teachers proposed to them a model of schooling based on differentiated instruction and autonomous learning, where heterogeneous classroom is the core of the school model, although the number of the enrolled students per classroom is enough to have an homogeneous classroom. The Differentiated Instruction in our case study impacted on the organization of school space and school time (Tomlinson, 2014; Orsi, 2016). They change the learning environment from a traditional setting in rows-and-columns into a flexible space organized in functional areas. Each classroom has been organized into ‘stazioni’ (stations). A station consists in a group table of maximum six students devoted to a particular subject and arranged with related material (books, learning objects). In each classroom typically they have four stations: one focused on the disciplines of Literature, two on Science subjects, one for peer-to-peer instruction. The non-standard school organisation attracted the interest of families that are available to move from the near towns since consider the proposed model highly innovative (Bannister D., 2017). According to the observations of the school, the research questions focuses on pedagogical aspects dealing with the relationship between Differentiated Instruction and the organisation of the physical learning environment that enables students to be autonomous OECD (2010). A second focus of research deals with the role of the family within the school in a small community (Bokas, A., 2017) . The presentation will try to describe, through interviews and classroom observation, the model of schooling.
The methodology used to investigate is the holistic case study. This approach fits to our research necessities thanks to its explorative aims with a flexible framework. The main focus is on the meaning that the individuals/subjects of research assign to the research concept. In this case we will give a definition of “differentiated model of schooling” (Kahn S., Sandrone G., 2011; Smit R., Humpert W., 2012) in order to identify some gauges (indicators) to be recognised and expanded within the context of the observation. The reason for this approach is due to the fact that holistic case study is well-suited for exploring hidden reasons behind complex, interrelated, or multifaceted social processes, is appropriate for studying context-specific, unique, or idiosyncratic events or processes. An holistic single-case design (Yin, 2003) was selected because the context is a representative case of the collaboration among schools and community able to design a new totally different model of school. We looked at the “global nature of the program” (Yin, 2003, 43), using a qualitative research design to contextualize the new teaching and learning approach from perspectives of school personnel, family and community. The research instruments are based on semi-structured interviews to the main actors, in this case we have interviewed the mayor, the school leader, some teachers and some parents in order to collect the different point of views either about the model of schooling, about the differentiation of the teaching activities and about the relation between school and local community. The following dimensions have been used for the observation and the design of the semi-structured interviews: teaching flexibility, flexible learning space, flexible school time. A final report has been produced as well as a video case study that will be presented for the school community.
Interviews pointed out teachers ability to meet the educational community demand by totally redesigning the instructional approach from a lecture-based lesson to a differentiated teaching approach. The classrooms observations have revealed the total abandonment of the lecture-based teaching toward a more interactive, student-focused and flexible approach based on differentiated learning. All these changes encompassed the multigrade classroom as well as the standard ones, so the school organization as a whole changed in full. The Differentiated Instruction has been used by the teachers as a way to design personalised activities for the students or group of students based on core curriculum. Teachers designed ‘piani personalizzati’ (individual education plans) (Keller, 1968; Baldacci, 2006) to be changed every fifteen days; each student refers to his/her individual education plan to choose on their own the learning activity he/she needs to deal with. Each plan is supported by a self-assessment tool so the students can at every step perceive which topic needs to be deepen in more details. This approach impacted on teachers’ pedagogical belief, who decentralise their perspective (Kahn, 2010, p. 151). The interviews revealed that the school community has different aspects (Orsi, 2016): - learning community: learning is an aptitude; - collective community: sharing a mission to a common advantage; - care community: based on reciprocal relation - inclusive community: different people oriented to reciprocal respect; - research community: using a problem solving approach to find innovative solutions to the different situations that the school face. The situation observed reveals that if rural schools would like to overcome the risk to be closed, the model of schooling should identifies non-standard solutions in order to meet the necessities of the families and create a sense of community.
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