Let’s Talk About Student Engagement
Last week, teacher blogger Marcia Bonds explored the idea of engaging her students through developing a learner identity, an identity that she too needs to have and models daily with her students. As I read Marcia’s blog, I couldn’t help recalling how many times over the past two months I’ve heard the topic of “engagement” raised.
Engagement–what does it mean? How do we foster engagement in our classrooms? Like Marcia, I see learner identity as a key part of engaging learners. The idea of mindset playing a role in how a learner engages is well researched. But I’m also encountering more conversations about engagement via digital tools. The use of social media tools in the classroom, such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Instagram, or Vine, continues to be debated as a possible way to re-engage students. I can’t help but wonder: could there be a relationship between learner identity and digital tools in the classroom?
Not long ago, I came across Staci Hurst’s blog post that addresses engagement. Hurst highlights work stemming from the Schlechty Center on Engagement. Not immediately familiar with Schlechty’s name, I did some further digging that led me to his 2010 keynote in which he defines engagement. He claims four types of students exist: academically inclined students, “nice” kids, nice but won’t do much, and finally, those who are going to drop out of school. The real kicker comes when he contends that all but the academically inclined students are doing nothing more than complying in the classroom. He shares four types of observable engagement:
● Strategic compliance: student does the work for extrinsic goals (grades, class rank, college acceptance, parental approval)
● Ritual compliance: work holds no meaning or connection to the student, leading to the student focusing on minimum exit requirement (what do I need to do to get this over with?)
● Retreatism: student disengages for multiple reasons–task holds no relevancy, emotionally withdrawn, task seems too unobtainable
● Rebellion: student actively engages in acting out and recruiting others to do the same
So how does Schlechty define engagement? Persistence. An engaged student perseveres in difficult tasks with a personal emphasis to reach “optimum performance.”
Researchers who have closely studied engagement have developed a multi-dimensional measure of student engagement by tying together both cognitive and emotional components: the theory of flow. More simply put, flow is that magic moment where the learner is so focused in a task that they continue to persevere as complexity increases, finding enjoyment in the struggle.
I’m seeing a common denominator here–task design. Put more specifically, task design that elicits student investment. What I’m not yet clear on is if digital tools are critical to helping bolster students to persevere–to live in the magical flow moment.
So what do I walk away with from this mini-inquiry? I think the most critical take away is the need for opening up conversation between colleagues about how each of us interprets the word “engagement” and what tells us students are engaged. And we need to talk about the context of high engagement. What was the topic? How were students engaging in the lesson? What was the task or tasks?
Possible Conversation Starters
1. Select a video of an instructional session and discuss with colleagues how you would describe task design and evidence of student engagement.
● This 5th grade Social Studies lesson could be a useful artifact to study even for those teaching secondary grade levels.
● This short clip from Minneapolis Roosevelt HS could inspire a useful conversation about task design that engages students.
2. View Phil Schlechty’s keynote and open up conversation inviting colleagues to weigh in: What do they agree with? What do they not? What new questions do they now have about engagement?
3. Have colleagues read the Framework for Post-Secondary Success and describe what ideas it confirms and how pushes their thinking. How does the framework impact ideas about engagement and task design?
There’s no denying the power and role engagement plays in the learning process. It’s a worthy topic to explore both individually and with colleagues. I invite you to extend and deepen the conversation about student engagement. Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
Susan Wilson-Golab joined Oakland Schools in 2010 following 22 years of in the field 6-12 experience across two different states and rural, suburban, and urban contexts. Her research and practice focus heavily on the evolving definition of literacy, developmental learning progressions, and formative assessment. At the district level, Susan has served as classroom teacher, Literacy Specialist, and ELA Curriculum Coordinator. These experiences and study helped Susan in her role as Project Leader for developing a model 6-12 ELA curriculum for the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA)— a curriculum resource now globally available. More recently, Susan launched Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative (MiTRC). The mission: to build collaborative participatory research between university and secondary teachers from around the state interested in exploring and developing the teaching and assessing of writing. In 2000, she joined the National Writing Project through the satellite Oakland Writing Project site based out of University of Michigan. She now serves as Site Director for the Oakland Writing Project.