Student Engagement

Student engagement can be considered the opposite of ‘bored students’, though I believe our aims should go higher than simply trying to prevent children from being bored. As educators, we should aspire that every student in our care develops the habits and inclinations of a lifelong learner.

This is a phrase so glibly batted around in the education environment today with little regard to what it truly means or why it matters. To me, to be a lifelong learner means;

a) A person has the inclination to continually learn throughout life, in both formal and informal ways. Too many adults let themselves off the hook by saying – ” I learn from the people around me and my experiences. That’s lifelong learning.” In the meantime, those people never pick up a book or a journal related to their professional field while slowly they and their peers slide slowly in to irrelevance. That’s no different to what all but the worst have done in workplaces since the industrial revolution (and even before that). This is something way more than that – it’s about being what I call a ‘learnivore’, hungry to acquire new knowledge directly and indirectly related to one’s professional field.
b) The person’s open and flexible to ‘unlearn’ and doesn’t cling on to old dogmas,
c) The person sees learning as a ‘pull process. They’re not waiting for someone to ‘do learning to them.’ There are telling examples here when you see the reactions of some teachers to new information technology. When you put new hardware or software in to the hands of a youngster, they experiment in order to figure out how they can use it and what it can do for them. When you put it in the hands of a teacher, all too often you hear, “when am I going to get a training programme on this?” Of course, part of the reason for this is an unconscious need to be the ‘sage on the stage’ and to always know more than the students.
d) Related to that, lifelong learners are prepared to be vulnerable, to admit what they don’t know enough about and to seek out new knowledge from wherever they can find it. They don’t just try to bluff their way out or avoid.
e) Lifelong learners leave clues – they read, they consume high quality media (e.g. TED lectures, online educator debate forums etc.)
f) Lifelong learners actually relish and enjoy the learning process, in fact, so much so that sometimes they may need to place restrictions and some restraint on themselves regarding how much time they devote to furthering their learning.
g) They have developed the skills and the wherewithal to learn, to reflect on their own learning and to plan a course of learning for themselves that never ends, but always moves them forward.

Returning to the issues of children in school – if that’s the ideal of the adult lifelong learner, then what do we need to be doing in school to provide the right climate and environment to create lifelong learners. This is not just a side issue. Vast numbers of schools today proudly declare lifelong learning as a core value and principle of their school.

First – we must start off remembering that every child starts out innately in love with learning, fascinated in the world around them, ever curious and inquisitive. Too often, the poorest educators destroy that love so totally that the student will never get it back. Moving beyond ‘do no harm,’ educators need to work to keep each child connected with that part of themselves and to give them all the reasons to apply that love to the syllabus learning and beyond.

Secondly, I believe, in age appropriate ways they invest significant time in helping children to develop the habits and skills of learning, to understand their own learning, to reflect on it and to plan for future learning towards desired knowledge goals. In other words, there’s attention to the process of learning as well as the content and the end goals.

Thirdly, the educators exhibit being lifelong learners themselves, including showing vulnerability when things come up where the students may know more than them.

Next, teachers are courageous and bold in planning lessons. This does mean that some of them won’t come off – and that’s OK. They will also build genuine differentiation in to their lesson planning, supporting each student in the appropriate way. This means avoiding the traps of simplistic categorisation and pigeon-holing of their pupils. They will also invest considerable effort in knowing the pupils (not just those who actively speak up and volunteer information during classroom discussions. Perhaps more teachers would be sitting down to lunch more often with their pupils.

Student motivation is a critical factor. Attention to it should be built in to the agenda of the whole school and every member of staff from the Principal down. This also touches upon issues of student voice, agency and continually monitoring real engagement. On the latter topic, I recently came across an interesting article that highlighted the need to go below the surface to explore genuine engagement – not to get lulled or fooled by pseudo-engagement;

KQED – Mindshift – Are Your Students Engaged? Don’t Be So Sure

The article makes very clear why, and the extent to which, engagement matters. Engagement levels carry direct clues to future potential and achievements. It goes on to dissect some of the dangerous myths regarding engagement and especially the false evidence that can lead a teacher to believe a student is engaged. Pupils know their teacher wants to see engagement. As a result, many have learned strategies to ‘fake it’ within wider school cultures that motivate them to give as little as they can get away with – the path of least effort.

Quite rightly, it also points out that a classroom where everyone’s having carefree fun and a good laugh isn’t a substitute for engaged learning. As it says – there’s real effort involved – rigor, relevance and stretch – what Angela Duckworth termed called ‘grit’. Children aren’t afraid to sweat in athletics or other sports training – if they’re not ready to ‘sweat’ a bit in their classroom learning, we’re still doing things wrong.

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