At a recent visit to a school in New Jersey, I saw the above poster on the wall of a conference room. It was coincidental that I saw it, since the topic of the workshop I was scheduled to present was…instructional strategies to engage students! I took a quick picture and referenced it during the workshop, focusing on how it’s important to consider the relevance of our content and to help students make the connections between the content and (as the poster indicates) their passions, interests and future.
Student engagement is a hot topic these days. Between students’ shortening attention spans and ever-increasing distractions, it is more imperative than ever to keep students engaged in the classroom. As teachers strive to increase the level of engagement, they must also strive for authentic engagement, where students are empowered, as the poster indicates, to own their learning and where students are intrinsically motivated.
During a recent observation of a vocabulary lesson, the students were all sitting on the carpet, facing the teacher. They were reminded to “track” the teacher in order to pay attention. They had various opportunities to engage with the teacher and with their peers, restating and answering questions and discussing in small groups. The students were well behaved and, by definition, “engaged.” This situation repeated itself in several of the classrooms I visited at that same school. However, the principal indicated that they were not pleased with the growth that students were making, in fact there was little measurable growth. I believe that part of this is due to the fact that what I was observing was compliant engagement.
Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey developed a Continuum of Engagement, which outlines four levels of engagement. What I observed in the vocabulary lesson was compliant engagement, where students were paying attention and following the teacher, but not interacting with their learning in a meaningful way. Consider that as the scale of engagement moves from compliant to the ideal flow, so does the relationship between the student, the teacher, and most importantly, the content. When students have reached the flow level, they are, indeed, empowered.
There are other ways of thinking about the ideal type of engagement. Phil Schlechty defines 5 levels:
- Authentic Engagement: students are immersed in work that has clear meaning and immediate value to them (reading a book on a topic of personal interest)
- Ritual Compliance: the work has little or no immediate meaning to students, but there are extrinsic outcomes of value that keep them engaged (earning grades necessary for college acceptance)
- Passive Compliance: students see little or no meaning in assigned work but expend effort merely to avoid negative consequences (not having to stay in during recess to complete work)
- Retreatism: students are disengaged from assigned work and make no attempt to comply, but are not disruptive to the learning of others
- Rebellion: students refuse to do assigned task, act disruptive, and attempt to substitute alternative activities
In all situations, it is worth teachers closely examining their class and their instruction to measure where they stand on both of these guides. Flow and authentic engagement are the goal, but they make need to take some smaller steps to achieve them.
One of the most important steps one can make in moving toward the ideally engaged classroom is to focus on the classroom environment. Students need a low-stress, low-anxiety place in which to learn. Without this, little to no meaningful learning can take place. According to educational researcher Stephen Krashen, “Learning is seen to be heavily dependent on the mood of the learner, with learning being impaired if the learner under stress…” A learner under stress is definitely not empowered and achieving flow!
Developing a growth mindset in students and supporting this mindset in the classroom is one way to alleviate some of the anxiety and stress that students feel. Those with a growth mindset do not fear mistakes, but rather view them as a natural occurrence and an opportunity to learn. Those with a growth mindset believe that while they may not be able to do something at the moment, a different approach or different type of effort may make all the difference. Teachers can support this mindset in the way they speak to students, praising effort and not ability. Teachers also need to be aware of those moments when mistakes are made (either student or teacher mistakes!) and shape them into learning opportunities.
Developing a classroom with a positive learning environment is just one of many ways to move from a classroom exhibiting compliant engagement and one exhibiting authentic engagement. A cooperative learning environment, with differentiated experiences that tap into students’ abilities and interests, will provide students with the opportunities to be empowered and take control of their learning. A teacher who sees value in planning for engagement at all stages of a lesson will give students the opportunity to engage with content in innovative ways. It is then that students have greater chance of experiencing the flow that comes with authentic engagement.