Can anyone seriously argue that potential learners do not need to be engaged, or that engagement is not a contributing factor to learning? Have you ever been in a classroom full of energetic, eager learners who aren’t engaged? It can get pretty hectic. Not a lot of learning going on… at least not the kind that’s typically focused on national, state, district or school learning goals! Contrast that with those same learners, actively engaged in work that they are curious about AND that happens to be relevant and meaningful (in terms of academic preparation for the 21st century).
If we all agree that engagement is more than just a good idea, it’s necessary… why do we find so many dis-engaged potential learners?
Are we making room for questioning? Do students get the opportunity to really benefit from inquiry by ‘going deep’? Is Project-Based Learning a fantasy? I find it interesting (there were so many other words I could have used here!) that many of us (educators) feel confounded by the new generation of ‘instant information’, and complain that kids can not stay engaged in ANYTHING for more than a few minutes. Really!? Let’s look at two, somewhat fictitious, Middle School classrooms:
Mr. Enthusiastic is well known amongst students and parents as a good teacher. He has great rapport with his students, has established a positive climate with clear expectations, rules and disciplinary procedures and he LOVES the current MS History textbook. He also LOVES to lecture. He knows that students have a variety of learning styles so he throws in visuals, graphic organizers and the occasional group activity (answering questions from the text). However, most of class time is spent going through the textbook, answering questions and copying his notes while he tells (somewhat) related stories. Being a Middle School teacher, Mr. Enthusiastic recognizes that he should try to vary activity in the classroom to keep students from losing interest, so, every 20 minutes he has his students stand up, jump in place and rotate seats to keep the blood flowing. He makes sure to have one major group project each semester, usually a PowerPoint presentation that requires each student to do research, write and present. Student assessment results are above average. Yet, whenever another teacher covers his class, students are somewhat disengaged, but usually kept in line by his consistent routines. Sometimes, students complain that class is boring and that Mr. Enthusiastic isn’t as funny as he thinks he is but most students still say that the class is better than many of their other classes.
Ms. Reflective is a quieter teacher. She certainly has the respect and admiration of parents who have had children enrolled in her classes. She also teaches Middle School History. She established the rules and disciplinary procedure, collaboratively, with her students. She has taught the students questioning techniques and she uses them, often, as they do research and read important background information. She also works collaboratively with the other grade level teachers, trying to develop meaningful, relevant cross-curricular projects. This has meant that there are times when she and another teacher co-teach a combined class (twice as large as the 33 students she has in most of her classes) when they share back-to-back instructional periods. She will normally have students work on 4-6 cross-curricular projects per year. Her students also do a lot of writing and peer editing in class and occasional debates. Typically (unless they are writing or doing research), her classroom is much noisier than Mr. Enthusiastic’s, yet, she doesn’t have more discipline issues. In fact, when someone else covers her classes they find that the students are very much self-directed, focused and engaged in their work for extended periods of time. Her students’ assessment results are consistently very high. Students report that they not only learned a lot about history, they also learned a lot about themselves, as learners. Quite a few also complain about the amount of reading and writing they have to do (but… will admit it was probably worth it).
Which teacher do you want for your children?
Engaged, meaningful, learning is important. There’s some simple ways to engage and there are more complex (and, initially, work intensive) ways to engage but the fact is… kids are worth it! They are OUR future! Let’s make it a promising one.
Here are some resources that may help engage students, more:
- Edutopia’s PBL page
- Buck Institute for Education’s PBL page
- The first chapter of Jackie Walsh and Beth Sattes book, Quality Questioning: Research-Based Practice to Engage Every Learner
- Classroom Questioning by Kathleen Cotton
- Questioning Techniques: Research-Based Strategies for Teachers
- WANT A QUICK GUIDE TO WEB 2.0 TOOLS AND PROJECTS? from Bill Ferriter’s blog