When I attended the PEBC Thinking Strategies Institute in Denver, CO, last month, Stevi Quate, leading author and teacher educator, delivered a keynote on student engagement. Quate shared research that affirmed the thinking of teachers, administrators, and other professionals in the room: when students are engaged in rigorous work, literacy and numeracy skills rise, achievement gaps are reduced, student grades get higher, and teachers report they are happier in their work. How is it, then, that something with so many benefits is so hard to do?
Some characteristics of a disengaged student are easy to spot. This student may retreat, disappearing into the daily hubbub of classroom life; or, this student may rebel, acting out and disrupting the learners of others. Disengaged students might be compliant, but their compliance is strategic (only doing enough keep an A) or ritualistic (only doing enough to pass). Quate shared, however, that truly engaging students in learning must be tackled on three fronts: behavioral, emotional, and cognitive.
Behavioral engagement is evident when students become engrossed in classroom conversations, posing questions, finding text to support a position, or offering counterarguments. Behavioral engagement is also evident in collaborative experiences, especially those that are open-ended enough to allow for creativity and increased student ownership. Emotional engagement comes from a feeling of safety in the classroom, though not necessarily a feeling of comfort. For example, adolescents enjoy pushing the boundaries of accepted thinking, and when they feel they are a valued member of a classroom community, they enjoy it when the teacher, and classroom peers, push back. Cognitive engagement is achieved when students explore various perspectives, solve equations with multiple approaches, or solidify a position on a topic after tracing the thread of a historical argument to differing sources.
"Increasing student engagement" is not a catch phrase or an elusive goal of ivory tower thinkers. It is hard work, plain and simple. I became interested in the work of Robert Fried (1995) when I saw how his research matched my early experiences as a teacher. He writes, "In too many classrooms we see the sound and smoke of note-taking, answer-giving, homework-checking, test-taking, and the forgetting that so quickly follows. In the end, there is creativity and excitement for the few, compliance and endurance for most, rebellion and failure for some; but not very much work of high quality is being produced, and not much intense engagement of the mind and spirit takes place" (p. 2-3).
It was in working hard every day to reject this claim that I found my greatest purpose, and joy, as a teacher. And it is in working hard every day with the teachers and students at SOHS to create experiences that do engage "the mind and spirit" that I find my purpose, and joy, as an instructional coach.