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Thursday / December 1

Revealing the Secret Business of Student Engagement

Student engagement may be a hot topic in school staff rooms and professional learning courses, but when was the last time you heard engagement being discussed in the classroom? I’m not talking about the kind of ‘pull your socks up or else’ behavior management messages. I’m talking about an actual discussion between students and teachers about what it means to be engaged in learning. Conversations about the student’s goals for engaging in learning or what strategies they might use to help themselves get more engaged. Unfortunately, this is much harder to find in schools.

Despite decades of trying to improve student engagement, we appear no closer to achieving our goal. Some would argue that things are getting worse rather than better. One of the roadblocks to improving student engagement in learning is our tendency to treat engagement like it is “secret teacher business” rather than a collaboration between the teacher and the student. The message is often one of pushing and pulling the student in the direction the teacher wants them to go: “hooking them in”, “getting them engaged”, and “re-engaging them”. It’s as if students are merely passive pawns there to be manipulated by the teacher, rather than active partners in engagement. Which is really strange when you think about it. While teachers are able to influence student engagement (for better or worse!), it remains a choice that the student makes. They are the ones who decide if they will choose to engage in the learning experience or choose to engage in something else instead. If they do choose to engage in the learning, they decide just how much effort and energy they are willing to invest in learning.

It’s as if students are merely passive pawns there to be manipulated by the teacher, rather than active partners in engagement.

When we treat engagement like “secret teacher business” and go down the path of trying to manage student engagement, some students will willingly comply and go along with what we are asking them to do. They may be compliant in following instructions and getting their work done, but that does not mean they are actively engaged in learning anything. Other students will actively resist our efforts to engage them, sending us into a pattern of battling with them over compliance—an unlikely pathway to learning.

Engagement as a Partnership

Rather than viewing student engagement as something that teachers do TO students, the alternative is to join forces and do it WITH them. Partnering for engagement means making a promise to work together, support each other, and share the responsibility for engagement and learning. Both teacher and student have a vital role to play in this partnership, and both must be engaged in the business of engagement.

Establishing a Shared Language for Engagement

If teachers and students are to collaborate and share the responsibility for engagement, then they need a shared language for discussing engagement, something better than engaged and disengaged. Existing frameworks from the field of educational psychology are plentiful, describing different dimensions of engagement such as behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement. While this language might work well for the purposes of researching student engagement, that does not mean it is equally as useful to teachers and students who are interested in having daily discussions about being engaged in learning.

In Reimagining Student Engagement: From Disrupting to Driving, I describe a continuum of engagement that represents the range of different forms of engagement and disengagement that teachers and students might encounter in the classroom. It consists of three forms of disengagement (Disrupting, Avoiding, Withdrawing) and three forms of engagement (Participating, Investing, Driving). Disengagement can be passive and worryingly invisible to teachers as students intentionally try to fly under the radar, or it can be more active and visible as students look for ways to avoid working or try to disrupt the learning environment. Similarly, engagement can involve passively participating and doing what the teacher asks them to do, or it can be more active as students show a desire to learn and identify a meaningful goal they want to achieve.

As engagement partners, teachers and students can use this language in their daily discussions about learning. This includes setting goals for engagement, checking in and evaluating engagement during learning, coming together to tackle disengagement, and celebrating successes as students develop their skills as effective drivers of their own learning.

Getting the Partnership Started

  1. Learn the language of engagement together – One way to start building the partnership is to begin by introducing the continuum of engagement to your students and learning the language of engagement together. I’ve heard from many teachers who started with this small step and were amazed by the impact it had on their students. For the students, this was completely new territory. It had never occurred to them that engagement was a choice for them to make, or that there could be more expected of them than passive participating.
  2. Actively seek student ideas, insights, and feedback – When we think of student engagement as “secret teacher business”, we fall into the trap of relying only on our interpretations and assumptions about what is happening. Teachers may be fairly accurate when deciding if students are on task or following instructions, but we are less reliable or confident when it comes to determining what students are feeling or thinking. To better understand what is happening in relation to student engagement during learning, we need to work with our students. This includes supporting them to evaluate their engagement during learning and actively seeking their feedback to help us become better partners in engagement.
  3. Help students develop skills and strategies to manage their own engagement – Just like learning to drive a car, driving in the engagement sense requires certain knowledge and skills. Students need to learn what driving is and how to do it, we cannot assume they arrive with those things in place. As partners, our role is to support students to develop their driving skills, learn strategies to help them manage their own engagement, and give them plenty of opportunities to practice driving.

Written by

Dr. Amy Berry is the author of Re-imagining Student Engagement: From Disrupting to Driving to be published by Corwin Press in late 2022. She is a Research Fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research and an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Amy began her career as a primary school teacher in Queensland before returning to university to complete a Master’s of Education (Research).

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