Learn to Understand and Address the Causes of Student Disengagement
By Lee Ann Jung
When asking teachers about some of the most challenging parts of their job, they often want to know ways they can motivate their students or how to address challenging behaviors. They want students to be engaged. Just this week, a high school math teacher with defeated tone asked, “I have some I can’t even get to pick up the pencil. How do I get them to pick up the pencil?” Students can’t learn when they aren’t engaged, and I wish there was a single answer to the question of disengagement. But it isn’t always “plug and play.”
Before we even get started thinking about what could be contributing to disengagement, we need to first check our biases and judgment. A student who isn’t engaged isn’t inherently “bad” or “difficult.” And they aren’t trying to make our lives difficult. Some students are lackluster about certain subjects because it’s not in line with their personal interests. Aren’t we all lackluster about some content areas? Even the most curious, self-directed learner isn’t enthusiastic about learning everything. This means we have to pull out all of the stops to make our learning experiences as engaging as possible, intentionally thinking about the students who are the least engaged as we iterate our lessons. The Universal Design for Learning framework offers a curated list of high-leverage strategies, like teacher clarity, offering choice, bringing relevance to the learning at hand, and using mastery assessment practices. With the best UDL practices in place, engagement drastically improves.
But even with robust UDL in place, there are students who continue to have difficulty engaging. In order to design responsive experiences, we have to uncover what’s beneath the surface of disengagement. And there are many possibilities. One of the most difficult types of disengagement to break is the kind that results from low confidence. Low confidence generally arises from a pattern of failures. Perhaps it started with a particular content area not being interesting to a student and a less-than-engaging experience with that content. A persisting lack of engagement can lead to visible teacher frustration. The student may not have a good relationship with the teacher, and the student definitely doesn’t have a good relationship with the content area. The latter relationship can persist indefinitely and can lead to a poor relationship with school altogether. The longer this goes on, the more intractable it becomes. It’s a transactional pattern of student-teacher relationships and self-efficacy.
Disengagement that results from low confidence requires we design experiences that give the student a “win,” or a mastery experience. Mastery experiences are those times when we succeed at something we thought was too hard—in other words, success in the zone of proximal development. Mastery experiences signal our brains that we can accomplish something difficult—that we were wrong and we have higher abilities than we thought. This resulting increase in self-efficacy means that next time we encounter something that feels a little bit too difficult, we’ll have more of a sense that we can do it. This relationship between self-efficacy, motivation, and mastery experiences calls in to question the logic of threatening students with poor grades to motivate them to give effort, doesn’t it? The next time you see a student who seems to have given up or is “too cool for school,” consider the possibility of low self-efficacy being what’s beneath the surface. Learn more about designing mastery experiences to see if you can be the champion for that student who re-engages them.
Provide Clear Expectations to Avoid Common Causes of Challenging Behaviors
By Ben Springer
If ever you find yourself stuck in the ruts of classroom management, don’t feel too bad. It happens. Despite excellent driving skills, many modern-day educators often find themselves off-road and stuck in the mud. Why? It’s not the driver—it’s the conditions. More and more educators are being asked to drive through tough conditions. There are two primary weather patterns that create the craziest conditions for teachers. As we become better prepared to drive under these conditions, we’ll all avoid getting stuck)!
Condition # 1: Volatility
Emotional reactivity is a burden each of us carry. Why? Well, because we possess a nervous system. While this system helped keep us alive back in our cave-person days, it has become a bit of a hassle in modern times. For instance, whilst managing a class of twenty-five kids, one of those kids may say (or do) something offensive. Our silly nervous system tends to interpret the offense as a threat and we react—it’s practically automatic. If we’re not careful, our response can trigger an emotionally reactive ping-pong match with the child. (This type of ping-pong is exhausting and there is never a clear winner). In order to avoid the volatility condition, provide consequences at baseline. What does that mean? Inform your kids of consequences BEFORE the problem. Every day, remind the kids what happens when they follow your classroom rules and what happens when they don’t.
Condition # 2: Uncertainty/Complexity
Human beings aren’t very good at grey areas. In fact, very few of us excel in that regard. Why? Our cognitive skills (as impressive as they may be) are still hard wired with shortcuts (aka: biases). These biases can impair our ability to connect environmental (aka: conceptual) clues into a cohesive big picture. As we mature, we become better at connecting clues—but not experts. So, it should come as no surprise, school age kids are not very good at this either. Some of it is because they’re not actively looking (see also: engaged/motivated), but a lot of it is due to their brain development and design. In order to avoid the uncertainty/complexity condition, we have to provide crystal clear expectations for all students across these four areas: 1) Movement during the activity 2) participation in the activity, 3) types of conversations, and 4) how to ask for help.
A Strategy to Increase Student Engagement, Decrease Behavior Disruptions, and Conserve Your Energy
By Serena Pariser
By this time in the school year, you’ve probably established solid relationships with students, and they are used to the routines and structures of your classroom. But, this is also the time of the school year you might be feeling a bit worn down at the end of every school day. Your students may be disengaged, asking “Why are we doing this?” about every lesson. This can potentially lead to frustration for both you and your students.
This is a great time to try project- and problem-based learning to increase student learning and engagement, decrease behavior disruptions, and give you back your energy.
You can be a guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage.
Simply put, problem-based learning is when students are creating something, and problem-based learning is when students are solving a deep and rich problem. Sometimes, a unit can combine both aspects of problem and project based. This approach takes a bit more planning and preparation in the beginning but once the students get going they will be on autopilot, keeping their own pacing and taking control of their learning. You can be a guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. Project or problem-based learning can completely change the feel of a classroom, bring the fun back into teaching, and create a community of learners. You will also go home with more energy.
Project- and problem-based learning also fosters the skills–like agility and flexibility, a growth mindset and resilience, teamwork and collaboration, and resolving conflict–that students need to be successful in the future.
The table below highlights examples of project- or problem-based learning in comparison to traditional teaching.
|Project or Problem Based Learning
|Teaching students about water contamination
|Students analyze the water in their local community and develop elegant solutions for how to improve quality
|Students write a research report on a topic of interest
|Students choose a societal problem, such as teen obesity or social media addiction, and use their own curiosity to guide their research paper, then research what the world is currently doing to solve the issue, think critically about why it isn’t working, and then create their own elegant solution to combat the problem
|Students learn about The Great Depression
|Students take time to create presentations in groups that explore the question, “What could have done to prevent “The Great Depression?”
So let’s ignite that fire in our classrooms, increase student engagement, and give ourselves back some energy. Students need that right now and so do we.