Student engagement has always been a big obstacle in the senior grades for all kinds of reasons, many of them having nothing to do with school. And it has always been easy to acknowledge those out of school distractions and life challenges as the reasons why students don’t finish my course or don’t finish well. But research like the Canadian Education Association’s “What did you do in school today?’ sheds light on school-related student engagement issues (social, academic, and intellectual) and explores “its powerful relationship with adolescent learning, student achievement, and effective teaching.”
This is compelling work.
I can no longer be satisfied with the explanations of the past. I need to focus on what I have control over which is my classroom and the learning environment that I create there. I need to be a designer of an adaptive and flexible learning environment to create the deep, meaningful, and engaged learning that I want my students to experience.
This is hard work.
I began this semester with an idea of building a community for learning with my students, which would support our learning through a student inquiry process. We talked about roles and responsibilities of the teacher, the students, and the room. We brainstormed classroom expectations and created an anchor chart. We reflected on what any of this means to us and our learning. Four weeks in and we are a work in progress. The institutional engagement piece (the active participation in the requirements of school for school success) is missing for many of my students, and that work, which must and will happen, will take more time than one semester and will occur in more places than just my classroom. But what did emerge from the discussions and reflections was a deep concern by some students about the design of the course. They were feeling queasy about the taste of student inquiry the first few weeks of school offered them.
They are right to be feeling uncertain. I am too. But because I am a risk-taker and a seasoned learner I am willing to jump into the unknown and to mess around. For many of my students, that leap is too much all at once. I needed to redesign the learning structure to meet the students where they are and to lead them to where they might be able to go, and in so doing, I came face-to-face with what ‘adaptive and flexible’ really means. On the spot, I needed to offer my students pedagogical choice. I typed up a note with a brief synopsis of my intentions and laid out three (simplified ) pedagogical choices: the Traditional English Class approach, the textbook driven approach, and the student inquiry approach. I asked them to choose one style that appeals to them, create a pros/cons t-chart to confirm their choice, and express their choice in a letter to me.
Surprisingly (or is it?), the three groups are the same size. In some cases, friends stuck together, in other cases they did not. The textbook group (for the record, I have never used a textbook in English, but they do exist in my building) cited the appeal to working independently as the reason for their choice. The traditional English group cited familiarity as their reason, and the inquiry group is the risk-takers, excited by the promise of personal exploration. This week, students will be physically grouped by their pedagogical choices and we will begin. I do expect a lot of shoulder checking to happen. Students know that they can switch groups, and their curiosity about what the others are doing will be peaked.
The goal, regardless of the pedagogy students tap into, is that each student recognizes his or her own shifts in learning, that the student becomes self-aware of the learning process, and that he or she can draw upon the tools and strategies needed to be successful. The challenge is to continually work towards creating the conditions in which all students can be intellectually engaged. Next weekend, I am attending EdCamp Design Thinking in Toronto, ON, where I hope to learn the skills I need to have to move this work forward.
This is exciting work.
Willms, J. D., & Friesen, S. (2012). The Relationship Between Instructional Challenge and Student Engagement. What did you do in School Today? Research Series Report Number Two Toronto: Canadian Education Association.