Thinking about engagement…

engaged learners

It's official… excellent teachers, supported by gifted and visionary school leaders, keep students engaged in the learning process and hopeful about their future. These are two of the crucial outcomes the recent Gallup Student Poll measures.

I was speaking with a school principal yesterday who is working to develop his school's strategic focus for next year. Placing student achievement as the overarching priority for the school, his focus moved to student engagement as the critical success factor for the cohort in his school.

Our discussion then moved to what the indicators of engagement might be that he and his staff could agree should be the focus of their efforts in 2015. The criteria used in the development of this Gallup Poll could be a useful starting point – they ask students, teachers, principals, and other professionals about their levels of hope, emotional engagement, and well-being at work or school.

In the New Zealand context engagement is described in a variety of ways – in their Handbook of Research on Student Engagement, Christensen, Rechly and Wylie point to the following:

  • Behavioural engagment – referring to student's actual participation at school and in learning
  • Emotional engagement – referring to a student's emotional response to teachers, peers, learning and school
  • Cognitive engagement – referring to investment in learning, seeking challenge and going beyond what is required 

Using these criteria as a guide provides a useful framework for developing a shared understanding of engagement and what it looks like in the classroom. Unfortunately, our system tends to stress the indicators of 'dis-engagement', drawn primarily from the Behavioural Engagement category – including stand-downs, suspensions and exclusions. And so the focus on engagement becomes more a case of "how can we mitigate these things occurring?" instead of "how can we increase the extent of engagement, behaviourally, emotionally and cognitively?"

According to the Gallup survey, and using their wide range of measures, 55% of American students scored high on engagement. That's a pretty disappointing score in anyone's book I feel. I wonder what the equivalent might be in NZ schools? Across the board? And in specific schools? I imagine we'd find a wide range of results – but the fact would remain that every child represented in the percentage of un-engaged, or dis-engaged is a child unlikely to achieve in his or her academic studies either. 

One of the key findings from the Gallup survey is that students who strongly agree that their school is committed to building students’ strengths and that they have a teacher who makes them excited about the future are more engaged than their peers who strongly disagreed with both statements. Again, no surprises, with clear messages there about taking a learner-centred approach, and promoting student agency – and for teachers, that their relationships with the learners, and their interest in and passion for what they are teaching is 'infectious'!

The contentious aspect of this logic is another finding in the Gallup research, which reveals that, unfortunately, most teachers are not in a position to share excitement with students. About 70% are classified as disengaged, which, according to the report, puts them on par with the workforce as a whole.

Now that's what's got me thinking about engagement…

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