Learning Futures: How to engage students
These days technology is often the last thing I'd recommend schools bother with when trying to engage students. There's plenty else we can invest time in before technology will achieve even a fraction of what it can in an engaged school. And now a set of action research reports in the UK is showing the path many schools might wish to take.
I'm working with several primary (elementary) and secondary (high) schools at the moment in England, Australia and the States. All of them face the same daily and long-term strategic challenge: students have never been so disengaged. Many have seen technology as a principal hook to reverse this disengagement, which is why they get in touch with us, but quickly on my initial visits to schools I'm keen to point out the other steps that we need to get through before technology will add what it could do. Otherwise, I'm just a tools salesman, selling tools that the owners don't know how to harness.
The journey is a complex one, and one that, in my opinion for what it's worth, most of the 'big' eduction commentators in North America still fail to recognise. I've complained numerous times before about the fetichisation of 'tools' and 'edtech' by those who work with and in schools where other elements of the teaching and learning process clearly deserve fetichisation first.
What are these elements?
A unique and undervalued research project based in the UK, with partners in the US (including High Tech High), is discovering, analysing and sharing those elements through its regular pamphlets, blog and, above all, grounded practice across nearly 50 schools.
It's our job to help scale this ambition to other schools around the world.
Learning Futures' The Engaging School: principles and practices has some choice quotes amongst the practical steps school leaders might take to begin turning this apparent tide of disengagement. Here are my favourites:
The irony, for commentators like Alfie Kohn, is that invariably, “when interest appears, achievement usually follows” (2000, p. 128).
It is almost as though we have accepted the inevitability of learning as a cold shower: you’re not expected to enjoy it, but it will do you good.
We have recently seen a large number of students becoming disengaged achievers, performing well academically, keeping out of trouble, but rejecting further and higher education.
A second problem with the traditional model of engagement stems from its predominantly instrumental applications: engagement as a vehicle to improve student performance or discipline within school. Inevitably, such a mindset constrains success indicators within a compliance model. Students are deemed to be engaged, for example, when/if they:
• attend regularly
• conform to behavioural norms
• complete work in the manner requested and on time
• are ‘on-task’
• respond to questioning
If we have greater aspirations for students—beyond compliance and toward a commitment to lifelong learning—then the conventional concept of engagement is inadequate.
While project-based learning and activities that go beyond school can be liberating for staff and students, it is important that activities incorporate a sense of bounded freedom—that students are given a clear set of guidelines, procedures or protocols within which they can make choices. As one Year 9 student put it: “I’d like to have a little bit more of a say, but...I think you need the teacher there to sort of guide you.”
Students are absorbed in their activity: anyone witnessing a young person playing, say, on-line role playing games will know what this looks like. It is rare, however, to see such depth of absorption in school-based work. Munns and colleagues (2006) at the University of Western Sydney (2006) have quantified the difference as being in-task, not just on-task. Other indicators of high absorption would be students wishing to continue beyond the end of a lesson, or not even noticing the lesson had ended—what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has described as being in ‘‘flow’’.
Picture of engaged gamer from Mr Toledano.