Whenever I hear talk of student engagement I wonder what the problem is. I doubt that it’s the students, their role possibly — but not them personally. I don’t buy into the idea that most of our students are lazy or incompetent. Instead, I think they’re bored. Every student I’ve taught could learn, just often not the same thing, or in the same way. And when I’ve asked my students about it, I’ve always found they love to learn; they just don’t like school.
The research around student engagement has changed over the past 40 years. During the 1970’s, student engagement research largely dealt with a marginal population that was disengaged from school and at risk of dropping out. Jump ahead 40 years. While this problem still exists, student engagement research deals with a sizable population of students. In fact, the majority of our students aren’t engaged in their day to day learning. Depending on the survey, anywhere from 50 to almost 70% of our grade 10 to 12 students are not engaged in their learning. That’s shocking.
When I first learned this statistic I was stunned. Moreover, research shows that the longer our students are in school, the less academically competent the feel (Covington & Dray, 2001) — even students who are considered “successful” in our current system experience this problem. That’s a pretty big deal. School shouldn’t be something you have to recover from, and for too many of our kids, it is.
What do I mean by the term student engagement? There are as many definitions for this term as there are words in this blog post. Engagement is often broken down into different categories: social/psychological, behavioural, academic/cognitive, or some variation of these. Some deal strictly with behavioural compliance in a classroom, but that’s not what I’m interested in. For me, engagement is a genuine disposition for self-directed, deep learning, fostered from an early age and continues life long. That’s the point of engagement, not to coherse kids into performing the tasks we want them to do.
One might think that our “top” students are engaged in their learning. Studies show most aren’t. Successful students often describe their learning experience as “boring, hectic, stressful and disconnected from the real world” (Dunleavy & Milton, 2009, p. 11). Many are simply jumping the hoops or “doing school” — hoping to move onto a better educational experience once they’ve graduated from high school. Unfortunately, with today’s current university system, many will be disappointed.
Too often I’ve heard students talk of their desire & need to escape the day to day educational institution. It saddens me because I know it can be so much more. At the same time, it frightens me because research shows that a boring environment has a more powerful thinning effect on the brain cortex than an exciting or enriched environment has on cortex thickening (Diamond, 1998). That’s a really big deal.
Starting in grade 6, student engagement begins to plummet, until about grade 9, when it bottoms out at about 30%. I’m curious as to why this starts in grade 6. What happens in grade 6 psychologically or neurologically that prompts this freefall? And just as importantly, can it be stopped or reversed?
Currently, I have a directed reading course on neuroplasticity & learning. The change in an adolescent’s brain is immense, with large portions of the executive function and the prefrontal cortex maturing. There is also a significant proliferation in dendrites & synapses that causes the adolescent cortex to thicken, before it goes through 6 or so years of intense pruning. It’s vitally important that our students be deeply engaged cognitively during this period. The brain works on a use it or lose it principle. So you can see why a boring environment having a more powerful thinning effect on the brain cortex than an exciting or enriched environment has on cortex thickening is a big deal. Boring classroom environments might actually be harming our students ability to think.
For my PhD dissertation I’ve decided to research student engagement, but not typically how it’s been done. One of the gaps in the research is the absence of student voice. Research tends to talk about kids, not with them. I hope to use youth participatory action research, as a means to not only amplify student voice around this issue, but also to empower students to change the circumstances in which they learn. Participatory action research “seeks to understand the world by trying to change it, collaboratively and reflectively”. I think this process sounds a lot like me. And I think it sounds a lot like the kids I’ve taught. So many of our students come to school everyday hoping they’ll do something that makes a difference and engage in real work that matters.
Participatory Action Research allows students become partners and co-researchers in creating the education they want and need. They identify the problems in their current circumstances and co-create the solutions. They write. They speak. They change, not only themselves but also the environment around them. In short, they make a difference.
My framework will likely be critical theory, which is about emancipation and transformation; it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them” (Horkheimer 1982, 244). I think that might not be too far off from describing some of our schools. It questions current power structures and seeks to understand the ways in which various social groups are oppressed. I include many of our students in this group. They’re stuck jumping through hoops, most often without meaning, that someone else has created for them. Most importantly, critical theory empowers students to transform their education.
My initial thought is to use a method like Photovoice, which I think authentically gives power to students. Through photographing the everyday events of their lives and merging these with story, students will share what school is really like. It is often used among marginalized people, and is intended to give insight into how they conceptualize their circumstances and their hopes for the future. Photovoice attempts to bring the perspectives of those “who lead lives that are different from those traditionally in control of the means for imaging the world” into the policy-making process.
Our schools need to change, and the voices of our students need to be heard for this to happen successfully. I hope to use technology as a tool to give a voice to students who are normally silenced, while at the same time empowering them to use technology to create an educational environment that allows and fosters self-directed, deep learning. Now I just need a classroom…
Photo courtesty of cc. Flickr: Adam Bindslev