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Adam Voigt: My thoughts on engagement killers

There’s been a lot said and written about the topic of student engagement in recent years and that’s probably fair enough.

One critical examination of student engagement and it’s impact on student learning was the acclaimed and even sometimes criticised The Smartest Kids In The World by Amanda Ripley. In her research, Ripley looked into the correlation between how much students said they both ‘enjoyed’ and ‘looked forward’ to maths classes and how this correlated with their performance.

Ripley’s findings are most curious. Firstly, the correlation between enjoyment and learning is significantly weaker than that of looking forward to maths classes and learning. Extrapolated, we could view this as student learning not being just enhanced by making learning fun, but by making it interesting. Engagement, therefore is less about putting on a better show in the classroom and more about promoting higher levels of challenge, exploration and questioning.

Countries like Poland and Finland seem to be emphasising enjoyment over interest and it’s begun to negatively impacting their scores against scales like the PISA. According to Ripley, it’s the resourcing of high expectation learning environments in countries like Mexico, Turkey and Iceland, who are improving results via engagement, that we should be seeking inspiration from.

In my endless pursuit of simplicity in all things education, I think that the key, distilled message about what engagement actually means in Ripley’s work is perhaps that the quest for Teachers is to create environs where the highest percentage of students possible, for the highest proportion of time are:

  • Listening

  • Speaking

  • Thinking

  • Doing

… and to remember that this isn’t always smiles, laughter and Teachers dying their hair funky colours or needing to be as inspiring as Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society.

With this more simple and accessible definition of engagement in mind, it might be worth contemplating for a moment what the key factors are that would remove or destroy the opportunity for students to listen, speak, think or do. Here’s four that might provoke some handy reflection:

1. Waiting.

Think about your propensity to wait and what happens when you’re forced to do it. Doctors even have a designated geographical location for this banal pastime – the Waiting Room. Now picture yourself sitting down in that room with the broken television and the magazines from 1996 on the coffee table as you count the number of patients who are ahead of you in the consultation queue. How long is it from this moment until you touch your phone? For many of us, it’s milliseconds. When asked to wait we experience a behavioural void and we seek the first available device to fill it. As it is with our students, every moment that they are waiting for their turn or even for us to stop speaking, we are deepening a void that they will eventually fill with another behaviour. It’s unlikely to be the behaviour we were after.

2. Power.

Positioning ourselves from a powerful post, such as at the head of the class or on an elevated platform/chair sends a message to our students. The message is that we are in charge. We are in charge of you, your behaviour and your learning … and, with that power, we’re going to make you learn. It tells our students that we are going to do learning TO them rather than WITH them. Self-regulation leaves the room because it’s no longer the students job to engage, for it’s the Teacher’s job to drag me to participation.

3. Dysfunctional Relationships.

Far too often we scheme, plan and strategise when students are not engaging at levels we’d prefer. We look to plant a new or clever strategy in the soil that is our classrooms. But what if it’s not the crop that’s the problem, but the soil? Even the “nicest” Teachers can occasionally forget to invest in relationships in their busy-ness and quest to get through the breadth of the curriculum. That said, all engagement strategies starve when planted in a relational wasteland. Get to know your students personally and your strategies will have the chance to thrive.

4. Instructional Design.

Immense focus on Teacher Instruction in recent years has resulted in Teachers spending increasing chunks of time speaking to or at students, particularly at the start of lessons. Let’s flip that. Let’s speak for shorter chunks, more often. In between, let’s coach students towards a series of mini-successes that we can build upon for no other reason than it’s impossible to build from large slabs of failure. Back to Point #1 … did you ever find yourself, as a student, wondering “When is this Teacher going to stop blabbering on?”. Yeah, me too. Stop blabbering, get to the point and get your students to do something with that point that you can congratulate them for.

Adam Voigt

Adam Voigt is the Founder & Director of Real Schools. Built upon years of experience as a successful Principal, Real Schools helps schools to build and sustain strong, relational School Cultures. A speaker of local and international renown, Adam has delivered a TED Talk and is the schools/education expert for The Project”.

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