We Can’t Engage Students and We Can’t Motivate Them!

Me with Surfer Project Students

Students at Cramlington Learning Village, Fired Up about Pollution In The North Sea

It’s the last, sweltering, couple of days in the school year here in England. In Scotland and the US, teachers have already been on vacation for a couple of weeks of well-deserved rest. In Australia, however, they’re just getting back to work after the mid-winter break. In both hemispheres, this is often the point when teachers reflect on their students and their relationships with them.

Because most of us have been living through an era of ‘done to’ education, some of those reflections might be about what more they can do to motivate and engage their students. Please teachers, don’t put yourselves through it, because the reality is you can’t engage students, or motivate them – they have to do it themselves.

Does this mean that engagement doesn’t matter? Not at all. If the last few weeks – working on engagement with many teachers in Australia and the UK – have taught me anything it’s this: enhancing student engagement is the most important thing we can do as educators. Not improving test scores, not keeping our data up-to-speed; not covering the curriculum.

My conviction on this has been fortified this week with the publication of an important study on student engagement and future life chances. Researchers from Menzies Research Institute, in Tasmania, had the findings of their 20 year longitudinal study published in the British Educational Research Journal. The conclusions are striking.

Students who are engaged in school are more likely to pursue further education, even as mature students, than those who are disengaged. They are also more likely to take up professional or managerial posts beyond education. So far, so predictable. But the report also concluded that levels of engagement were a bigger determinant than either academic attainment or (here’s the kicker) socio-economic background.

Think about that for a minute. You, as teacher, can help a disadvantaged child overcome the hand they were dealt, simply by ensuring that they are engaged in your class. Exciting stuff, is it not?

But engagement is a tricky business, and it can’t be inflicted upon students. Another report, recently published, points to some of our misunderstandings on engagement. Many educators associate engagement with behaviour, and compliance. They therefore assume that if kids are doing what they’re told, they’re engaged. Not so. As Education Week reported this week, ‘what works to improve students’ behavior only sometimes engages them emotionally and cognitively’. And as Texan student Jeff Bliss notoriously told his teacher, earlier this summer, if you want a student to learn, ‘you’ve got to touch his freakin’ heart’.

So motivation matters. The report also had something important to say about voice and choice:

“Opportunities for decision making or freedom of action are less important than the extent to which the decision making and action opportunities available reflect personal goals, interests, or values,”

I’m a big advocate of giving students more autonomy. But this report suggests that autonomy alone isn’t important unless it  helps students learn about what matters to them.

So we can’t engage or motivate students directly by our own actions. But we can fundamentally support their own inherent love of learning by designing learning activities which encourage their personal motivations, and enable them to connect to their interests.

Larry Rosenstock has said that ‘engagement precedes learning’. Too true, Larry. But it looks like ‘interest’ and ‘values’ precedes engagement.

So, when teachers are starting to think about next year’s learning designs they perhaps should start from not what students need to know, or their target grades, or importantly, how they can be kept interested through their own teaching style. Rather, they should start from what fires their students up, and how learning can be built around those passions.

Because, as this week’s reports demonstrate, our students’  life chances can be transformed by changing teaching and learning so that is is relevant and values-based.

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5 Responses to We Can’t Engage Students and We Can’t Motivate Them!

  1. adsnads1976 says:

    Some excellent stuff here. Thanks!

  2. Nick Duff says:

    Interest leads to engagement, that in turn leads to learning.
    There is no better case than in the Arts, and most specifically Music

    Whilst developing life-long learning skills and talents with popular music, the formula has to be reversed for some topics…

    Learning which is engaging, but may not be interesting to students…
    Tudor Music for example…..

    Learning is a journey, maintaining engagement and interest is a fine art and a real skill of a teacher. That comes with experience and mentorship.

  3. I absolutely agree with the above. You can see it in your students’ eyes when they are not engaged. It is a tricky one because you cannot intrinsically motivate students. I learnt all about this in my Masters in Teaching that I am currently completing – I have put that on hold because I am no longer motivated – the irony! I feel that it is an unknown journey in what motivates and interests students each year when you have new students. What I try to do is get to know my students ask them what they like and don’t like about lessons – not every lesson but just a selection so I can gain a better picture. I also try and speak to them honestly and tell them that sometimes the learning just has to be done, that this lesson today is a ‘dry’ lesson and I ask them to commit and that the learning will help with the more practical component of the course – I am a Drama and Entertainment teacher who is also teaches English at times. When they start to see a solid connection to the content in a real context they start to become more intrinsically motivated. As a teacher I try and keep networking, attending professional development and reading to find new teaching and learning strategies to intrinsically motivate the students. I also find that if I am interested in them as young people and develop a strong, respectful and caring professional relationship with them they at least meet me half way.

  4. Engagement is critical to the process of learning, however there are a number of factors that need to be brought on board in order for effective engagement to be achieved. The first step is having the confidence that all students can learn and given agency over their learning, they will WANT to learn. This belief precedes effective learner engagement.
    In order to have agency over their own learning and hence a degree of ownership of their learning all learners need to be:

    1. Competent to do so. The competencies of being able to think, communicate, collaborate and manage themselves need to be explicitly learned and practiced by the learner.
    2. Learning literate. They need to be learning literate so they can describe their learning and the learning of others and recognise when good learning is happening.
    3. Aware of the learning process. The learning process is complex and the learner needs to be clear about this. To achieve this it is critical that we understand how the brain learns.
    4. Capable of asking the right question. Unless the learner has the ability to ask clever, rich, open, fertile, higher-order thinking and Socratic questions and know which type of question to apply to which context, then the learner will not engage in good thinking processes and will fail to learn effectively and efficiently.
    5. Carry out the Reflect on, Review, Iterate (RRI) process. The application of this sequence of thinking processes is absolutely critical and once again needs to be understood and applied by the learner continuously.
    These five domains; the key capabilities, precede effective, autonomous learning.
    The rise of the autodidact (someone who can learn independently – a real word), is upon us as almost all learners have access to rich information and communication tools but they have to be fully aware of the key capabilities that underpin becoming an autodidact.

  5. Jason Mischewski says:

    Great teachers have always engaged students and the outcomes are evident everyday. Hopefully we can all look closely at what makes a great teacher and change for the benefit of all. Take a risk and do something different. Great Teachers make a difference!
    Kia kaha, Jason

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