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.