April 15, 2014 by

The Myth of Student Engagement

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Each day that you enter your classroom, are you educating students?

Or are you teaching at them?

Do your lessons only improve their academic knowledge?

Or do they foster their personal growth?

We all want our teaching to make a difference—otherwise, we wouldn’t spend our nights, weekends, planning periods, and, often, our own money putting together dynamic lessons we think will help students learn.

Beth Morrow on Student EngagementHere’s the rub: some teachers really do have student engagement going on. You know what I mean—despite the struggles we all face, their lessons always appear to be a success. Student absences are a rarity and discipline problems almost nonexistent—no one skips their class to hide out in the bathroom.

And you want that for yourself: maximum student engagement. If you just had a handful of the magic fairy dust that teacher is spreading, you’d be great, too.

But nothing you do seems to matter. New units, fresh seating charts, rewards systems (if you buy into that), class work, group work, computer work, individual work…yet nothing’s working. Maybe you need to put every lesson on the computer. Or nothing on computers. Should you adjust your lessons to read fewer books, show better movies, make more videos, have more rewards…?

Or, even more radical, you could shift your perspective to stop teaching at students and begin learning about them.

Teaching and Learning: The Chicken and the Egg

You can’t have teaching without learning something. And, as with all conundrums, there is no learning without teaching. Learning does not require a formal teacher, just a lesson with an integral meaning that speaks in a way that you understand.

But when teachers forget that a large part of being a successful educator relies on being a learner yourself, student perception begins to shift. Instead of creating a meaningful classroom experience, the classroom becomes “just a place to do work.” Instead of feeling invested in their learning, students only see more “stuff” to do.

This dichotomy cuts to the heart of the student engagement myth: that adding or changing classroom elements, doing a new project, or exposing a student to a new technology or method of instruction will magically transform apathy into a white-hot fire of curiosity.

And that couldn’t be more wrong. Igniting student passion isn’t about adding more options. Sure, there’s a value to trying a variety of approaches for the sake of exposure. But like throwing spaghetti against a wall, these changes won’t stick for long.

Why? Because you’re applying an external solution to an internal problem.

What Did the Teacher Learn Today?

True engagement comes when a teacher knows a student’s strengths and interests beyond the classroom and uses that knowledge to deepen relationships. If we go into our rooms each day to teach but not connect, we can’t expect students to care beyond a test score, if that.

Can you answer these questions about your students? If you can, how do you apply that knowledge to connect with them?

*What home issues are affecting their work?

*Do they have a non-academic passion?

*What are their favorite shows, games, songs, or books?

*Do they have a preferred learning style?

*What is their hidden talent?

*What goals do they have for themselves in the future?

And if you can’t answer those questions, it’s time to start learning. Because caring about students beyond the boundaries of the classroom is the first step of sparking engagement.

Beth Morrow is a middle school ESL teacher in Columbus City Schools in Columbus, Ohio. She blogs on educational and classroom issues at: www.CanWeJustRead.com. Connect with her on Twitter: @BethFMorrow