Student Engagement: Where True Learning Takes Place

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By Sean Slade, ASCD Whole Child Programs

Well, the one thing it’s not is boredom.

“We could have the same headlines, ‘Kids are bored, not connected to school.’ We’ve got similar numbers in terms of kids who are bored every day—about 49 percent of the kids are bored every day, 17 percent every class. That’s two-thirds of the kids who are bored at least every day.”

—Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, director of the Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education Policy’s High School Survey of Student Engagement project, in “Latest HSSSE results show familiar theme: bored, disconnected students want more from schools

Whole Child Student EngagementAlthough the math calculation may not be 100 percent accurate, it does illustrate that approximately half of all students surveyed are bored every day and almost one in five are bored every lesson. Whatever the equation, that’s not acceptable nor is it productive. If students are not engaged, they aren’t learning.

So, what do we mean by student engagement?

Engagement = Fun

“I love Bill Cosby’s line in the theme song to The Fat Albert Show. He says, ‘This is Bill Cosby coming at you with music and fun and, if you’re not careful, you might learn something before we’re done.’ You don’t have to apologize for ramping up the entertainment level of your class. In fact, you should apologize to your students if you don’t.”

—Dave Burgess, award-winning U.S. history teacher, semiprofessional magician, highly sought-after professional development speaker, and author of “It’s O.K. to Have Fun

Engagement is Intrinsic Motivation

“Most of us believe that the best way to motivate ourselves and others is with external rewards like money—the carrot-and-stick approach. That’s a mistake… The secret to high performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.”

—Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Engagement Versus the Carrot-and-Stick Approach

“The carrot or the stick analogy refers to making someone do something they don’t want to do. It’s about making a mule move and, hence, pull a cart. We want fast, easy answers, so we resort to hitting with a stick or luring with a carrot. We talk about punishing parents. Or we pay students for grades. The real questions are why we demean education with both approaches, and why learning has become such a chore.”

—ASCD Director of Whole Child Programs Sean Slade in “The carrot, the stick … or something else?

Engagement, Learning, and Flow

“If you think of where kids have most flow in school, it’s mostly in extracurricular activities like band, music, athletics, [and] newspaper. In addition, if you look at academic classes, they would report flow especially when they work on team projects. That’s the most enjoyable part of school. Next comes working on your own on a project, and you can go down and the lowest one [in promoting flow] is listening to a lecture and audio/visual. Anything that involves them, that has goals where they can try to achieve, solve a problem, or do something, it’s going to be much more likely to produce flow.”

—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist and author in “Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Motivating People to Learn

What Engagement Looks Like

“I love to watch Tucker when he is learning. His eyes widen, his face lights up, and he cannot contain himself, shouting out answers—no, not answers but ideas and concepts and “ah has”—and he often gets in trouble for being insensitive to his peers who are still struggling to do their work for being self-centered. And there are times he is frustrated by the trouble he gets into, and other times, he seems to accept it as the price he is paying for his education. He grimaces for a moment and then reinvests his energies into his school work. He is 11 years old.”

—Jeffrey Benson, author of Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most, in “I Love To Watch Tucker When He Is Learning

A Great Example: The Talent Show

“First the talent show is inclusive. It enables everyone, not only those who are endowed with superior talents or family wealth, to participate. More importantly, it recognizes a broad range of talents, not only those sanctioned or desired by a certain group… Second, the talent show encourages initiative and responsibility…  Third, the activity sends a strong message to the community, the public, and the parents that our schools value different talents, that their children are all talented in different ways… Last, the activity helps all the children be proud of their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses.”

—Yong Zhao, scholar, speaker, and author of Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization

Student engagement is the key to learning and learning is the primary goal of schools. So, why are we so afraid to truly promote and strive for engagement? Why do we still consider anything that is fun—anything that enables students to become engrossed in the activity, enter the flow, and in doing so, learn, push, and challenge them—to be less than ideal? Engagement should be our goal as that is where true learning takes place.

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Sean Slade is the director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD. The Whole Child Initiative is part of a broad, multiyear plan to shift public dialogue about education from an academic focus to a whole child approach that encompasses all factors required for successful student outcomes, enhancing learning by addressing each student’s social, emotional, physical, and academic needs through the shared contributions of schools, families, communities, and policymakers.

During his more than two decades in education, Slade has written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being (PDF) and has been at the forefront of promoting and using school climate, connectedness, resilience, and youth development data for school improvement. He has been a teacher, head of department, education researcher, senior education officer, project manager, and director. He has taught, trained, and directed education initiatives in Australia, Italy, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States.