Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Student Engagement: more than being busy

Educators in our school district are focused on increasing student engagement. We intuitively know that if students are going to learn, they must be captivated by what they're learning. But being engaged is more than just being busy. So how do we define student engagement?

The Science House at the Science Museum of Minnesota uses this formula to define engagement:
Talking on Task + Manipulating Materials = Student Engagement

They surmise that if students are engaged, students will learn.

Our Teacher Growth, Development, and Evaluation System plan relies on the following components of the Charlotte Danielson's 2013 The Framework for Teaching to define and measure student engagement:
  • Domain 2 
    • Component 2A: Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport 
    • Component 2C: Managing Classroom Procedures 
    • Component 2D: Managing Student Behavior 
  • Domain 3 
    • Component 3B: Using Questioning and Discussion Techniques 
    • Component 3C: Engaging Students in Learning 
    • Component 3D: Using Assessment in Instruction 
These components give educators helpful parameters and strategies to engage students in "discussion, debate, answering 'what if?' questions, discovering patterns and the like," (p. 69). I acknowledge that if teachers implement such strategies, specifically Visible Thinking Routines that I have relentlessly promoted on this blog, students will be more engaged and more will be learned. However, if teachers want to truly engage students, it will take more than teaching strategies and techniques aimed at captivating student attention. For students to be authentically engaged, curriculum must be relevant, challenging, and significant.

Currently, in our the elementary school, students are often asked to learn literacy and mathematical ideas outside the contexts that these ideas are really for. Getting all students to engage at high levels proves to be extremely difficult, no matter the engagement strategy, when we teach these complex ideas in abstract, decontextualized terms.

Ron Ritchhart, in his book Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Get It, tells the story of teachers who connect their course activity to big ideas to enhance the purpose and meaning of the work for students. He writes that by doing this, "students become clear about the larger purpose of the class and what the teacher wants them to understand and learn more about. This makes it easier to engage students in thinking because the work itself demands thinking and active exploration." He continues, "the thinking demanded of students is authentic in that it serves particular ends, unlike certain one-size-fits-all thinking-skills programs that might introduce a thinking skill in a discrete context disconnected from anything else students might be doing," (p. 150-1).

Ritchhart thus is advocating for curriculum that is based on students constructing understanding of relevant, challenging, and significant ideas, not delivering insignificant curriculum using engaging activities.

So, if we can agree that to authentically engage students, we need the right combination of engagement strategies and relevant and significant curriculum that is based on understanding big ideas, what are these ideas that are worth knowing about?

In the International Baccalaureate's (IB) Primary Years Program (PYP), the answer is to design a concept-driven curriculum; a curriculum where the understanding of significant ideas is more important than the memorization of isolated facts. H. Lynn Erickson writes in her book Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom that concepts are timeless, abstract, universal, and transferrable (p. 31). But there are many big ideas worth knowing that fit this description. How are we to know which ones to teach?

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe suggest a list of transferable concepts in their 2005 book Understanding by Design (p. 74). They also give tips for finding big ideas within the state academic standards. Erickson echoes this idea by suggesting using the stem, "The student understands that ..." to identify concepts in state standards. She notes that this lead-in phrase "sets up the structure for a generalization sentence - two or more concepts stated in a relationship," (p. 52).

The more I work with teachers at identifying concepts - that is, ideas worth teaching - the more I think that another way to "test" to see if the idea you're considering is a concept is to consider how important the idea is to adults. If adults are continuously wrestling with the particular idea, chances are you're working with a concept.

The bottom line is this: as long as our elementary curriculum is exclusively delivered separately in reading and math blocks with little time dedicated to learning literacy and mathematical processes and strategies in the context of constructing understanding of key and related concepts within the PYP units of inquiry, our students will never truly be engaged with any of it and standardized test scores will continue to lag.

Engagement is more than students paying attention and being busy. In order for students to internalize literacy and math processes and knowledge concepts, they must be taught in the context of learning real-world big ideas; ideas that are timeless, abstract, universal, transferable, and still being discussed by adults.

When we begin to deliver this kind of engaging, authentic curriculum, coupled with employing engagement strategies designed at getting students actively and meaningfully thinking, talking, and working, we will start to see increases in levels of authentic student engagement and increases in standardized test scores soon will follow.

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