By David Price
It might be time we re-thought student engagement. Are we measuring the right things? Are we taking disengagement seriously enough? January is a time for resolutions. Perhaps educators, in 2014, need to resolve to better understand student engagement, challenge the myths around it, and make it a higher priority in their relationships with students.
Let’s deal with the issue of the importance of engagement first. A recent longitudinal study of Australian students has published conclusions that every government minister for education should heed. Tracking students over a 20-year period, researchers found that the more children felt connected to their school community and felt engaged (rather than bored), the greater their likelihood of achieving a higher educational qualification and going on to a professional or managerial career, over and above their academic attainment or socio-economic background. In other words, an engaged child from a low socio-economic background will have better opportunities in life than a disengaged child from a more privileged background. This is a crucial message for ministers grappling with the inequality gap.
But for these findings to translate into actions, we have to re-think what we mean by engagement. For too long we have confused engagement with compliance or, worse still, “fun.” This confusion has led to a number of myths distorting how we act, and what we look for, in the classroom.
Myth #1: “I can see when my students are engaged.”
Don’t be so sure. Those who have switched off are often only the visible tip of the disengagement iceberg. The ones below the surface could be “invisibly disengaged” — complying but not engaging. A great empathetic principal once told me of her shock in discovering that one of her best students (in terms of behavior and achievement) had been bored every day in school.
“But why didn’t any of your teachers spot this?” she asked.
He replied, “I learned how to fall asleep with my eyes open.”
Students are learning to modify their behavior in class so that they appear to be engaged while, in reality, they’ve intellectually checked-out.