Here’s a story I don’t tell very often. I spent the better part of 8th grade being uninterested in school - although school is all I did. Let me explain. I was present, I did my homework, studied very hard for my finals, yet I did not raise my hand to answer questions in class. I did not like to interact much even when concepts were hard to understand. I used to sneak a library book during Chemistry and other classes that were less appealing to me.
The truth is: I was not engaged in the classroom.
It is hard to say that since I got good grades. The actual outcomes, what I was supposed to learn back then, are a bit blurry to be honest. I was one of those students that were engaged on the surface, appeared to be listening, did not skip class, but learned little and has had to catch up later. High School chemistry did not turn out to be a walk in the park either.
Engagement is active. It requires the students to be attentive as well as in attendance; it requires the students to be committed to the task and find some inherent value in what he or she is being asked to do. The engaged student not only does the task assigned but also does the task with enthusiasm and diligence.” - Phillip Schlechty
So what does engagement look like? First, it should not be confused with entertainment. Sure, learning is fun, but it can also be very challenging at times, and that is perfectly fine. In fact, students learn more when they are testing, experimenting and struggling to come up with their own solutions.
Second, as a teacher, you learn how to tell when students are truly engaged, especially when they:
- feel at ease, accepted, and safe
- are actively listening
- believe that no subject is too hard to learn
- persevere despite obstacles
- take risks, are not afraid of failure
Where does disengagement come from?
To understand engagement, we should have a look at its “evil twin”: disengagement. On the surface, it manifests as disruptive behavior, poor attendance, and low academic performance. However, if we dig deeper, there are many reasons for disengagement and many more signs that students are not participating actively.
According to Dr. Phillip Schlechty, there are five levels of engagement, ranging from Rebellion, in which there is diverted attention and no commitment to learning, and Engagement, where you can observe high attention and commitment. The in-between stages, Retreatism, Ritual Compliance and Strategic Compliance are equally important. In my case, I was in the latter category, always strategically learning so that I could get good grades, but abandoned the task once it became challenging.
In time, school becomes more and more repetitive, with an emphasis on standardized tests. Students’ attention can be hijacked by a lack of a supporting environment, problems at home, a lack of motivation, a poor classroom design, and lessons that seem irrelevant to students.
Of course, karma has a way of getting back to you when you least expect it. As an adult, I also worked with adults, as a trainer. At times, it was clear to me that some of them were not engaged at all in what I was trying to teach them. I felt guilty and a little bit ashamed. However, guilt or shame will take us nowhere. Instead of placing the blame on instructors for a lack of attention in classrooms, schools should be providing them with the right training and tools, adequate support when needed, and by creating a welcoming and friendly environment for all students.
How the 4Cs of education can help teachers improve classroom engagement
Teachers play an essential role in motivating students. Any educator that feels like they could make their classes better from this perspective has to evaluate the way they teach. What is working, what is not, and how they can engage their students with meaningful learning experiences.
As a starting point, they need to look no further than the 4Cs of education — communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. The 4Cs show the way to an improved classroom emotional climate, which is strongly linked to higher academic achievement, as well as many other benefits.
Communication is all about sharing: ideas, opinions, thoughts. It is also about reaching out to the larger community, and involving parents in the process. Most importantly, it is having honest and open conversations with students.
For example, some students tend to nod and say that they understand a concept, while teachers can see that little glimpse of hesitance in their eyes. That is one moment to stop and ask them exactly what they don’t understand.
Here are other strategies to improve classroom communication:
- When students seem distracted, stop and discuss as a group to see what is happening and how the whole class can get back on track
- Use technology to stay connected to students and parents. Building communication with families creates a great support system for students
- Get to know your students, and know some of their likes and dislikes. It will be much easier to relate to them afterwards
- Find real life examples to everything that is being taught. Students will be more ready to learn something when they see why they need to learn it instead of the classic “so we can move on to the next chapter after this”
Collaboration is at the heart of deeper learning. The collaborative classroom uses physical as well as virtual space to offer meaningful learning opportunities. Students are more motivated to engage in the classroom when working together with their peers. In a learning community, students support one another and set the bar high together for achieving more. Indeed, the individual will tend to catch up with the group or learn from peers that are doing well in a subject.
Since we are social animals that love to collaborate, creating learning relationships is not very hard to do. However, when faced with larger classrooms and reluctant students, teachers might want to try out different strategies to make this happen.
- Teachers should establish rules with the entire class and smaller groups that are working on tasks
- Educators should give clear instructions for tasks
- Use an LMS or any other virtual communication tool to keep discussions going beyond the classroom
- Incorporate more collaborative activities and assignments in daily lessons
- Create a collaborative environment by changing the classroom design (think sitting in a circle for discussions)
- Teach empathy and model empathic behavior for students
Critical thinking is the holy grail - so to speak - of education. It is not easy to teach students critical thinking skills since they need constant practice and reflection. Thinking critically will set students up for success in life as they become better at transferring this across domains. For example, students will know how to apply Math in Chemistry class, compare historical events as facts with historical events presented in novels and so on.
Critical thinking can also help students be engaged in the classroom since it starves off boredom, they learn how to make connections faster, and they will simply become more curious about the content that is being taught.
- Make use of activities such as debates
- Facilitate meaningful discussions with students
- Ask open-ended questions and encourage them to offer more thoughtful answers
- Assign reflection notes in which students get to reflect on their own learning process: what they did well, how they can improve, when they learn best etc.
We all know that children are highly creative, curious, and happy to explore. And yes, creativity can be taught as it is not a fixed trait that only a few of us possess. Creativity - like critical thinking - is a higher-order skill that helps students find novel solutions to problems or create persuasive arguments, as well as follow their artistic ambitions.
Encouraging creativity fosters student engagement since they will be more willing to take risks and see each learning opportunity as a challenge and not a burden.
- Teachers should give critical feedback that promotes self-reflection
- Students should be given a choice when it comes to their own learning
- Give assignments that prompt students to be creative, find new solutions, and use their own words/opinions
- Encourage students to find their own voice and think of themselves as creative individuals
Classroom engagement serves more purposes than simply delivering better learning outcomes. After all, how we all spend our days is how we spend our lives, as Pulitzer Prize winner and English professor, Annie Dillard, once said. As routine settles in, and the novelty of school fades, teachers have to find new ways to engage students. The 4Cs of education offer excellent examples for achieving this. At the same time, schools should strive to optimize the classroom environment and be more attuned to external factors that might disrupt engagement.