Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Transformation through engagement

"In class, bored."

This was a Tweet one morning from one of our students that several colleagues and I noticed while participating in a regional school district meeting, ironically, about embracing technology's potential to capture the hearts and minds of the first digital generation. As an advocate for putting social media to work for learning, this was not exactly how I had envisioned its use by students. However, our student was not expressing something that is unique to our school district nor do I believe it was a reflection of how hard his teachers are working. It's the system. I heard it the day of this writing, and it deserves consideration:

A great teacher in a bad system will lose to the system every time.

Gallup research shows that engagement in school declines as students get older, a trend that Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education, calls a "monumental, collective national failure" resulting from too much standardization and not enough experiential and project-based learning in schools. Perhaps an interesting frame through which to see this is the nation's primary standardized assessment of student learning, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). The most recently reported NAEP trend data shows that today's students perform better than students 40 years ago, but it also shows that improvement for high school students over that time is minimal compared to the improvement of younger students, taking on a similar pattern to Gallup's measure of student engagement.

When the full construct of what Gallup measures in its student poll is included (hope, engagement, and well-being), the research shows that student engagement considered this way positively correlates with grades, attendance, retention, graduation, employment, college and vocational readiness, and, by the way, performance on standardized tests.

In other words, engagement distinguishes between high and low performing schools.

Gallup's research helps to frame the argument that determinants of student academic and professional success transcend intelligence and aptitude and underscores the need to have a larger framework for thinking about how instruction, and its supporting systems, should be designed to help students pursue and reach educational and vocational goals; about how to increase student engagement. Busteed's assertion that there is too much standardization and too little experiential and project-based learning in schools deserves some consideration. Both experiential and project-based learning share fundamental characteristics with other contemporary instructional models that form a transformational teaching framework that defines a broader approach to "understanding the overall instructional environment and how key players in that environment can interact to maximize students' intellectual and personal growth" (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012). Transformational teaching, rooted in the principles that learning is active and should be student-centered, gives educators a way to reconsider traditional notions of instructional design. Common to transformational teaching models are strategies to facilitate student mastery of knowledge and skills, increased opportunities for collaboration and discovery, and the promotion of positive attitudes about learning.

One of the interesting connections between Gallup's student poll results and transformational teaching is the concept of student hope. Hope is one of the most potent predictors of student success and is measured in Gallup's research in part by students' self-efficacy to solve problems, do quality work, reach goals, and graduate from high school. Gallup's criteria for measuring hope aligns with one of the theoretical underpins of transformational teaching, social cognitive theory, which asserts that people exert intentional influence over events in their lives in accord with their self-efficacy beliefs. Efficacy beliefs influence optimism, resiliency, coping, and persistence. The goal of enhancing student self-efficacy is among aspects of transformational teaching that are associated with promoting positive student attitudes about learning.

Using a transformational teaching framework to think about how schools can help students pursue and reach educational and vocational goals helps to simplify the complexities of how curriculum, instruction, teachers, and students can interact in schools to redefine traditional notions of teaching and learning. It also gives us a way to think about how to design the organizational systems that govern how schools operate and in which teachers do their work. For whatever reason, our student was not engaged at the moment he sent that Tweet, and while no one can be engaged all the time, Gallup's data shows that too many students are engaged too little of the time. As Phil Schlechty writes in Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work, how public schools address the problem of student engagement will determine how relevant they remain in the future.
  • Donaldson, S., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Nakamura, J.(Eds) (2011). Applied Positive Psychology: Improving Everyday Life, Schools, Work, Health, and Society. Taylor & Francis, Inc.  
  • Gallup (2012). Gallup student poll, Retrieved from
  • Rampey, B., Dion, G., & Donahue, P. (2009). NAEP 2008 trends in academic progress (NCES 2009–479). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.
  • Schlechty, P. (2011). Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work, Wiley, John & Sons, Inc.
  • Slavich, G., & Zimbardo, P. (2012). Transformational teaching: Theoretical underpinnings, basic principles, and core methods, Educational Psychology Review, 24(4), 569–608. 

1 comment:

  1. Great post!
    I truly believe engagement is the key to success. However, it is a shift that won't come easily or quickly. We must make it our focus, provide meaningful useful professional development, place more focus on the learning needs/styles of our students and less on the test, and never give up on hope.