What do teens want?
Jennifer Cleary and Terry Morgan
July 6, 2017

The Fordham Institute’s newly-released report on student engagement initially delivers quite a dose of bad news. A national survey of 2,000 public, charter and private school students finds that students who consider dropping out of high school cite lack of engagement as the primary culprit, with 42% stating that they don’t see value in the work they do in school.

But there’s good news: Educators have the power to defeat this menace and eliminate perceived lack of value and engagement as contributory factors to high-school dropout. Student engagement is dependent upon many factors, and the more factors we can affect, the more likely we are to reach our students and ultimately reduce the number of those who consider dropping out. A small shift in thinking, and a small shift in instruction, could produce major results in retention, engagement and learning, and as a bonus, make teachers’ lives easier!

Why are students not engaged?

Contributing factors to lack of engagement include how students feel emotionally, whether they feel the content is important and applicable to their lives, and whether they believe they can do the work. When effective relationships are established and maintained, and high expectations are set for all students, teachers can tackle issues of engagement head on. Other contributing factors include students’ environment outside of school—their nutrition, health, physical activity, and whether they perceive school as important. These latter factors may be harder for teachers to overcome, which is why it’s important to establish conditions in the classroom and the school that support learning for all students, regardless of external influences.

The Fordham Institute report cites particular instructional strategies and a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn as key factors in student engagement. We postulate that the right instructional strategies have the power to impact intrinsic motivation, therefore delivering a double dose in treating and improving student engagement. Our most recent research has shown great gains when teachers release autonomy to students by sharing with students exactly what is required of them to demonstrate mastery, and allowing them to work in effective academic teams to achieve their goals.

Education author Michael Toth describes the shifts necessary for classrooms of the 21st century to prepare citizens and workers for tomorrow. Toth notes that instead of the traditional K-12 education model of independent recall and skill practice, students should work in teams to complete cognitively complex tasks that require student discussion and peer accountability for learning and progress.

The price of admission to a new world of work

These shifts in instruction promote the acquisition of 21st century skills that students will undoubtedly need for college and/or career. For decades, schools served the role of preparing students for the real world, be it college or career. Advancements in technology and automation have ushered in new expectations. Formative assessment authority Dylan Wiliam poignantly describes these new expectations this way: “The price of admission to the real world has gone up.” But this new reality has not yet manifested as instructional shifts in the classroom.

Competencies and skills such as emotional intelligence, cognitive flexibility, problem solving and decision-making prowess can all be developed and nurtured through intentional use of instructional strategies. Coupled with techniques that promote a growth mindset, student ownership and engagement, students will not only be better prepared for what comes next -- college or career-- but also much more invested in their learning and the process of learning.

As techniques for establishing conditions for rigor are adopted and implemented, and as these instructional shifts create 21st-century classrooms, tasks become applicable to the real world, and students begin to see their learning as relevant and important. They begin to believe they can achieve. In every sense, they are engaged -- and that’s good news!

Jennifer Cleary and Terry Morgan are co-authors of the forthcoming book, Classroom Techniques for Creating Conditions for Rigorous Instruction (Cleary, Morgan, & Marzano, LSI Publishing: 2017). They are former teachers and are currently content developers and faculty consultants for Learning Sciences International. To learn more about engagement strategies and techniques to achieve for rigorous, standards-based classrooms, visit LearningSciences.com.

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