Teaching Opinion

Response: Supporting Student Engagement by ‘Building Community’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 15, 2014 13 min read
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(This is the last post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here , Part Two here and Part Three here.)

This week’s question is:

How would you define student engagement, and what are good strategies to promote it?

In Part One of this series, Julia Thompson, Myron Dueck, Bryan Harris, and Debbie Silver contributed responses. In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Bryan and Debbie about this topic on my BAM! Radio Show.

In Part Two, ReLeah Lent, Barry Gilmore, Nancy Steineke, Michael Opitz, Michael Ford, and Eric Jensen all shared their thoughts on the topic.

Part Three featured the ideas of Patricia Vitale-Reilly, Ken Halla, Zaretta Hammond, Barbara Blackburn and Heidi Weinmann.

Now, this final installment includes guest responses from Jennifer Fredricks, Aubrie Rojee, April Baker, Beth Donofrio, and Louis Cozolino. In addition, I share comments from readers.

Response From Jennifer Fredricks

Dr. Jennifer Fredricks is a professor of Human Development at Connecticut College, where she also serves as the faculty director of the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy. Her research focuses on student engagement, motivation, extracurricular participation, and adolescent development. She is the author of the 2014 book, Eight Myths of Student Disengagement: Creating Classrooms of Deep Learning (Corwin Press):

Student engagement is a multifaceted concept that includes aspects of behavior, emotion, and cognition. Behavioral engagement is defined as involvement in learning activities, and includes indicators such as exerting effort, concentrating, participating, and being on-task, as well as aspects of positive conduct, such as following the rules and not getting in trouble. Emotional engagement is conceptualized as positive and negative reactions to the school and the teacher, and includes indicators such as interest, happiness, boredom, and frustration, as well as a sense of belonging and attachment to school. Finally, cognitive engagement is defined as students’ psychological investment in learning, perseverance in the face of challenge, and use of deep rather than shallow learning strategies.

Considering these three components of engagement together provides a rich picture of how students’ think, act, and feel in the classroom. Research has shown that higher student engagement is related to higher achievement; a greater likelihood of completing high school and going to college; and a lower chance of negative outcomes such as substance abuse and delinquent behaviors. Unfortunately, national statistics indicate that between 40 and 60% of students in the United States are showing signs of disengagement, and that many of our school and classroom practices are actually contributing to these high rates of disengagement over time.

Although these statistics are troubling, a growing body of research shows that teachers play a critical role in increasing engagement by changing the type of tasks and by improving the social dynamics in the classroom. Engagement is higher when tasks are situated in meaningful contexts; reflect how learning happens outside of the classroom; and require students to use higher-order skills such as analyzing, creating, and evaluating their knowledge. In these classrooms, students often work together to solve real world problems and create a product that is shared in a public arena with their peers and/or a larger community. Additionally, engagement is higher in classrooms where teachers have developed high-quality relationships with their students and show them that they respect and truly care about them as individuals.

Research also shows that teachers can increase engagement by encouraging their students to take greater responsibility for their own learning, and by giving them opportunities to make decisions about how they learn and how the classroom functions. Finally, teachers can support engagement by building a sense of community where students feel emotionally connected to other students, feel like they have a voice, and feel like their social needs are being supported.

Response From Aubrie Rojee

Aubrie Rojee is the Educational Leader for the Humanities and social studies teacher at Medway High School in Medway, Massachusetts. An educator for 12 years in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, she was named a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader:

Engagement, at its highest level, occurs when students are actively seeking answers to find a deeper meaning or understanding through their learning. They may achieve this through arguing their beliefs, collaborating with their peers, or crafting an answer. A student is most engaged when the lesson drives the student to want to know more. I often refer to this as the “Dinner-Table Test": if a parent mentions that their student discussed my lesson with them, I know that I was able to reach a higher-level of engagement that day.

Over the years, I’ve learned about many ways to foster engagement in the classroom from simulations to passion-driven learning projects. However, I find one of the most useful ways to ignite the student-lesson connection is to garner interest from the minute the bell rings. Use activators to encourage personal connections, spark interest, or simply get students excited to flex their brain-muscles to their peers. It sets a mood for the class and shows that we are making a clear and thoughtful effort to provide a significant and meaningful lesson. If the learning begins with the very first student entering the room, energy and excitement quickly grow.

However, here is where we sometimes make a mistake: while there is a great deal of research supporting the use of routines and rituals, we must be weary of monotony. Be sure to recognize the difference between “engagement” and “compliance”. For example, if students spend the first five minutes of class journaling every day, excitement may lessen as the year goes on. Students will complete the task, but with waning understanding and personal connections. Instead, they will simply go through the motions. My suggestion: always keep them guessing! One of my favorite teacher-moments is when a student curiously and enthusiastically asks, “What are we doing TODAY?”.

Response From April Baker

April Baker is the English teacher for Grossmont Middle College High School, a small alternative school for juniors and seniors, located on the Grossmont College campus in El Cajon, California. She also works for the San Diego County Office of Education as an instructor for their VPSS (Verification Process for Special Settings) English program which provides Highly Qualified Teacher status for teachers in special instructional settings:

When I look at my students, I want to see focused interaction with the content, the concepts and each other. Depending on the activity, the look of this interaction can take on many forms. It might be a jumbled sea of desks turned this way and that, as students analyze a text. But it could just as easily be 40 students, with desks in neat rows, writing a response to last night’s reading. In both situations, students are actively participating. For me, this is the key to engagement.

One of my favorite engagement strategies is student-driven discussion. I use Google forms instead of study guides when we’re reading a piece of literature. Students complete the form after finishing the reading homework and their questions and insights are what drive class discussion the next day. Before we talk about the reading as a whole class, students talk about their form responses in groups of three or four. Since everyone has had time to develop questions and ideas about the reading, they all have something to talk about. It may get a little loud, but it’s the kind of loud I want to hear!

Another great strategy is student choice. Whether it’s offering three or four prompts to choose from, or accepting creative projects to demonstrate understanding, choice gives students ownership in the process. For a recent Beowulf project, submissions included a graphic novel, a CD soundtrack, and an original rap. All of these submissions were unique, and they all demonstrated a high level of engagement in the process.

At the end of the day, I want my students to walk away from class feeling like it was 90 minutes well-spent. It may not always happen, but it’s definitely a worthwhile goal.

Response From Beth Donofrio

A language arts teacher for 15 years, Beth Donofrio has worked in public high schools, a state lock-up facility for juvenile boys, gifted classes in middle school, and currently in a Catholic school in Florida. Her work in a Department of Youth Services facility in Boston is chronicled in a chapter of the book, Teacher to Teacher: Learning from Each Other by Eleanor Duckworth (Teachers College Press, 1997). She obtained her M.Ed. from Harvard Graduate School of Education and is the mother of four children, ages 11, 14, 16, and 17:

As a first year teacher, I had a student who wrote his name on the test, put his head on his desk, and at the bell passed the paper in; the only evidence he had any contact with the page was his name at the top. Twenty-five years later, I still remember Derrick’s name and am saddened and baffled by his lack of engagement.

I was thus relieved, and surprised, to find an infographic created by Dr. Roland Rios of a pie chart depicting the levels of engagement. Even in a highly engaged classroom, one small slice of pie goes to my Derrick, the student practicing retreatism: no attention and no commitment.

Teachers who habitually practice 10 Ways to Get Students Engaged make pies with most slices going to highly engaged students. But all teachers should know that even the best chef will have someone who is not fond of pie. That shouldn’t discourage the chef from continuing to bake and from working to improve his recipe.

How do you know you are making a fantastic pie that will have your patrons eating out of your hand? You love baking. It’s the secret ingredient to delicious food. Watch The Hundred Foot Journey if you don’t believe me. How else? You search high and low for the right ingredients. You devour cookbooks written by the best chefs late into the night. You practice your craft with near fanaticism. You have some secret spices in your arsenal. Your greatest desire in the world is to care for people through delicious food.

Teachers who love teaching, who search high and low for the right ingredients, who devote themselves to perfecting their craft, who want nothing more than to create lessons that feed their students’ minds and souls, will create pies worthy of three Michelin stars, pies that even Madame Mallory, or my Derrick, won’t be able to resist.

Response From Louis Cozolino

Louis Cozolino, PhD, is an education specialist, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, a neuroscientist, and a private mental health practitioner. He is series co-editor of The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education and author of The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom (W. W. Norton; 2013) and the forthcoming book, Attachment-Based Teaching: Creating a Tribal Classroom (W. W. Norton; 2014):

Student engagement can be defined as a positive state of mind, body, and connectivity to teachers, peers, and the subject at hand. Optimal engagement is reflected in an enthusiastic and unselfconscious participation with the world--best described as play. In play, there is a positive attitude toward the task, enjoyment in sharing the experience, and a lack of fear of being criticized or shamed.

Humans evolved to learn in tribes of related people where 1) we learned from those who loved us, 2) what we learned was necessary for survival, and 3) we were responsible for making a meaningful contribution to the tribe. In other words, engagement was based on a combination of Safety, Meaning, and Responsibility.

Creating engaged learning environments requires establishing these basic tribal elements in the classroom. A tribal classroom naturally sparks motivation, neuroplasticity, and learning. The most important of these elements is establishing Safety, which reassures students that the classroom is both a secure and supportive interpersonal environment. When teachers invest time in sharing, bonding, and tribe-building exercises, they help students to decrease anxiety while increasing motivation, thereby enhancing the underlying neurobiology of learning.

Skills associated with cooperative learning are also important factors in tribal learning: how to listen, how to give supportive feedback, and how to make difficult decisions. Students also need to participate in deciding what they will learn and how they will learn it. Offering an array of subjects and learning techniques and allowing students to choose increases their investment in the learning process. Teaching must be guided in large part by what students find Meaningful--this is how we evolved to learn.

Finally, the way to promote student engagement is to remember that for most of human history (and still throughout most of the world) children need to take on Responsibilities at an early stage in life. Children and adolescents have historically done whatever they were physically and mentally able to do as soon as they were able. In exchange, they felt viable, valuable, included, and necessary for the survival of the tribe. In the industrialized world, we tend to protect children from adult responsibilities for as long as possible. All of the energy, intensity, and focus that nature has given them, in the absence of a legitimate focus, becomes invested in video games, petty social gossip, or worse.

In essence, the best way to promote student engagement is to put them on a Paleolithic diet of Safety, Meaning, and Responsibility within a securely attached tribal learning community.

Responses From Readers

Nancy Cornell:

Engagement and compliance are NOT one and the same.

John Bennett:

Engagement is student involvement motivated by a belief that the engagement will have an impact on themselves and others in a positive way.

Strategies to promote student engagement include real-world assignments that have student-centered and -controlled responses, PBL pedagogy, and assessment reflecting the time commitment required as well as the honest contributions of each team member.

Daniel Quinayás:

Student’s engagement is the self-appropriation students feel about a specific subject or topic. It implies commitment, responsibility, constancy, punctuality and work with motivation. In order to promote this value, teachers should work topics from student’s contexts. That’s to say, students have to feel attracted when studying something, if don’t they are not going to participate or pay attention. Another factor is to show updated information, videos, examples and readings; when you show a song from the 70s, students don’t feel motivated so it is preferable to use modern material.

Thanks to Jennifer, Aubrie, April, Beth and Louis, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including readers’ comments in Part Four

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