Student Engagement: Are They or Aren’t They Engaged?

How do you know when students are truly engaged?  How do you know when a school community is truly engaged?  Partly you “just know” intuitively. When I walk into classrooms it’s pretty evident when students are truly engaged.  Leaning in, asking questions, participating, excited, lost in the dialogue and the give and take of the moments.  It’s always pretty clear.  There’s a sense of purposefulness to what is happening.  The art of teaching is truly evident when a teacher orchestrates those moments of full engagement.  It’s really special to see, and more importantly, to feel.  Engagement is felt.  To the contrary, boredom and non-engagement can also be felt.  And it’s deadly. I’m lucky.  I have many opportunities to visit classrooms.  Students at LCS are most often engaged. Sometimes the engagement is about compliance but many times it’s engagement with enthusiasm, with a sense of purpose and excitement.  This is high level and with strong meaning.  I was watching Grade 11 student presentations the other day in a Global Politics class.  They were so knowledgeable, articulate, and confident in their presentations.  I was impressed, and the audience of students were equally impressed.  It was purposeful and challenging.  

But what is the link between engagement and learning?  There is some ambiguity around engagement.  Students can look completely engaged but is the task really worthy of the intense engagement? Are students merely complying?  Is their thinking deep and productive or shallow and surface level?  Do we sometimes engage students in tasks that are really about keeping them busy and “managing” and “controlling” them for an hour or so!  I know this to be true from responses that some teachers provide when they are asked to describe engagement.  Active engagement can look messy.

Classroom engagement is one element.  What lens do we put on engagement to capture the whole experience of students in school?  I have read of three strands to categorize engagement.

Behavioral – the actions students take to be involved in school such as co-curricular involvement and other non-academic commitments.

Academic & Cognitive  – the response to the challenges in learning and effort directed toward learning

Social & Emotional – the sense of belonging students experience through relationships which often impacts their perception of success.

Through these perspectives you can consider levels of engagement that students experience.  I would like to believe that we have a highly engaged student body by these three lenses at LCS.  How to measure and gather feedback to analyze our status is another question.   Our participation rates are high in activities, many students seem engaged and serious with their academics, but I really have little data on the “sense of belonging” that kids feel.

A few things seem to make the difference in student engagement

  • Relationships around engagement are critical.  Without strong relationships, engagement is challenging for any student.
  • High expectations of students can support engagement.
  • Relevancy of curriculum, topics, tasks can support engagement.
  • Technology offers opportunities for varied tasks to support learning as one can personalize the learning experience and take greater control. Being a self-directed learner is natural and defines engagement.
  • Choice matters. Having choices increases engagement
  • Feedback is essential.  The connection students make with the feedback from teachers improves engagement.

The mantra of Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships is often used to support a vision in schools.  It is clear that engagement depends upon the strength of all three R’s!

I am optimistic that we have started the year at LCS with tremendous engagement, especially on the behavioral and social/emotional levels.  Numbers are up in all activities, grade 12 students have met their initial deadlines for extended essays and college lists, student council is extremely active, parent volunteerism is up, and the student body has a positive “vibe” each day.  Academic engagement seems solid but this can only truly be examined through a careful review of the curriculum.  Time will tell and close review of their work will reveal levels of academic engagement.  Apart from compliance, are students truly excited about their learning?  Are they examining relevant and challenging topics?  Is it more compliance or inquiry?  These are questions worth considering as the year moves on.

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