I recently heard a story about three high school siblings who experienced a rarity in education -- all three students had the same teacher during the same semester. Different grade levels and different classes, but they all had the same teacher. For the sake of this story, we'll call him Mr. Smith.
One day, the three students' parents received a phone call from Mr. Smith letting them know that one of the students had fallen asleep during his class that day. Of course, this led to a conversation that evening between Mom, Dad, and the sleepy student. When the other two children, both well-behaved and high-achieving students, heard about what had happened, each of them shared their thoughts on the matter by saying, "I wish I could sleep in Mr. Smith's class."
So here's a question. How many of the three students would you say were engaged during Mr. Smith's class? For this question, we'll define engaged as being "into" the lessons being taught. How many students? Two? The ones not sleeping in class?
I contend that the answer is probably zero. None of the students.
Yes, the other two students weren't sleeping in Mr. Smith's class, but why not? Because they were engaged by his lessons? No. Both students indicated this wasn't the case, stating they wished they too could catch a few winks during Mr. Smith's class. No, more likely, the students weren't sleeping in class because they're "good" students who've been taught that sleeping in class is a no-no. Good students are supposed to pay attention in class, follow directions, and complete assignments on time. Because that's what good students do.
How often do we as educators mistake compliance for engagement? How often do we misinterpret quiet, on-task behavior as genuine engagement? Integrity has been defined as how one acts when no one is watching. Genuine student engagement is like integrity -- it will continue to be present even when the teacher isn't watching. Have you ever taught a lesson your students were so into that they lost track of time, forgetting they were supposed to go to recess or lunch? Think of those times when students asked to continue learning not because they had to but because they wanted to. That's the goal. That's genuine student engagement.
When I was teaching, I'm sure there were times when I mistook compliance for engagement. I had good classroom management. I ran a fun, structured classroom where students followed the rules and were on task. But does that mean all of my students were engaged, really "into" the learning, all of the time? Unfortunately, no. How often did I observe simple compliance from my students because I failed to truly engage them? How often did I observe counterfeit engagement?
Genuine student engagement occurs when a teacher is deliberate in his/her attempt to involve students in their learning, rather than simply treating them as passive vessels into which we pour knowledge. It occurs when students take ownership of their learning. It occurs when worksheets are replaced with meaningful tasks, when students are asked to create rather than complete. It occurs when students aren't asked to always sit through a lecture but are instead allowed to use technology to collaborate and connect with their peers, to learn together.
How will you genuinely engage your students today?
Brent has worked in the field of education as a teacher and administrator for over 20 years. He is currently Principal of Alta Murrieta Elementary School in Murrieta, California. Read more about Brent here.
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