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Curmudgucation: Yes, Engage

Intuitively, you'd think that student engagement was a clear positive. As a teacher, I certainly found it easier to teach a student who was engaged and involved than one who was checked out.

And there is, in fact, a boatload of research that supports what we intuit. But there is also research that suggests no correlation, that engagement does not raise grades or improve understanding. For a certain brand of conservative, engagement is a fuzzy-headed idea, part of that whole misguided approach to engender warm fuzzy feelings in students instead of just teaching them to read and math.

The whole business of trying to promote engagement is a thorny one as well. It can be an unfortunate first cousin of that terrible educational idea--"making the material relevant." If you decide you're going to make the material relevant, you've already lost because your premise is that it's not inherently relevant and only becomes relevant when you perform some teacher trick. So if you're trying to make course content interesting or engaging, you're in trouble. You should know why the material is important for your students; if you don't know why, instead of trying to make up a reason, ask yourself why you're bothering to teach it.

Not everyone has the same version of the engagement challenge. Most (not all) primary students will engage with the dirt; high school students, not so much (there is research that supports the notion that students get less engaged as they move through the system).

Engagement is tricky because it's so relationship-based, so what works for one teacher-student combination may not work for another. Then there is the special form of teacher ju-jitsu involved on getting a student to engage with the content even as they avoid engaging with the teacher, which is a necessary trick to master unless you want to move yourself from teaching to gatekeeping ("Nobody can come to the content except through me"). 

For all of these reasons, some teachers will skip the whole engagement thing. "It's just my job to stand up here and dispense the content, and if students don't get it or even care if they get it, that's not on me." This attitude is encouraged in schools that have gone for scripted programs in a box, as scripts generally don't include "engage students here." The pedagogical approach that assumes that learning can be engineered, a set of responses programmed into students, doesn't particularly care about engagement, either. In fact, since engagement sometimes means pushing back 

But beyond the question of whether or not engagement matters, there's another reason that students should be encouraged, nudged and otherwise convinced to engage.

Because this is their life.

Students and the adults around them can slip into the mistake of thinking that their lives are waiting for them somewhere in the future, that all of this--living as a child, working through school, acquiring skills and knowledge--is just stocking up for some day years from now when their lives will actually begin.

But this, right now, is the student's life. Not all of it, maybe not even the most important part of it, probably not the best parts that will ever be, but not some sort of null sidebar either. 

Do not sleepwalk through your life. Do not check out and figure that somehow, later, further down the road, you'll claim your life and start living it. 

This lesson is not on the Big Standardized Test, but I don't think anybody is too young to hear it, or at least some scaled down version more easily comprehensible for children. Be present. Pay attention. Be engaged, not because it might raise your tests score, but because this is your life, not just something to try to skip to the end of. 

And all of that goes double for teachers. One of the most important ways to convey this to students? Model it. Engage with your life. 


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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...