“Has a bad attitude…”
“Is uninterested in learning…”
“Slow and having low intellectual aptitude…”
“Lives in a bad neighborhood…”
“Comes from a bad family…”
All educators are well-meaning in their intentions for students. Nobody wants students to fail, no matter how poorly they are paid, how discriminatory they may be, or how brief/long they’ve worked in schools, there is no teacher, administrator, support staff or other adult in schools who overtly wants students to fail.
Teachers, counselors, administrators and other adults throughout the education system genuinely want students to get good jobs and have successful lives. They create activities and opportunities, programs and entire organizations that intend to promote students success, in ways that many adults define it: Future-oriented, success equates to having good educations, nuclear families, and successful employment, which means a great paycheck and a powerful position.
Students who don’t aspire to that vision of success are looked upon suspiciously. They are given labels and stigmatized constantly, and their version of success is frowned upon by adults. These students are given many descriptions, and are oftentimes said to be:
- Deficient in basic literacy and numeracy skills
- Disconnected or at-risk of disconnecting from home and/or school
- Facing disabilities
- Coming from low-income families
- Experiencing past, present, or chronic homelessness
- Living in foster care or transitioning out of foster care
- Experiencing pregnancy or parenting
- Having a criminal record
- Being court involved
- Being gang involved
- Experiencing substance abuse
Unfortunately, these descriptions show how we’re misunderstanding student disengagement.
3 Ways to Understand Student Engagement
If we are serious about student engagement, we have to understand what really disengages them right now. Here are three ways to understand student engagement.
1. Understand that ALL Students ARE Engaged in Learning Right Now—We Just Don’t Recognize That.
With so many different avenues for educational engagement, including production, innovation, distribution, consumption, deconstruction and re-invention, the overwhelmingly vast majority of students are engaged in the learning right now. Advertising teaches students; parents, communities and neighbors teach students; afterschool programs teach students. All students are learners, right now. We might not appreciate what they are learning or how they’re learning it, or approve of the lessons being taught – but that doesn’t negate that learning is happening. We simply aren’t acknowledging that this is happening.
2. Understand that Students are Engaged in Other Activities—We Simply Don’t Validate Their Importance.
Even if they’ve dropped out, left home, or play video games all day, students are engaged in all kinds of things that are educational. They can be engaged in friendships, skateboarding, fashion, music, video gaming, cars and anything else in which they have a sustained connection. Because of that, they can also be engaged in things adults see as negative, like drugs, alcohol, sex and vandalism. If adults want students to become engaged in learning, we have to present them with something of equal or greater value to become engaged in—after we learn what they are currently engaged in.
3. Understand that Students have been Taught to be Disengaged—And We Are Responsible for That, Too.
Through television, at school, in their family lives, and throughout our communities, students are routinely taught to be disengaged. Parents and teachers constantly make decisions for students without students while politicians and business owners choose what students need without them, as well. However, a magic day comes when adults insist students automatically become engaged in what adults want them to. When that doesn’t happen we become frustrated and confused. Its no wonder why—imagine what its like for students themselves!
These are three ways to REALLY understand student engagement. If you want to engage students in schools, it is important to understand these ways, because every students experiences some part of them right now.
Why It Matters
When faced with students who fit the descriptions above, adults in a variety of roles make immediate decisions based on them. They decide what students’ behaviors, attitudes, ideas and beliefs are without ever talking directly with them. In many cases, employers, teachers, social workers and others decide these students are disengaged. Because of that, they brush past them in interviews, ignore them in classes, or release them from services that might be vital to these students.
Student disengagement is often presented as a viral disease that sweeps through particular populations of students, like those listed above. This is especially true when talking about high school, where disengagement leads to students becoming “failed learners”. This view is often presented with research by its side, including claims that student engagement in the economy is determined by the income levels of families of origin more than other effects. However, correlation is not causation, and a lot of this research is presented from a lopsided perspective.
How To Change It
If we really want to address student disengagement in schools, we have to really understand students. Here are three ways to do that.
- Acknowledge Student Engagement in Learning Right Now. Look at these seven parts of learning: Innovation, Creation, Development, Distribution, Consumption, Deconstruction, and Re-invention. Every single student is engaged in at least one of these parts right now. Alas, schools might not value their learning engagement, but that doesn’t mean students aren’t educationally engaged. Students are educationally engaged if they are writing apps for cell phones; reading magazines during school; running a lawn mowing business; knitting scarves for their friends; buying the latest songs online; recycling soda cans to save the planet; or taking apart old TVs and rebuilding them into something else. If you want to change your understanding of students, start seeing how they’re engaged in learning right now.
- Validate the Importance of Every Form of Student Engagement. If you aren’t happy with the ways students are engaged in learning right now, try seeing the other things they’re sustainably connected to right now. Learning is woven throughout their lives, and every kind of student engagement benefits every part of the education. That means if students are sustainably connected to sports, they’re learning; if they’re engaged in comic books, they’re learning; if they’re deeply committed to learning about any topic, they’re learning. If you want to understand students, validate the importance of every form of student engagement.
- Acknowledge You are Responsible for the Problem, and can be Part of the Solution. No generation has created the challenges it faces, and none is solely responsible for creating the solutions. However, if more people are going to understand students, we need to recognize that each of us is partly responsible for this challenge—and for the solution. This isn’t some grandiose charge, either. Its an earnest call for practical, meaningful action throughout schools right now. You have to take that responsibility in order for things to be different.
These are important considerations for educators to keep in mind when they are trying to help students graduate; learn about social issues; train students to do a particular job; teach life skills to students; make policies and regulations for students; and much more. They should be kept in mind by programs, classes, organizations, curriculum writers, and others who promote student engagement.
When we work from these places, we will see dramatic improvements in student engagement. That includes better classroom outcomes, learning goals, lifetime prospects, and much more. If we fail to acknowledge these realities, a different future is waiting than anything that’s been anticipated.