Is Student Engagement Achievable?

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“And Art Alive Still” by Dhammza,  (Flickr) under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivs Generic Licence

A recent reading of Student Engagement: What should we know and what should we do? made me realize that I didn’t really have a good handle on the term student engagement. I thought I understood what it meant, but it has become one of those catch phrases that we grab hold of in education. Everyone thinks they know what it means, and it connotes lofty dreams, but no one can really pin it down in a succinct, easily-agreed-upon definition.

In a survey of the literature, Parsons and Taylor (2012) looked at the history of the term and found four purposes for utilizing student engagement: “. . . . achievement or knowledge accumulation, good academic outcomes (grades), and ultimately graduation as the goal . . . compliance or control as the goal . . . emotional/psychological “high” as a goal . . . powerful, “deep” learning and improved cognitive/metacognitive, knowledge building skills as the goal” (pp. 16-17).

If we as educators truly believe that we want powerful, deep learning and knowledge building skills for our students, then we have to let go of the traditional focus on control and achievement. This is no easy thing. The need for control and constant focus on achievement is rooted deeply in what we do. It is woven throughout our curriculum, our culture, and our way of being.

Parsons and Taylor (2012) confirm this. “Throughout the literature the focus on achievement versus learning was glaring. Our measures, our goals, and our language are geared toward higher achievement and completion, and not toward learning and human development” (p. 50).  A perfect example of this is the provincial exam trap we get caught up in every year.

I say, let’s try learning instead of achievement, and let’s practice freedom to learn over control. As Dunleavy and Milton (2010) state, “When all students become competent and powerful learners for life, we can fairly claim both excellence and equity in public education” (p. 8).

Dunleavy, J. & Milton, P. (2010). Student engagement for effective teaching and deep learning. Canadian Education association, 48(5), 4-8. Retrieved from: http://www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/student-engagement-effective-teaching-and-deep-learning

Parsons, J., & Taylor, L. (2011). Student engagement: What do we know what should we know? University of Alberta, 1-59. Retrieved from: http://education.alberta.ca/media/6459431/student_engagement_literature_review_2011.pdf

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About sandralbecker

An educator who is passionate about the creation of a school Learning Commons, which supports inquiry, critical thinking, and collaboration.
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3 Responses to Is Student Engagement Achievable?

  1. Great post! It just popped into my email and I am inspired to respond. I concur that the need for control and constant focus on achievement is rooted deeply in what we do. Intellectual engagement addresses the glaring difference between student achievement and student learning. Parsons & Taylor (2011) conclude we must broaden our thinking and understanding of student engagement to effectively engage students in learning. (p. 52).

    The intro to Student Engagement: What should we know and what should we do? grabbed my attention. “Today, all young people need to learn to use their minds well through deep engagement in learning that reflects skills, knowledge, and dispositions fit for their present lives as well as the ones they aspire to in the future.” Goes for teachers too, don’t you think? Dunleavy & Milton (2010) refer to teacher and student engagement. “We need to extend its [engagement] potential as a powerful construct for engaging both students and teachers in the transformation of schools and classrooms into places of effective teaching and deep learning.” (p. 6).

    I’m wondering if learning and achievement go hand in hand. “It is important to keep in mind (and keep returning our attention to) differences between engagement in achievement and engagement in learning. However, some note that the two are inextricably connected.” (Parsons & Taylor, 2009, p. 29). Our students will be required to problem solve, think flexibly, collaborate and create for success in future work environments. They will need to be learners that produce results, be it in business, art or education. “When students are intellectually engaged, they experience serious personal, psychological, and cognitive investment in learning.” (Dunleavy & Milton, 2010, p. 8). Intellectual engagement has the potential to help students thrive as they move into adulthood.

    References:

    Dunleavy, J. & Milton, P. (2010). Student engagement for effective teaching and deep learning. Canadian Education association, 48(5), 4-8. Retrieved from: http://www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/student-engagement-effective-teaching-and-deep-learning

    Parsons, J., & Taylor, L. (2011). Student engagement: What do we know what should we know? University of Alberta, 1-59. Retrieved from: http://education.alberta.ca/media/6459431/student_engagement_literature_review_2011.pdf

  2. kamal punit says:

    Sandra,

    Thank you for such a good read.

    I couldn’t agree more on your statement, “The need for control and constant focus on achievement is rooted deeply in what we do. It is woven throughout our curriculum, our culture, and our way of being.” This thought resonates with my understanding and experience of educational system where student achievement is the absolute measure of intellect and worth on resume. Though change is catching on, it takes a long time for it to be imbibed completely. In a broader context we all are compelled to change in the way we think about teaching and learning which is more or less in terms of technology. Metiri group (2003) points out, “Academic excellence must be acquired within the context of today’s technological environment in order to fully prepare students to thrive in the Digital Age.” (p. 1). Student engagement is an integral part of definition no matter how we may attempt to define it. However, there is a huge gap between learning and achievement. Dunleavy & Milton (2010. p. 6) notes the three dimensions of engagement as social, academic and intellectual. But achievement is usually only measured on the academic level. Is this the only trigger dissociating learning from engagement? How do educators today help their students adapt to the positives of technology engagement that helps them to be lifelong learners? Perhaps there is no simple answer to these questions. As educators we may be ready to embrace the transformations at large but nuances of technology are not all known as everyone is still learning at their respective levels. Yes, transformation is imperative and achievement is not a holistic measure. But, is freedom from control synonymous with randomness?

    References:

    Dunleavy, J. & Milton, P. (2010). Student engagement for effective teaching and deep learning. Canadian Education association, 48(5), 4-8. Retrieved from: http://www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/student-engagement-effective-teaching-and-deep-learning

    Metiri Group (2003). enGauge 21st century skills: Literacy in the Digital age. 1-88. Retrieved from: http://pict.sdsu.edu/engauge21st.pdf

  3. kelasher says:

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on engagement, which helped me solidify some of my own thinking on the subject.

    Your mention of the provincial exam trap we fall into every year is a valid barrier to true engagement. As Parsons and Taylor (2011) state, standardized tests takes “..responsibility and accountability from the learner, a side effect that can disengage learners.”(p.46). The call for assessment practices that serve to inform learning rather than simply measure it has been loud, and I think in most classrooms it has been heard, as evidenced by the use of portfolios and student led conferences which promote self reflection and ownership of learning.

    You are right that we have seemingly been programmed towards achievement. Many students in my grade six class are driven, much like I was, to get high test marks. Their parents reward or punish them for report card marks, seeing average as simply not good enough. And when you consider student engagement in video games, they are often driven by the desire to achieve a high score or reach the next level.

    Is it wrong to want to achieve? Should unit tests and summative report cards be tossed out altogether? For some, this is the basis of their motivation for learning. In fact, sometimes it is only my interest in achieving a good mark in this class that keeps me posting. Some weeks I have simply not felt engaged with the topic or debate, but achievement pushes me to respond. If not for the element of achievement, I would not be learning so much in this course. Dunleavy and Milton (2010), also acknowledge that the achievement or academic dimension of engagement is complementary to the social and intellectual forms of engagement. Achievement should not be the solitary goal of school, but sometimes it is what brings us to the table for learning to occur.

    References:

    Dunleavy, J. & Milton, P. (2010). Student engagement for effective teaching and deep learning. Canadian Education association, 48(5), 4-8. Retrieved from:
    http://www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/student-engagement-effective-teaching-and-deep-learning

    Parsons, J., & Taylor, L. (2011). Student engagement: What do we know what should we know? University of Alberta, 1-59. Retrieved from: http://education.alberta.ca/media/6459431/student_engagement_literature_review_2011.pdf

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