Why Aren’t Students Engaged?

An open math textbook with sheets of written notes on top.

Today I worked with all of the other e-Learning teachers in my board. We had some excellent discussions which tended to drift back to the idea of student engagement.

I don’t really like the term “engagement”; I don’t think it’s clear enough. People have very different understandings of the word in the context of student learning, and that can get in the way of real improvement.

For example, asking “what does student engagement look like?” yields responses like “they’re paying attention” or “they complete the assigned work” alongside “they are applying their learning to their own lives” and “they connect to outside sources for learning”.

Some of these are more accurate or useful than others, but they are all indications of student engagement, I guess.

But for me, student engagement is a question of student intent in their learning, which isn’t exactly an observable behaviour.

I like this definition: “A student is engaged in learning when they feel a compulsion to pursue the learning apart from external motivations.”

That last bit is key for me: why is the student learning? Because they need the marks? Because they fear consequences? Because they are enthralled by a question? Because they are curious?

So this leads me to the question: why are my students disengaged? The question holds as much value regarding e-Learning students as face-to-face students.

My colleagues and I identified approximately a bazillion potential causes of and contributing factors to disengagement. These are approaches or circumstances which prevent students from developing the compulsion to learn. Some of them we can work to improve; others we can’t.

But in the end I keep coming back to this idea: Good questions produce a compulsion to find answers, and the best questions are students’ own questions.

Look at me: I just spent an entire day grappling with questions alongside my peers, and here I am trying to make more sense of it at night. I have a dozen other tasks to complete before I can sleep, but I need to get this out right now so that I can pursue the answers. I am compelled.

So how do we foster a spirit of questioning and a culture of inquiry in the context of prescribed learning?

That’s my own challenge to work on tomorrow: how will I ensure that I’m giving students both the guidance and the latitude they need to pose great questions and then pursue the answers?

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Let them obsess a little

Every time kids get really excited about something, there is a small (usually) but significant movement among parents to stifle it.

Remember the panicked reaction to kids reading Harry Potter books? Remember that young people were eager to get to the bookstore, the library, etc.? Because they were interested in something?

But there was a lot of concern about the content of the books, because the students portrayed in them did things that weren’t 100% “right”. Because there was conflict in the story, and poor choices, and moral dilemmas. I remember reading a serious blog post or article (sorry, no link) about how Harry should have been happy to be with family and content with their treatment of him. Some people worried that Harry Potter was subverting our youth, turning them into authority-questioning hooligans.

That said, if my own child was throwing tantrums because he needed to wear his wizard robes and carry his magical wand to school every day, I’d have to take steps with him. And, you know, do some parenting. But a little obsession, like wanting to read the rest of the series immediately as it’s published, is healthy, in my opinion.

I’ve watched the same thing happen again with Minecraft. It’s an obsession for some people (not just kids). It’s getting them reading strategy guides, making video tutorials, planning and plotting with both face-to-face and online friends. This kind of sudden, unexpected activity is terrifying to the status-quo-loving segment of the population.

But until it’s seriously interfering with an individual functioning in other parts of their life, it’s okay. Let them obsess a little. Or do what the wisest among us do: leverage it.

I work with teachers K-12 in every school in our board, and by far the single greatest concern/complaint I hear is that students are apathetic (or absent, which might have the same cause). They are disengaged. They don’t care. They don’t get excited about anything.

Why then would we squash them when they do engage?

Join them. If you haven’t tried it, go buy Minecraft. Read Harry Potter. Try Pokemon. Whatever your kids are loving, love it too. They want to share with us, and they love it when we’re interested in their interests.

Obsess along with them, just a little.