Engaging & empowering our students

Last week I shared with you some data on student mental health issues, anxiety, and student engagement.  I closed the post with these three points:

  1. Mental health concerns in our students are rising.
  2. Levels of engagement decline as our students grow older.
  3. Even with increased focus on standards, performance on standardized testing has remained stagnant.

So what can we do?  I’m sure that all of you have noticed these patterns in our own classroom, but knowing the pattern is only part of the task of finding a solution.  In last week’s post I shared the work of two college professors.  Going back to their work, I hope to share a couple ways we might be able to help fight anxiety and lack of engagement.

Peter Gray, the psychology professor from Boston college, feels that the key to learning and growth for our students is free play:

Children today are less free than they have ever been.  And that lack of freedom has exacted a dramatic toll.  My hypothesis is that the generational increases in externality, extrinsic goals, anxiety, and depression are all caused largely by decline, over that same period, in opportunities for free play and the increased time given to schooling.

So as a school, what does play look like?  For one it means we have to be sure to value recess/physical activities during the school day.  There is clear research that one of the benefits of physical activity is increased student engagement.  Think about your classroom on an afternoon where we did not have outdoor recess due to weather.  What are the engagement levels like?

Several recent research studies have looked into increased free play time in the school day, and the results suggest that students with regular recess behave better, are physically healthier and exhibit stronger social and emotional development.

Knowing these facts, does that lead you to think about changing what you do when you return to the classroom on a day when we are unable to go outdoors for recess?  Hopefully you can think about finding a way to squeeze in some free play on those days.  If not free play, then a few short brain break activities to get the kids out of their seat and moving.

And what about the days that students already get their recess?  Does that mean we don’t need to look for other opportunities for play?  Many of our teachers have been doing outdoor activities here at school this week.  I’m sure that they would share that the students are loving the activities they’ve been doing – they are active, engaged, and empowered in this learning environment.  My question though: Do we only save activities like this for the end of the school year?  Or do we try to integrate play into our lessons throughout the year?  How can we make use of our outdoor space, our small and large group instruction rooms, or even just the hallway to get the kids up and playing as they are learning?

Next we have the issue of engagement.  For the purpose of this piece, I am defining engagement in school based on the Schlechty’s Center for Engagement definition:

  • The student sees the activity as personally meaningful.
  • The student’s level of interest is sufficiently high that he/she persists in the face of difficulty.
  • The student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it.
  • The student’s emphasis is on optimum performance and on “getting it right.”

Is it engagement when we work hard to get students into content that we have selected for them?  You may be able to get their attention, but if it’s based on extrinsic goals (like a grade) the motivation may not last.  So here are some ways you might be able to increase motivation in your classroom:

  1. Students are more motivated academically when they have a positive relationship with their teacher.
  2. Choice is a powerful motivator in most educational contexts.
  3. For complex tasks that require creativity and persistence, extrinsic rewards and consequences actually hamper motivation.
  4. To stay motivated to persist at any task, students must believe they can improve in that task.
  5. Students are motivated to learn things that have relevance to their lives.
HSE21 Best Practice Model
HSE21 Best Practice Model

As you spend time thinking about bringing more inquiry into your classroom, as you work to better incorporated the HSE21 Best Practice Model, you will begin to notice increases in your student engagement.  When we provide our students with challenges, with activities that are relevant to their lives, when learning is rigorous and based on inquiry-driven study, when students are able to apply their learning in collaborative ways, when we work to incorporate more of the HSE21 Best Practice Model we will see increases in student engagement.  In fact, if we work towards truly relevant and rigorous study students will not only be engaged, but actually will be empowered to take their learning to levels that we can’t possibly imagine!

As we approach the end of the year, take some time to reflect on things you have tried that have been new.  What activities have led to increased levels of engagement?  What ways have you been able to get a kid truly excited about what they are learning?  Now, think ahead – how can you take the things that have been successful and expand on them for next school year?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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