By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
When we consider some features of a “good student”, we might think of someone who uses a quiet voice and raises their hand, or someone who comes to class organized, turns their work in on time, and always has a pen and paper. But one problem with the attributes on this short list is that none of them address learning! While some may enhance the learning process, most of these characteristics are actually about behavioral compliance. Which prompts me to ask: how much of in-person school is actually about compliance, rather than engaging in learning?
Compliance is the act of conforming, yielding, adhering to cultural norms, and cooperation or obedience. Compliance is focused on a mindset of having power over students, rather than empowering them. And whether we’ve recognized it or not, in-person learning is dominated by compliance-oriented structures which often mimic the behaviors of engagement. We structure how students enter, exit, and move throughout the building, we structure where they sit, how they sit, when they can go to the bathroom or eat food. Let me be clear — we need to structure many elements of student interaction in schools to create a safe and productive learning environment, but we often confuse the results of compliance with engagement. Or at least, we used to.
COVID changed all of that. As school doors closed and students’ laptops and tablets dinged with notifications, educators quickly saw how compliance gave us a false-positive on engagement. Without the same physical constructs, the social construct that motivates compliance disappeared, and one by one so did our students. Muted, video off, not present in the chat, missing synchronous calls, submitting late or incomplete online assignments — as students disengage from school during remote learning, educators are overwhelmed, disoriented, and discontented. This isn’t what anyone has signed up for.
But COVID hasn’t given us any problems we didn’t already have. So our challenge is to redesign what engagement looks like, what it feels like, and what it takes to get kids onboard — because engagement is everything.
Pillars of engagement
In our work across schools, we’ve come to see three pillars of student engagement: academic, intellectual, and social-emotional. While many attributes of these pillars are organically supported during in-person learning, they all must be explicitly pursued during times of remote or blended learning.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink explains that for adults in the workplace, intrinsic motivation is nurtured by three elements: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And in fact, the same is true for students — with scaffolding, of course! Working within Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), learning is enhanced when kids can find Flow, which Csikszentmihalyi describes as a state in which people are so involved in what they’re doing that nothing else seems to matter. These three theories work together to illustrate the engagement that empowers students to take responsibility for themselves and their learning in all circumstances.
Pillar 1: Academic engagement
Academic engagement is the type of engagement that is required for students to complete their academic tasks. Tapping into executive functioning skills, academic engagement is all about helping kids to show up, stay with it, and stick the landing. Teachers know that kids can’t learn if they aren’t in school — the same is true if they aren’t logging on, can’t find their Zoom link, or lost their password, again. Many executive functioning skills like working memory, cognitive memory, and inhibitory control create major obstacles for students who want to do well, but have such a difficult time regulating their behavior that they aren’t able to hang in long enough to let the learning process work.
Especially during these challenging times — and, let’s be honest, during non-pandemic times as well — our students will be better off when we create deliberate structures, procedures, rituals, and routines to support them. To develop specific strategies, first consider what types executive functioning skills are students struggling with. Is it planning? Working memory? Time management? Is it self-control or initiative? If we can pinpoint where or how students are struggling, we can design aligned strategies to help them cultivate these skills.
Pillar 2: Intellectual engagement
Once students are showing up and staying with their classes, it better be worth their while! If they perceive our content to be dull, or find our assignments to be too easy or too hard, they won’t stick around for long. Creating opportunities for intellectual engagement is essential to reeling in students’ interests, gifts, and talents. Intrinsic or internal motivation is a very difficult thing to cultivate in someone else — but through personal challenges, purposeful tasks, and propelling curiosity, we can trick our students into learning while they’re having fun surfing the internet, or playing games.
First, we must think about ensuring that our assignments are differentiated and are creating a purposeful challenge for students at every level. When kids can hit that just right instructional challenge, they’ll keep working to reach their goal — just like they do in video games, sports, and other hobbies. We increase the likelihood that students will stay engaged when we can help them to make real-world connections, pick and choose elements of the assignments they complete, and when we propel their curiosity by creating opportunities for advancement, acknowledgement, and future challenges.
Pillar 3: Social-emotional engagement
Some say the term “social distancing” was a mistake, and that instead, it should have been “physically distant, socially connected”. The reality is that while educators view academics as a school’s main priority, socialization is a huge factor in what brings students to the school building everyday. Social-emotional connections seem to come naturally between students in peer groups as well as between students and teachers during in-person learning. But online, there are far fewer opportunities to bump into someone, stop by their classroom, or check in with them in the hallway. These are critical moments of social interaction. And for young children and adolescents, these moments aren’t just about making them feel happy or have fun — they actually help to shape identity.
As educators, we must consider strategic ways to increase student-to-teacher relationship-building outside of the virtual walls of the classroom, giving students a place to connect, ask questions, and share openly. Additionally, we can create opportunities for students to engage with other students without tackling academic concepts. Especially when the school year is marked by massive interruptions, mask wearing that covers up facial features, and months of isolation, students need moments where they can just be with other kids.
Engagement can seem elusive, especially when all of our interactions are mediated by the digital world, literally boxing us in. But we can’t let these challenges get the best of us. Our current circumstances can help reveal what true student engagement looks like, when not limited by the components of in-person compliance. As you explore new possibilities, bring a colleague along for the ride. It’s not just the students who are isolated and struggling to get and stay engaged. Each of these pillars applies to us as adults as well as to our students.