Engagement is a buzzword commonly used in education these days, but is it really anything new? Haven’t we always wanted our students engaged in our lessons? Wouldn’t we all agree that parents need to be engaged in their child’s education for the best chance at success? As educational leaders, don’t we consistently seek out ways for stakeholders to be engaged in the “system”.
Sadly, engagement hasn’t always been a priority. The learning process has often taken a backseat to the product. We’ve measured success solely through a cursory glance at report card marks or the crossing of a stage on graduation day. We’ve assessed job performance based on the amount of curriculum covered. These products haven’t always taken into account the more important journey to reach these milestones.
We sometimes forget to ask the important questions. Are students really learning in my classroom? How do I know? What motivates my teenage child to get up in the morning and go to school? How much choice are we offering high school students when it comes to choosing courses that truly interest them?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has a number of definitions for “engagement”:
- an arrangement to meet or be present at a specified time and place
- a job or period of employment especially as a performer
- emotional involvement or commitment
- the state of being in gear
- a hostile encounter between military forces
In order to determine whether students are engaged, we can take into account a few of these definitions.
First, do students show up? Do they attend school (i.e. physically present), and when they do, are they “present” mentally and emotionally?
Second, are students emotionally involved? Do they care about what they’re learning? Are we instilling a passion for learning? Someone offered me the following quote recently (attributed to W.B. Yeats): “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Are we so busy filling pails that we don’t have time to light fires?
Third, are students “in gear”? In education, we talk about Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, but being “in gear” speaks more to meaningful learning and real-life learning than it does to finding that optimal zone of a student’s learning capabilities.
Sometimes engagement also means some conflict is involved. Ideally, the conflict does not involve hostility, but I’ll be honest, I’d take hostility over apathy any day. Unfortunately, some people only get truly involved when they are upset about something. If we had that level of engagement consistently, the education system would be better for it.
As for students being truly engaged, I was delighted to be invited out to the Quesnel River narrows near Likely this past week to watch students actively involved in their learning. A group of students from Columneetza Secondary and Williams Lake Secondary were taking part in a three-day excursion called “Students Working and Learning in Their Watershed”. These students, along with their teachers Nara Riplinger and Laura Kaufman, were involved in projects related to salmon gamete collection, fish dissection, First Nations fisheries discussions, and art in the watershed.
The students harvested Chinook salmon gametes from two females and two males. Of the eight thousand eggs they fertilized at the Quesnel River Research Centre, one thousand will be taken to elementary schools for the “Salmonids in the Classroom” program. A couple of Columneetza students will be joining Scout Island’s Sue Hemphill to teach the youngsters about Chinook.
The program is supported by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, The Scout Island Nature Centre, the Quesnel River Research Centre and the University of Northern BC. On the day I showed up, they were also joined by the students from Likely School and some Grade Seven students from Vanderhoof. The coolest thing about this hands-on program is that some students who have participated in past years have changed their career aspirations and paths because of the program’s impact. Now that’s engagement!
As for another level of engagement, School District No. 27 is hoping to engage all of our stakeholders as the “Initial Options Report” is released this coming Tuesday, September 25th at 6:30pm at the School District office at 350 Second Avenue North in Williams Lake. Following the release of this report, the Board of Education will be offering many opportunities for feedback over the next three months before making decisions in January 2013. For more information and for some of the public consultation dates, you can click on “What is Happening and When?” or visit the District website. A full consultation schedule along with the full report will be released this coming Tuesday.
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