I’ve been thinking a lot about student engagement lately and how to get all students in a class excited to learn. A great lesson introduction, a passionate student-centered teacher, and a classroom environment that encourages risk-taking and freedom of expression are essential ingredients. What else needs to happen?
In a 2007 report on why students drop out of school, Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins categorized all dropouts into four categories. One of these categories he called “fade outs,” a group of people he believed were inclined to drop out because school was not relevant for them. Fade outs are “students who have generally been promoted on time from grade to grade and may even have above grade level skills but at some point become frustrated or bored and stop seeing the reason for coming to school,” Balfanz writes in his report. “Once they reach the legal dropout age they leave, convinced that they can find their way without a high school diploma or that a GED will serve them just as well.” This lack of relevance between a student’s life and what is learned in the classroom can plague lessons and, at its worst, incite students to drop out.
Today our humanities teachers had the morning to discuss student engagement during a two-hour professional development session. We did an activity in which all teachers in our department wrote an answer to this question: What is engagement in the classroom? I loved the responses. “Engagement is getting every student actively induced in the learning process,” wrote one teacher. “Engagement in the classroom is students caring enough about your content to want to actually learn and learn more about it,” wrote another. I put all responses to the question from teachers in a word cloud to better visualize answers. A few words jump out at me. Making, sharing, connecting, participating, connected, actively, working, curiosity, and of course, relevant. For me, relevance is key. Relevance answers the age old question of why do I need to know this? Relevance is key for Robert Balfanz as well. Balfanz writes that “high schools have to actively structure their electives and the themes of the core course to stress the relevance of what is being learned to adult success” if they are to thwart the problem of fade outs. I think one of our teachers summed up the importance of relevancy better than I ever could. “Engagement is relevancy as perceived by the student,” they wrote. For educators, ensuring content is relevant to students’ lives is paramount to making the learning environment an engaging one. Using current events in class, tying content to students’ interests, and giving real-world scenerios for students to study can help bridge the gap between what is purely theoretical and what is relevant.