According to a Gallup Student Poll (2015) of public school children, 47% report being “disengaged” at school. Unfortunately, this statistic doesn’t shock me. Too many classrooms are not set up with the intention of engaging students.
Student engagement is “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught.” As a teacher, it’s my job to engage student curiosity, interest and passion in relation to the curriculum. I cannot do that effectively if I place myself at the center of learning and ask students to focus on me. A class designed to engage learners must place the students at the center of the learning happening.
I realize this goes far beyond simply shifting away from a lecture model. It means really rethinking our entire approach to teaching. I experienced a moment of clarity as I prepared to introduce a large scale project last month…
My students were about to start an RSA animation project focused on a genocide of their choice. I was preparing a Google Document with an explanation of what RSA animation is, detailed directions for creating an RSA film, and suggested roles for students. As I looked at my detailed explanation of the project, I asked myself, “Why do I need to tell students how to do this? Why not let students figure it out? Wouldn’t figuring it out be more interesting and engaging?”
The truth is I didn’t need to teach my 9th and 10th-grade students what an RSA animated film is or how to create one. When students leave high school, they will be expected to successfully navigate myriad challenges and novel situations. If I tell them how to complete a project, then 1) they haven’t had to struggle, problem solve, or learn how to learn and 2) I’ve only shown them my way (not necessarily the best way) of completing this project.
Instead of giving them access to that Google Document full of information and instructions, I asked students to investigate RSA animation to find out what it is and how they are created. Then groups worked together to write a project proposal explaining how they were going to execute this project. It required them to think through the purpose, strategy, and process before beginning their work. It asked them to do the work that most teachers do for them.
I spent time with each group reviewing the proposals before they began their work. From then on, it was up to them to pull the parts of the project together–research, script, storyboarding, filming, editing, and publishing. They struggled and they problem solved. They were frustrated and they were excited. It was a challenge but, at the end, almost every group had a completed film.
The finished products are a testament to how successful students can be when they are given a chance to lead the learning happening in the classroom.
I’ve come to realize that if I tell my students how to do their work, I remove the incentive for them to really engage, think critically, and problem solve. It’s so important that students learn how to learn and navigate unfamiliar tasks and challenges.