Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Dark Side of Student Engagement

By Claus von Zastrow on September 2, 2009

If we're not careful, "engagement" will become just another cure-all, like charters or vouchers. The idea is far too important to leave to this fate.

Engagement can seem like the holy grail, and I understand why. Teachers in struggling schools are looking for ways to reach disaffected students before they drop out. Many see engagement as an answer to mindless test prep or uninspired teaching. New technologies are sparking students' interest in challenging academic work.

But there's a dark side to much current talk about engagement. For one, it can become yet another stick to beat teachers with. When students violate all standards of behavior, their teachers often catch flak for not engaging them. (Maybe that kid wouldn't have pulled that knife on you if you hadn't been so boring.) Yes, students are much less likely to act out if they are interested in their studies. But calls for more engagement should never drown out serious discussions about school discipline policies. Nor should they distract us from other causes for misbehavior that teachers cannot easily control.

We should also be careful not to confuse engagement with mere entertainment. Like all work, school work does not always offer instant rewards. The ability to delay gratification is an important life skill. There is way more to motivation than engagement.

Rafe Esquith is by all accounts one of the country's most engaging teachers, and his message about motivation and hard work is unequivocal:

I think the absolute key is that learning, the education of a child, is a long process, and we are now in the middle of a fast food society. We want instant everything. We even have books now like Algebra Made Easy and Shakespeare Made Easy. But I want teachers and parents to remember that it’s not easy! To be good at anything—anything!—takes thousands and thousands of hours of patient study....

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