Student Engagement: Why Are We Learning This?

I’ve had some questions both here on the blog and in my classroom about the challenge of getting and keeping students engaged.  Rigid discipline and strong armed guidance have been mentioned as a possible necessity, given middle schoolers who may be behind in reading and writing skills. While this seems like an inevitability to many teachers, I don’t believe that it’s necessary.

It is my unequivocal contention that children will not only learn, but they will be eager and willing to learn regardless of their background, socioeconomic status or academic level. However, what is needed to make this happen is a complete shift in the way educators present their material. If school and education are presented from the outset as a service to the student rather than an obligation they must fulfill to “succeed,” there is no need to coerce or keep students in line. Let me explain.

If I, as an English teacher, greet my students on the first day of class with a lecture on how important it is that they learn the curriculum and do well on their tests in order to pass the class and go to the next grade and graduate, I have already lost most of my students, except those few who are innately competitive and/or under tremendous pressure to succeed from parents. Even those students will be much more excited and eager to learn if I present the whole matter differently.

If instead, I talk about why English is necessary for students in their own life, why grammar and poetry and fluid prose are essential for their own progress, how being able to communicate effectively can make the difference between getting that guy or girl or that job or that position on the team, then my students no longer see it as a chore but as a valuable tool.

The same goes for a History teacher. Reeling off a list of dates and important events and emphasizing the need to memorize those dry and distant facts can hardly be considered effective in engaging students, however much those facts are exciting and essential to the teacher.  If instead, that teacher focuses for a moment on the purpose of history, on the incredible insight it offers to where all of us as human beings have traveled, have learned, have grown, the mistakes we’ve made, the wars we’ve fought, the tragedies we’ve survived and the heroism we have witnessed, then he or she makes the subject come alive for their students.  Again, the crucial step is to connect that living subject to the lives and interests and purpose of our students. Why should students care about the human saga? How will it serve them directly? If we take the trouble to explain how history can help us learn from past mistakes without having to make them ourselves, gain a perspective on the various cultures and religions and ethnicities we encounter in our lives, understand the political and economic processes that govern whether or not we prosper, then which student wouldn’t want to equip themselves with this knowledge?

Each subject has fundamental value in improving our lives directly, whether it’s math to figure out what we should be paid or should be paying, or science to figure out how the world works and how we can impact it, or music or art to learn self expression or p.e. to understand teamwork and cooperation. Sometimes as content teachers we become so wrapped up in knowledge for knowledge’s sake that we forget this fact. Yet, it is the single most important fact we can impart to our students, the importance of our subject in directly improving their lives. If we can effectively answer the question “Why are we doing this?” with such an explanation rather than “because its on the test” then engagement will never be an issue.