School change: The engagement factor

by Steve Wyckoff on May 7, 2010

The idea of engaging students has long been an interest of mine. I suspect it goes back years to my first interaction with Phil Schlechty who enlightened me on the different types of engagement. Phil talked about four kinds of engagement; authentic, ritualistic, passive compliant, and rebellious.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this lately as I listened to the discussions about “motivating” our students on state standardized tests. We use everything from pep rallies to brides, for the kids and their parents, in order to raise test scores.

That’s what got me back thinking about Phil and his work. Over the years I’ve tried to motivate several individuals, with the appropriate skills and knowledge, to develop a survey that measures authentic engagement. There are many “engagement” surveys out there, but to the best of my knowledge they all measure ritualistic engagement.

So what’s the difference? Ritualistic engagement is characterized by stuff like the student always being on time the class, always turning in their homework, paying attention during class, etc. Authentic engagement is a much different animal. Students who are authentically engaged get “lost” in their work. They are so into what they’re doing that they lose track of time.

Csikszentmihalyi in his research called it “flow.” But there is a world of difference between true authentic engagement and pretending to be authentically engaged. As I’ve written before, I have the opportunity every semester to speak to almost 200 education students at the University of Kansas. I’ve done it for nine years. In each of those nine years I discussed the difference between authentic engagement and ritualistic engagement with the students.

I always end this discussion by asking them how many of them were authentically engaged on a regular basis in high school. I’ve never had more than 5% or 6% of the students say they were authentically engaged. But when I asked them how many of them had their teachers convinced they were authentically engaged, every hand goes up, and the room breaks out in laughter.

The point of this? If you’re truly going to make real school change you have to start by authentically engaging every student! Our teachers do a wonderful job of convincing kids to at least act like they care about the nonsense we do in schools. If we were doing things that were meaningful and engaging to the students, they wouldn’t have to pretend. – Steve Wyckoff

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