Leading students into engagement

Schools cannot be made great by great teacher performances. They will only be made great by great student performances.

Phillip C. Schlechty, Working on the Work

Phillip Schlechty suggests that the primary role of teachers is leader rather than of facilitator, as favored by constructionists, or coach, as favored by the Coalition of Essential Schools.

I think this is right. A high school teacher’s main problem in this age of mass education is a lack of authentic engagement by students. Once students are engaged, both coaching and facilitating—not to mention lecturing and assigning—can be quite effective.

To get what Schlechty calls “authentic engagement” teachers need to lead. He points out that the work of teachers has more in common with the work of other leadership professionals such as business executives, clergy, and military officers than it does with the work of diagnosticians or physicians. This is helpful to keep in mind as the medicalization of education continues apace.

The real work for teachers comes into focus when we consider the five patterns of engagement that Schlechty describes:

Authentic engagement. The student associates the task with a result or product that has meaning and value for the student, such as reading a book on a topic of personal interest or to get information needed to solve a problem the student is actively trying to solve.

Ritual engagement. The task has little inherent or direct value to the student, but the student associates it with outcomes or results that do have value, as when a student reads a book in order to pass a test.

Passive compliance. The task is done to avoid negative consequences, although the student sees little meaning or value in the tasks themselves.

Retreatism. The student is disengaged from the tasks and does not attempt to comply with the demands of the task, but does not try to disrupt the work or substitute other activities for it.

Rebellion. The student refuses to do the task, tries to disrupt the work, or attempts to substitute other tasks to which he or she is committed in lieu of those assigned by the teacher.

“Authentic” comes to our lips so easily these days that thoughtful people will hesitate before uttering it, but Schlechty’s list is useful nonetheless. Many teachers, even those in very good schools, are content with passive compliance and ritual engagement. On some days, any teacher would be thankful to achieve a class that was ritually engaged. In countless well-managed classrooms most students are well-behaved and busy with productive work with few or no students authentically engaged. Indeed, honor students can learn quite a lot and do quite well on tests with these levels of engagement.

On some days or for some classes, this is no doubt enough. Our world puts lots of demands on us to learn things, and it’s only sane to comply and to get the rituals down. In the last week I needed to learn the controls of an unfamiliar digital camera, figure out how to use a new preloaded syringe to give myself medical injections, gather background on a political leader that circumstances have dictated I will be working with in the near future, and figure out why my website was taking visitors to random pages after they submitted an email form to us. None of this was done with great passion. I complied with my plight and went through the familiar rituals. It’s how we live now.

But as schools trend toward being ritual centers, they anaesthesize those within them. If young people hit the books only because they want to get into good colleges and get high-paying jobs, they may be deaf to the highest ideals of our culture. If students study only to register higher scores on competitive tests, they may be sleepwalking through the sublime realities less distracted travelers encounter in science and literature. And if we--the leaders--spend valuable class time coaching kids to score better on tests and writing assessments, we are contributing to a phony culture where trophies trump accomplishments. We are saying quite clearly that scores matter more than deep learning.

To get kids engaged in real work is a leadership challenge. In fact, getting good performances from others—helping them find their voices--is nearly always a leader’s most important work. Leaders inspire, coach, share information, ensure emotional support, arrange opportunities and resources, provide scaffolding for aspects of the performance that are still too difficult, facilitate associations with peers and mentors, and arrange recognition for accomplishments.

There’s nothing new about any of this, of course. It’s what good teachers have always done.

But we all know that it isn’t always done. We wouldn’t have to visit many classes in a typical high school to see lots of passive compliance.

What intrigues me about heritage teachers who consistently get high quality intellectual products from students is the skill with which they put before students work that engages them. I’ve noted several factors about that place-based research that students have said are important:

1. It is real work. The projects are organized with a final public exhibition as a mission. The need to have a complex finished product by a specified deadline gives the work shape and energizes the participants.

2. The work is important. Students believe they are preserving history that will otherwise be lost, or giving voice to people who would otherwise be silent. They believe this because their teachers and others aren’t shy about telling them what they are doing is important.

3. The work is social. Students get to be part of a team that has a mission—getting ready for a public performance. This gives them a reason for being together and things worth talking about. Since they are dependent on each other for how well things work out, what they do matters. Also, community mentors, parents and grandparents, and outside experts get involved with the work. People like being involved in things that lots of other people are involved in

We know that what students learn is affected by the effort they put into the work at least as much as it is by their intellectual ability. A great deal of attention should be paid to the quality of work that teachers provide. I believe that place-based research projects provide one of the most straightforward ways to engage students in real work—work that is inherently important, work that is inherently social, and work that has natural audiences beyond the classroom—and that heritage projects should be a part of the curriculum in every school.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/31 at 10:56 AM
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