Local Research



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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2008 Montana Heritage Project


Oral history video available

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Project Director
Michael L. Umphrey

Mike Umphrey hopes that lots of teachers in Montana will engage students in learning about the people in their communities this year. To help make that possible, the Montana Heritage Project, which he directs, has created a 40-minute DVD--"When History Speaks"--to show students what they need to know to get started on oral history projects.

He believes that doing oral interview projects helps teachers and students think in fresh ways about the power of learning. “Kids--all of us really--need something that shakes us awake. We need to be stopped by wonder. That’s more likely to happen when we head out into the community and begin asking questions about what’s really happening.

“How is the drought affecting people? What happened in droughts in the past? What do people think is going to happen now?

“What’s the worst thing that ever happened here? Was it a flood or a fire or a train wreck or a war? How did it happen? What did people do? Were there any heros? What were their names? How did they end up?”

“What are those big old buildings sitting empty down the street? Who built them, and for what? Who put up the money? Who opposed them? What happened next?

“When we go out into the world and start asking people real questions, we start to wake up and so do they. If there’s one thing that makes oral history a dramatic teaching technique, it’s the potential it has for waking people up to wonder.”

“When History Speaks” was produced by the Montana Heritage Project in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society. The video covers the basics of oral history: planning a project, doing preliminary research, forming a set of questions, choosing equipment, conducting an interview, using a microphone effectively, and transcribing and archiving final products.

The Montana Heritage Project is a community of high school teachers committed to passing on to the next generation of Montanans a living heritage: our love of the people and landscapes here, our commitment to learning and thinking, and our desire to use education to serve society. Through partnerships with the Library of Congress and the Montana Historical Society, the Project began in 1995.

Oral history projects allow students to make important contributions to the history of Montana and to their own communities, and the understanding that they are doing real work of enduring worth is motivational for many young people. But a good oral history project is more than just recording the memories of elders, as important as that may be.

“A good oral history project is about asking questions, and then asking better questions, “ Umphrey said. “It is about searching for answers, and then searching for better answers.” Until we have a question, he said, all the information in the world is just noise. 

“We become more intelligent by improving our questions, figuring out better strategies for getting answers and learning more about where we are and what is going on all around us. Well done oral history projects let wise teachers guide young people into all the little secrets of being intelligent.”

“Once we have real questions, we pursue answers everywhere we can. We read old newspapers, magazine articles, letters, and books. We talk to people. We go places and walk around, looking and thinking. We follow links on web sites.”

Umphrey is quick to dispel the misconception that oral history can replace written history. “When I hear young people saying such things as ‘this was a lot more interesting than reading dusty, old books,’ I wince,” he said. “Researchers form their questions through their reading. They find partial answers and new questions through reading. They think by reading. Interviewing doesn’t replace reading, it helps us become better readers.”

“Teachers engage young people in oral history to engage them in real life. We focus on local places because that’s where the world actually exists, but there’s nothing provincial about what we are doing. 

“We hope to wake kids up to a fundamental reality: our towns and neighborhoods and families are a story--a complex order held together by ideas and knowledge. We want them to understand that the elder before them has been a participant in that story, and that the story could always have turned out differently.

“From there, they see more clearly that they are themselves participants in the story. We want them to see that the story is always changing, and that we are all linked together in it, and that something dramatic is always just about to happen, and how it turns out is not yet known.

“We want them to understand that each of us has a role, each of us has a part. Important issues are at stake. It really matters what we do, and what we do is based on what we think. That’s why we ask questions and learn things.”

How do oral history projects fit in the accountability movement that’s swept through schools? “I get asked that everywhere I speak,” said Umphrey. “It’s easy to answer. Our kids do original research, they read significant texts, they interview people, they analyze the information, and then write about their findings and present it to the public. That’s real accountability. Our motto is ‘Keep it real.’

“I don’t have any problem with tests--I tested a lot when I taught--but tests are quick and relatively low-quality measures. They’re okay to set minimums and to get some simple data quickly, but if we want kids to learn deeply and to demonstrate complex skills, we need to go way beyond paper and pencil tests.

“If you want your kid to play oboe in an orchestra, you wouldn’t be content with a music teacher who gave a paper and pencil test about Bach or about bass clefs. You want to hear the symphony--the performance.

“Well, our kids perform. They read and listen and then they write and speak. They create digital stories that they present to the community. If you want to know how well they’re learning, come to the show! Give them something that really helps: an appreciative audience!

To order the “When History Speaks” DVD, visit the Heritage Project’s Online Store.


Posted by David Hume on 06/01 at 06:47 PM
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2007 Montana Heritage Project


The ALERT processes: student research in the digital age

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The ALERT processes lie at the heart of most Heritage Projects.

By introducing large and enduring questions during the initial phase of immersion in a topic and then by reflecting on new information and experiences in the light of those questions throughout the project, local studies can be linked to the enduring issues around which good curricula are organized.

By upholding high standards for the writing that undergirds all final reports and presentations, student work is kept accountable to district, state and national standards.

Heritage Projects are research and writing projects appropriate to a digital age that calls on students to add original research to the published record, rather than copying and pasting from previous research.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/01 at 06:48 AM
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2006 Montana Heritage Project
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