Are We Really Trying to Engage Students?

Back in January, I had the chance to attend Educon, a meeting of some of the most progressive educational minds at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. While there, one question challenged me more than any other: Is there a fundamental difference between engaging and empowering students?

It’s an important question given the results of the 2013 Gallup Student Poll, which showed that our efforts to engage students just aren’t working. In fact, levels of student engagement drop consistently for every year that kids spend in our schools. While 80% of primary and 60% of middle school students report being engaged by their studies, by the time they reach high school only 40% of the kids in our classes remain motivated.

Stew in that for a minute, would you?

Despite our best efforts, six of every ten students in our high schools are simply sitting in seats waiting for the bell to ring—and more importantly, for the year to end. School is a chore to them, not a place to discover and to grow and to question. “The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure,” writes Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.

For me, “engaging students” feels like an attempt to trick kids into believing that our content and our questions really are worth studying. Isn’t trying to “build buy-in” or “get kids excited” about the things that we do in our classes a tacit admission that we know the lessons we teach are boring? Worse yet, isn’t trying to “build buy-in” or “get kids excited” about the things we do in our classes inherently disrespectful to students—suggesting in some way that our motivations matter more than theirs?

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What if we worked to empower—instead of engage—our students? What if we collectively identified the knowledge and skills that students needed in order to study their interests and passions? What if our instructional priority was to develop learners who could demonstrate agency—asking their own questions and finding their own answers? Is it possible to develop flexible classrooms centered on meaningful student-driven projects and still meet the expectations in our required curricula?

I’m not sure. But I know it’s time for us to try something different. Our cheap attempts to engage students just aren’t working anymore.


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