I was recently given an article called “Four (Secret) Keys to Student Engagement.” I was, of course, excited right away because the title had the words “Secret Keys” and that sounds super cool. Plus, all teachers want to have students who are more engaged so if these authors had the secret keys to pull that off, I was in.
The article turned out to be really interesting. The authors, Robyn Jackson and Allison Zmuda, explored the difference between having students who are merely compliant, and students who are truly engaged. Compliant students are easy. They are the students who do their work quietly, follow directions well, participate when there is little risk, and are easy to manage. Engaged students are quite different though. Jackson and Zmuda describe them like this: “Engaged learners tend to focus on the learning and share their thoughts unprompted… questions that are personally relevant or that require teasing out ambiguity fascinate them… they take risks… they are not afraid to try something new… they question everything and they’ll follow an idea even if it takes them outside the parameters of an assignment.”
The article went on to give real-life examples of students who were merely compliant instead of truly engaged. With each of the students mentioned, the authors proposed a few changes (known as “Secret Keys” to us insiders) that could take place in the classroom in order to foster engagement. They even organized these keys with a little alliteration: Clarity, Context, Culture, and Challenge.
As I read the article, I thought about Joseph. Joseph is a student of mine who is absolutely compliant. He’s super easy to have in class: he does exactly what he’s asked to do, turns in his work on time, and is always ready with an answer when I call on him in. He’s compliant… but he’s not engaged.
Joseph is doing his work but he’s not asking big questions. He’s participating when called on but he’s not taking risks that might cause him to fail. He’s going through the motions and “doing school” but his learning is limited because I haven’t been doing my job well.
Jackson and Zmuda say it like this: “If we want to grow capacity in our students, unearth student talents, dreams, and aspirations; and instill perseverance through a focus on doing hard work, learning from mistakes, and revising one’s work, we need to design classroom practices around securing real engagement.” I haven’t done this very well for Joseph and so tomorrow I’ll try a few new things. I’ll start the Photoshop lesson by having students find some examples (outside of the graphic design industry) in which image editing could be useful. I will have them use these examples to articulate their own answer to the “why does this stuff matter?” question. I’ll also find a few “clients” around campus who need some graphic design help. Perhaps a club or a class that needs a poster or a brochure made. I’ll connect students with these clients so that they can try some real work. I’ll push Joseph and his classmates to take risks, I’ll share stories of my own design disasters and how I’m learning from those experiences.
I know these are small steps, but they are steps. Maybe I’ll fail, but I’ll fail well and I’ll grow from the failure.
Shhhh… Don’t tell anyone but I think that’s one of the secret keys.