Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, has conducted extensive research on what makes people happy in their work and life. He and his colleagues interviewed thousands of people. From the work one of his conclusions is that people who are engaged in their work or life are more likely to express a higher degree of happiness. People who are happy are generally people who are engaged. He writes:
The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life. (see page 31 in Flow)
In my conversations with teachers, many of them want to talk about how to more effectively engage their students in classroom work. It seems to me it’s a critical question to explore.
Let’s think about a typical day in many schools across America. While I don’t claim to have visited them all, I have visited many schools in my teaching and administrative career, and worked in eight different schools. A typical day might find most students in grades 6-12 moving from class to class, day after day, and year after year. Many of their classes are the same length of time, requiring them to learn content and practice skills that they don’t find particularly relevant. They take quizzes, tests, write papers, and participate in discussions. All of these tasks are repeated day-in and day-out with little break in routine. They also have to rapidly adjust from using one type of learning style in math class to a different learning style in history class. This requires students to adapt to the varied teaching styles of their teachers. Most classes are not connected or integrated in any way. This predictable routine is duplicated year-after-year with the same type of classes.
Is it any wonder that students have a hard time engaging in school or that their teachers worry about how to engage them in the learning?
In his book, Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work, Philip Schlechty writes about the strategies teachers can use to engage students in their studies.
he outlines a motivational framework for improving student performance by improving the quality of the work teachers design for students. (Schlechty’s website)
On his website he shares a design template teachers can use to plan out a lesson that will maximize the possibility for engaging students in the work. Not unlike planning a lesson with Understanding by Design, I think Schlechty offers an interesting template for teachers to use. I like his emphasis on affiliation, affirmation, choice, novelty and variety, and authenticity. His motivational framework asks the teacher to reflect on the meaning and relevance of the lesson being designed.
In his book, he defines engagement as students…
- attending to the tasks they are asked to engage with
- committing to the tasks regardless of the rewards
- persisting in completing the tasks regardless of their difficulty
- finding meaning and value in the tasks they are asked to engage with
In his Educational Leadership article, The Architecture of Ownership, Adam Fletcher writes about taking the idea of student engagement in learning to another level which he refers to as student ownership of learning. In his model for student ownership of learning he sees students fulfilling a series of roles as designed by the teacher. They are:
- students as planners
- students as teachers
- students as professional development partners
- students as decision makers
Fletcher believes that if school leaders and teachers design learning with these four student roles in mind, they are more likely to promote an environment in which students are owners of the learning. The assumption, which I believe the research supports, is that when students own their learning they are more likely to be engaged in it in ways that Schlechty describes in his book.
Can we be satisfied with anything less that full ownership and engagement of all our students? I think not. So our task is to design meaningful, relevant, authentic, and varied and novel curricula. If we want our students to leave school having developed a passion for learning and interests worth exploring, then we better think seriously about how engaged they are in the work we give them.