Archive for December, 2013

Student Engagement

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In education, student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education. Generally speaking, the concept of “student engagement” is predicated on the belief that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and that learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise “disengaged.” Stronger student engagement or improved student engagement are common instructional objectives expressed by educators.

In many contexts, however, student engagement may also refer to the ways in which school leaders, educators, and other adults might “engage” students more fully in the governance and decision-making processes in school, in the design of programs and learning opportunities, or in the civic life of their community. For example, many schools survey students to determine their views on any number of issues, and then use the survey findings to modify policies or programs in ways that honor or respond to student perspectives and concerns. Students may also create their own questions, survey their peers, and then present the results to school leaders or the school board to advocate for changes in programs or policies. Some schools have created alternative forms of student governance, “student advisory committees,” student appointments to the school board, and other formal and informal ways for students to contribute to the governance of a school or advise superintendents, principals, and local policy makers. These broader forms of “student engagement” can take a wide variety of forms—far too many to extensively catalog here. Yet a few illustrative examples include school-supported volunteer programs and community-service requirements (engaging students in public service and learning through public service), student organizing (engaging students in advocacy, community organizing, and constructive protest), and any number of potential student-led groups, forums, presentations, and events (engaging students in community leadership, public speaking, and other activities that contribute to “positive youth development“). For a related discussion, see student voice.

In education, the term student engagement has grown in popularity in recent decades, most likely resulting from an increased understanding of the role that certain intellectual, emotional, behavioral, physical, and social factors play in the learning process and social development. For example, a wide variety of research studies on learning have revealed connections between so-called “non-cognitive factors” or “non-cognitive skills” (e.g., motivation, interest, curiosity, responsibility, determination, perseverance, attitude, work habits, self-regulation, social skills, etc.) and “cognitive” learning results (e.g., improved academic performance, test scores, information recall, skill acquisition, etc.). The concept of student engagement typically arises when educators discuss or prioritize educational strategies and teaching techniques that address the developmental, intellectual, emotional, behavioral, physical, and social factors that either enhance or undermine learning for students.

It should be noted that educators may hold different views on student engagement, and it may be defined or interpreted differently from place to place. For example, in one school observable behaviors such as attending class, listening attentively, participating in discussions, turning in work on time, and following rules and directions may be perceived as forms of “engagement,” while in another school the concept of “engagement” may be largely understood in terms of internal states such as enthusiasm, curiosity, optimism, motivation, or interest.

While the concept of student engagement seems straightforward, it can take fairly complex forms in practice. The following examples illustrate a few ways in which student engagement may be discussed or addressed in schools:

  • Intellectual engagement: To increase student engagement in a course or subject, teachers may create lessons, assignments, or projects that appeal to student interests or that stimulate their curiosity. For example, teachers may give students more choice over the topics they are asked to write about (so students can choose a topic that specifically interests them) or they may let students choose the way they will investigate a topic or demonstrate what they have learned (some students may choose to write a paper, others may produce short video or audio documentary, and still others may create a multimedia presentation). Teachers may also introduce a unit of study with a problem or question that students need to solve. For example, students might be asked to investigate the causes of a local environmental problem, determine the species of an unknown animal from a few short descriptions of its physical characteristics and behaviors, or build a robot that can accomplish a specific task. In these cases, sparking student curiosity can increase “engagement” in the learning process. For related discussions, see authentic learning, community-based learning, differentiation, personalized learning, project-based learning, and relevance.
  • Emotional engagement: Educators may use a wide variety of strategies to promote positive emotions in students that will facilitate the learning process, minimize negative behaviors, or keep students from dropping out. For example, classrooms and other learning environments may be redesigned to make them more conducive to learning, teachers may make a point of monitoring student moods and asking them how they are feeling, or school programs may provide counseling, peer mentoring, or other services that generally seek to give students the support they need to succeed academically and feel positive, optimistic, or excited about school and learning. Strategies such as advisories, for example, are intended to build stronger relationships between students and adults in a school. The basic theory is that students will be more likely to succeed if at least one adult in the school is meeting with a student regularly, inquiring about academic and non-academic issues, giving her advice, and taking an interest in her out-of-school life, personal passions, future aspirations, and distinct learning challenges and needs.
  • Behavioral engagement: Teachers may establish classroom routines, use consistent cues, or assign students roles that foster behaviors more conducive to learning. For example, elementary school teachers may use cues or gestures that help young students refocus on a lesson if they get distracted or boisterous. The teacher may clap three times or raise a hand, for example, which signals to students that it’s time to stop talking, return to their seats, or begin a new activity. Teachers may also establish consistent routines that help students stay on task or remain engaged during a class. For example, the class may regularly break up into small groups or move their seats into a circle for a group discussion, or the teacher may ask students on a rotating basis to lead certain activities. By introducing variation into a classroom routine, teachers can reduce the monotony and potential disengagement that may occur when students sit in the same seat, doing similar tasks, for extended periods of time. Research on brain-based learning has also provided evidence that variation, novelty, and physical activity can stimulate and improve learning. For a related discussion, see classroom management.
  • Physical engagement: Teachers may use physical activities or routines to stimulate learning or interest. For example, “kinesthetic learning” refers to the use of physical motions and activities during the learning process. Instead of asking students to answer questions aloud, a teacher might ask students to walk up to the chalkboard and answer the question verbally while also writing the answer on the board (in this case, the theory is that students are more likely to remember information when they are using multiple parts of the brain at the same time—i.e., the various parts dedicated to speaking, writing, physical activity, etc.). Teachers may also introduce short periods of physical activity or quick exercises, particularly during the elementary years, to reduce antsy, fidgety, or distracted behaviors. In addition, more schools throughout the United States are addressing the physical needs of students by, for example, offering all students free breakfasts (because disengagement in learning and poor academic performance have been linked to hunger and malnutrition) or starting school later at a later time (because adolescent sleep patterns and needs differ from those of adults, and adolescents may be better able to learn later in the morning).
  • Social engagement: Teachers may use a variety of strategies to stimulate engagement through social interactions. For example, students may be paired or grouped to work collaboratively on projects, or teachers may create academic contests that students compete in—e.g., a friendly competition in which teams of students build robots to complete a specific task in the shortest amount of time. Academic and co-curricular activities such as debate teams, robotics clubs, and science fairs also bring together learning experiences and social interactions. In addition, strategies such as demonstrations of learning or capstone projects may require students to give public presentations of their work, often to panels of experts from the local community, while strategies such as community-based learning or service learning (learning through volunteerism) can introduce civic and social issues into the learning process. In these cases, learning about societal problems, or participating actively in social causes, can improve engagement.
  • Cultural engagement: Schools may take active steps to make students from diverse cultural backgrounds—particularly recently arrived immigrant or refugee students and their families—feel welcomed, accepted, safe, and valued. For example, administrators, teachers, and school staff may provide special orientation sessions for their new-American populations or offer translation services and informational materials translated into multiple languages. Students, families, and local cultural leaders from diverse backgrounds may be asked to speak about their experiences to students and school staff, and teachers may intentionally modify lessons to incorporate the history, literature, arts, and perspectives of the student ethnicities and nationalities represented in their classes. School activities may also incorporate multicultural songs, dances, and performances, while posters, flags, and other educational materials featured throughout the school may reflect the cultural diversity of the students and school community. The general goal of such strategies would be to reduce the feelings of confusion, alienation, disconnection, or exclusion that some students and families may experience, and thereby increase their engagement in academics and school activities. For related discussions, see dual-language education, English-language learnermulticultural education, and voice.

Hidden Curriculum

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Hidden curriculum refers to the unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives that students learn in school. While the “formal” curriculum consists of the courses, lessons, and learning activities students participate in, as well as the knowledge and skills educators intentionally teach to students, the hidden curriculum consists of the unspoken or implicit academic, social, and cultural messages that are communicated to students while they are in school.

The hidden-curriculum concept is based on the recognition that students absorb lessons in school that may or may not be part of the formal course of study—for example, how they should interact with peers, teachers, and other adults; how they should perceive different races, groups, or classes of people; or what ideas and behaviors are considered acceptable or unacceptable. The hidden curriculum is described as “hidden” because it is usually unacknowledged or unexamined by students, educators, and the wider community. And because the values and lessons reinforced by the hidden curriculum are often the accepted status quo, it may be assumed that these “hidden” practices and messages don’t need to change—even if they are contributing to undesirable behaviors and results, whether it’s bullying, conflicts, or low graduation and college-enrollment rates, for example.

It should be noted that a hidden curriculum can reinforce the lessons of the formal curriculum, or it can contradict the formal curriculum, revealing hypocrisies or inconsistencies between a school’s stated mission, values, and convictions and what students actually experience and learn while they are in school. For example, a school may publicly claim in its mission or vision statement that it’s committed to ensuring that all students succeed academically, but a review of its performance data may reveal significant racial or socioeconomic discrepancies when it comes to test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of success. And because what is not taught in school can sometimes be as influential or formative as what is taught, the hidden curriculum also extends to subject areas, values, and messages that are omitted from the formal curriculum and ignored, overlooked, or disparaged by educators.

While the hidden curriculum in any given school encompasses an enormous variety of potential intellectual, social, cultural, and environmental factors—far too many to extensively catalog here—the following examples will help to illustrate the concept and how it might play out in schools:

  • Cultural expectations: The academic, social, and behavioral expectations established by schools and educators communicate messages to students. For example, one teacher may give tough assignments and expect all students to do well on those assignments, while another teacher may give comparatively easy assignments and habitually award all students passing grades even when their work quality is low. In the high-expectations class, students may learn much more and experience a greater sense of accomplishment, whereas students in the low-expectations class may do just enough work to get by and be comparatively uninterested in the lessons they are being taught. Similarly, schools may unconsciously hold students from different cultural backgrounds—for example, minorities, recently arrived immigrant students, or students with disabilities—to lower academic expectations, which may have unintended or negative effects on their academic achievement, educational aspirations, or feelings of self-worth.
  • Cultural values: The values promoted by schools, educators, and peer groups, such as cliques, may also convey hidden messages. For example, some schools may expect and reward conformity while punishing nonconformity, whereas other schools might celebrate and even encourage nonconformity. In one school, students may learn that behaviors such as following the rules, acting in expected ways, and not questioning adults are rewarded, while in other schools students learn that personal expression, taking initiative, or questioning authority are valued and rewarded behaviors. Similarly, if biased or prejudicial behaviors and statements are tolerated in a school, students may embrace the values that are accepted or modeled—either explicitly or implicitly—by adults and other students.
  • Cultural perspectives: How schools recognize, integrate, or honor diversity and multicultural perspectives may convey both intentional and unintended messages. For example, some schools may expect recently arrived immigrant students and their families to “assimilate” into American culture—for example, by requiring the students to speak English in school at all times or by not providing translated informational materials or other specialized assistance. Other schools, however, may actively integrate or celebrate the multicultural diversity of the student body by inviting students and parents to share stories about their home country, for example, or by posting and publishing informational materials in multiple languages. In one school, non-American cultures may be entirely ignored, while in another they may be actively celebrated, with students and their families experiencing feelings of either isolation or inclusion as a result.
  • Curricular topics: The subjects that teachers choose for courses and lessons may convey different ideological, cultural, or ethical messages. For example, the history of the United States may be taught in a wide variety of ways using different historical examples, themes, and perspectives. A teacher may choose to present the history of the world or the United States from the perspective of the European settlers and explorers, or she may choose to present it from the perspective of displaced Native Americans or colonized African and Asian peoples. In the first case, teaching American history from a strictly Eurocentric perspective would likely minimize or ignore the history and suffering of Native Americans (a common educational practice in past decades). Curricular topics may also often intersect with, or be influenced by, political, ideological, and moral differences that are broadly contentious in American society—e.g., teaching evolution in science courses, multiculturalism in social studies, or sex education in health courses.
  • Teaching strategies: The way that schools and teachers choose to educate students can convey both intentional and unintended messages. For example, if students earn good grades or extra credit for turning in homework on time, listening attentively, participating during class, raising their hands, and generally doing things they are told to do, the students may learn that compliance is important and that certain behaviors will be academically rewarded and allowed to compensate for learning deficiencies. On the other hand, instructional strategies such as project-based learning or community-based learning, to name just two of many possible options, may communicate specific messages—for example, that skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, and attributes such as persistence, resourcefulness, and self-motivation, are valued and important (in the case of project-based learning) or that being informed about and involved in local issues are valued and important (in the case of community-based learning).
  • School structures: The way that a school or academic program is organized and operated can convey messages to students. For example, if non-English-speaking students are largely separated from their peers for most of the school day, or students with physical or learning disabilities are enrolled in specialized programs that are relegated to windowless classrooms in the basement, these organizational decisions may have unintended effects on the students’ sense of cultural belonging, self-worth, or academic potential. In addition, the structure of a school program can also mirror or reinforce cultural biases or prejudices. For example, students of color and students from lower-income households are often disproportionately represented in lower-level courses, and special-education programs may inadvertently reinforce some of the social stigmas that children and adults with disabilities experience outside of school.
  • Institutional rules: The formal rules in a school may communicate a wide variety of intentional and unintentional messages to students. For example, some schools require students to wear school uniforms, some ban certain types of attire (short skirts, clothing with images and language considered to be inappropriate), and others have very liberal or permissive clothing policies. While the intent of formal school rules and policies is to tell students how they are expected to behave, the degree to which they are enforced or unenforced, or the ways in which they are enforced, may communicate messages the undermine or contradict their stated intent. In this case, stricter dress-code policies may communicate that students will be judged on appearances both inside and outside of school, while looser policies might communicate that they will be judged on other qualities.

Reform

Generally speaking, the concept of a hidden curriculum in schools has become more widely recognized, discussed, and addressed by school leaders and educators in recent decades. Ideas such as “white privilege,” equity, voice, and multicultural education—to name just a few—have arguably led to greater tolerance, understanding, and even celebration of racial,cultural. physical, and cognitive differences in public schools. In addition, school communities, educators, and students are more likely than in past decades to actively and openly reflect on or question their own assumptions, biases, and tendencies, either individually or as a part of a formal school policy, program, or instructional activity. For example, topics such a bullying and diversity are now regularly discussed in public schools, and academic lessons, assignments, readings, and materials are now more likely to include multicultural perspectives, topics, and examples. Political and social pressures, including factors such as the increased scrutiny that has resulted from online media and social networking, may also contribute to greater awareness of unintended lessons and messages in schools. For example, harmful, hurtful, or unhealthy student behaviors are now regularly surfaced on social-networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, which often leads to greater awareness of student behaviors or social trends.

That said, a “hidden curriculum” is, by nature, obscured or unacknowledged, which means that many of its lessons and messages are difficult to perceive or measure for any number of reasons. For example, long-standing policies may become so deeply embedded in a school culture that people simply forget to question them, or a school faculty that prides itself on celebrating multicultural diversity may find it emotionally difficult to acknowledge and openly discuss behaviors that might contradict that self-perceived identity. For this reason, every school will always have some form of hidden curriculum.