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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:
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:
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.