By Rosemarie Bahr
National project on student engagement finds its teachers and schools that are
answer the school phone, not because they are assigned to, but because they happen by when
it rings; students assume theyre responsible for room arrangements and posters for a
professional day, taking on the tasks without supervision; children often
slip, calling the custodian dad; they clean the art room
just because its messy and remind each other about picking up litter on
the playground; their most frequent comments on the school are that it has a really
safe atmosphere and we are caring here. While it is not unusual for
children to help out in schools, what is unusual is that they apparently simply see what
needs to be done and go ahead and do it. It is an eloquent expression of their sense of
proprietorship in their school." from case study of NS1
||Teachers, parents, students, school administrators all want students to
leave school with a love of learning, a web of good relationships with their peers and
teachers and the skills and knowledge they need for their future in jobs or post-secondary
Some schools are better than others at creating environments
in which students thrive, learn and participate. In November 1998, a group of researchers
from the Office of Research on Educational Policy at McGill University completed a
four-year project in which they examined in detail 10 schools not necessarily the
best in five provinces, looking for the factors that lead students to be engaged in
learning and school life. The schools, educators and students all remain anonymous in the
The most surprising factor researchers found is the
importance of student participation in decision-making in the school. "The extreme
importance of getting at the student perspective," is how Lynn Butler-Kisber
describes what is new in the research. Butler-Kisber, an associate professor at the
Faculty of Education at McGill, is one of the authors of Student Engagement in
Learning and School Life: National Project Report.
A less surprising conclusion was the importance of
relationships between teachers and students. Other relationships are also crucial,
including the relationships between teachers, the relationships between students, and the
ones with parents and the community.
The report also found that the more hands-on the learning,
the more students work on projects with others, the more the students lives are
involved, the less the learning is top-down, the more the students are engaged.
TEACHER MAKES THE YEAR
"Something that really has to hit home for teachers," says Marianna McVey, a
former manager of Central Services for the Ottawa-Carleton Board, "is that you as a
person, not as a teacher, seem to be far more influential on students than what you are
trying to teach them." McVey was one of the many educators across Canada who helped
facilitate the project.
Throughout the study, students talked about their teacher,
not their geography class. They cited a list of traits of engaging teachers. They treat
you like a person, know you as a person, care about you, respect you as a person, have a
sense of humour were phrases students used.
One example of respect was described by a researcher. "I
want us to stop for a while to think about something because I heard some things that make
me unhappy," said a teacher during a sports activity. According to the report, the
teacher, while using her authority, did it in a way that respected the students and
invited them to take part in resolving the issue. Researchers report that respectful
dialogue is the norm at this school. Students do not hesitate to speak up. They raise
their hands if they need more time to complete something, showing that they are part
owners in the pacing of the class. The report notes another benefit: students feel more
ownership of their environment.
In the Ontario high school studied, students defined
"good" teachers as those whose style included humour and who were clear when
lecturing and when outlining their expectations for homework and other assignments.
In the Alberta secondary school, a fairly new junior high in
which a group of 150 students remain together and with the same team of teachers for three
years, two Grade 8 students talked about teachers knowing the students well. One thought
it was helpful, "I guess they do know me well. Kind of I like it. They help me a lot.
They dont really monitor me that much."
That students friend, who told the researcher he was
often in trouble, had a different opinion: "They watch me like a hawk. If you forget
something like an assignment they make you call home...They nag you way too much."
When this school opened, many students did not treat each
other or the teachers with even common courtesy. In fact, there was a "rumble"
on the school grounds the first day of class. The staff decided to model the behaviour
they wanted to see. They stood by the stairways and doorways every morning, greeting
students as they arrived. Gradually the students responded, returning the greetings. The
teachers went on to work with parents and police to help the students realize that lessons
learned in school were also useful outside school.
Alan King, former director of the Social Program Evaluation
Group at Queens University, says, "Being caring and sensitive to kids and
recognizing the times when they are down is extremely important because teachers are part
of that exclusionary process that creates this pool of kids that are unhappy with
school." King is currently doing research on adolescent risk behaviour, which is
profiled in the cover story of this issue.
"You cant just teach a subject," King says.
"Kids really respond to teachers who clearly care for them as individuals and
dont see them just as a mark in a particular subject. That is why the elementary
school situation is so much better."
ENGAGEMENT DECLINES IN HIGHER GRADES
King notes that there is a sharp drop in Canada from Grade 6 to 10 in student
satisfaction in school. Countries that avoid the move to subject-centred schools
dont have the same pattern.
The engagement study found the same. "Student engagement
at the secondary level almost happens more beyond the classroom," says Butler-Kisber.
"The room isnt your classroom any more in high school. You dont stay
together with a group of people."
Engagement happens in the halls, cafeteria, resource centre,
computer labs, clubs, extra-curricular activities, co-op education. The researchers found
that secondary students sense of identity and belonging was much more likely to be
associated with programs like French immersion, life skills, ESL or school-within-a school
than with the school as a whole.
TEACHING STYLE MATTERS
Besides teachers respecting students, having high expectations and caring for them as
individuals, the style of teaching influences engagement.
International studies show a negative correlation between
satisfaction with school and the authoritarian nature of the teaching. "The more
top-down the teaching is, the less the students get out of school," says Alan King.
Although Canada has less top-down teaching than other
countries, the principle still holds. The project confirmed that students are more engaged
the more they do group work, work on long-term projects and work with concepts that are
part of their lives.
An example of working with concepts from students lives
is described in the case study of the Nova Scotia elementary school. This school, which
used to have a reputation for violence, is as diverse across socio-economic lines as other
schools are across cultural lines. It has several school-wide programs, one of which is
"14 Days in December." The theme for 1996 was "gifts that cant be
At the beginning of the program, the youngest member of each
family takes home a package with the daily schedule, a candle and an invitation for the
family to create a peace poster. For 14 days the school presents a series of themes
connected to social justice and care issues.
There was a Purple Ribbon Day on which the Montreal massacre
was remembered, a Common Courtesy Day marked in the classroom through reading, writing,
art and discussion and in the school by small acts of courtesy.
On Thinking about Others Day, students made vouchers
redeemable by family and friends for helping acts, the gifts that cant be bought.
Donations for a local womens shelter were collected on Sharing Day. On Community
Day, the students talked, drew and wrote about their community. The 14 days ended
with a peace concert, which included a display of the family posters.
The report points out that 14 Days engages students in
several ways. Its fun and rooted in local issues. It serves the communities least
able to satisfy the commercial demands of Christmas. Over the years, participation has
grown from 25 per cent to 75 per cent of the families.
This school also incorporates individual incidents into the
curriculum. One described in the report is how math and other lessons grew out of a
shop-lifting incident. A group of students was found to have been stealing sunglasses from
a local drug store. The school did phone and write the parents. But the group also went,
with the vice-principal, to the store to negotiate how to repay the loss (they cleaned the
store). They studied the consequences of shop-lifting to the store, finding out what kinds
of things were stolen and how much it costthe equivalent of a full-time clerks
STUDENT, PARENT, COMMUNITY
Student engagement that fails to move students toward full participation in their
school community fails them, the report says.
The report cites an example of how a community centre
develops through the negotiation of different norms, beliefs and values. One school
decided to hold dances after afternoon class rather than on weekend evenings. This made it
possible for the girls of a large ethnic group to attend. Their parents let them
participate in school activities, but not return for them. The school enabled the
participation of these students.
According to the report, the more seriously the schools took
the notion that student engagement does not happen in a vacuum, the fewer the lines of
demarcation between home and school. In these most engaging schools, the relationships
among the school, parents and wider community were strong.
STUDENTS MAKING DECISIONS
Marianna McVey expects some teachers will have trouble with the student role in
decision-making advocated in the report. She says, "Some teachers are still very
uncomfortable with listening to the voice of students. We still see the teacher as a
person who gives and dispenses information and knowledge. And we are not all comfortable
with recognizing the fact that our learners bring a tremendous amount of
The report authors are adamant that students must be the
centre. "We learned many things," wrote the researchers, "but none so
compelling as the realization that students are capable of so much more than we generally
give them an opportunity to demonstrate. The adage If you want to know what a school
is really like, ask the kids, was proven time and time again."
One example of students being taken seriously is Town Hall, a
program in the Nova Scotia elementary school. Town Hall is a monthly meeting of the entire
school (350) and interested community members in the school gym. This is a chance for
individuals, groups of students, teachers or parents to present current work and raise
issues for discussion.
Each year, the first Town Halls are organized and moderated
by a teacher. As the year goes on, responsibility shifts increasingly to the students. To
take part, students sign up, and a committee of students and a teacher make the
In one Town Hall, the report writes, a Grade 1 student
addressed the meeting about sharing playground equipment. He pointed out that the smaller
children could wait all recess without being able to get on a swing. He called for
suggestions, and after a "sometimes tangential
discussion" the students agreed to set a time limit on the use of playground
equipment if children were waiting.
The report notes that student engagement in Town Hall is
evident "by the delight with which students greet them and the sustained attention
even young children pay to the programs indeed, the children are as active in
keeping the peace during performances as the adults." Besides having fun, the report
says, the students are making a community that belongs to them, although it does include
teachers and parents.
Teachers do not give up their authority, according to the
report. When a group of girls wanted to perform a Spice Girls song, the teacher turned it
down, asking them to "look at the words, it goes against everything were about
here." The girls started listening critically to the songs, eventually finding one
that fit in.
BEING ENGAGED OR NOT
The report lists four conditions that enable schools to be engaging:
Teachers and staff seeing students as dignified,
responsible and capable, while respecting diverse norms and values.
Students having a positive self-image.
Approaches to teaching that ground learning in local interests and that allow for
Democratic attitudes inclusiveness, equal participation, reduction of
obvious power differences.
The report says that engaging schools are not a matter of resources above and beyond
what is needed for a sound general education. But there does have to be enough financial
support so that teachers and administrators are not consumed by raising funds.
If students are to become the centre of the schools and the
schools the centre of the educational system, then policy makers and administrators have
to become support services to frontline employees, especially teachers, who in turn need
to become support providers to students. The report notes that this is or ought to
be the essence of the movement to restructure schools.
What is clear from the report, particularly from the case
studies, is that engaging schools do exist. And it does appear to be a question of
attitude. Some of the most engaging schools serve marginalized communities, suggesting
that it is people including students and attitude, not extra resources, that
make the difference.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
Student Engagement in Learning and School Life began when the J. W. McConnell Family
Foundation met with researchers from the Office of Research on Educational Policy at
McGill University. The conversation turned into a four-year project that, with the added
help of the Vancouver Foundation, examined in depth 10 schools in five provinces.
The report, released in November 1998, comprises three
volumes: Student Engagement in Learning and School Life: National Project Report,
(149 pages) authored by William J. Smith, Lynn Butler-Kisber, Linda J. LaRocque, John P.
Portelli, Carolyn Shields, Carolyn Sturge Sparkes and Ann. B. Vibert and two volumes of
Teachers with limited time may want to start with the
detailed case studies. The schools AB2 (a secondary school in Alberta) and NS1 (an
elementary school in Nova Scotia) along with the two Ontario schools are good places to
start. The report can be downloaded from the OREP web site: www.cel.mcgill.ca/orep/ or is available
from the library of the Ontario College of Teachers.