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September 1999

Getting Engaged
to Learning

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By Rosemarie Bahr

National project on student engagement finds it’s teachers and schools that are engaging.

"Students answer the school phone, not because they are assigned to, but because they happen by when it rings; students assume they’re 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 it’s 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

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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 education.

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 report.

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.

"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 don’t really monitor me that much."

That student’s 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 Queen’s 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 can’t just teach a subject," King says. "Kids really respond to teachers who clearly care for them as individuals and don’t see them just as a mark in a particular subject. That is why the elementary school situation is so much better."

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 don’t 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 isn’t your classroom any more in high school. You don’t 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.

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 can’t be bought."

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 can’t be bought. Donations for a local women’s 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. It’s 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 cost—the equivalent of a full-time clerk’s salary.

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.

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 information."

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 selections.

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 we’re about here." The girls started listening critically to the songs, eventually finding one that fit in.

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 student voice.
• 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.

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 case reports.

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:   or is available from the library of the Ontario College of Teachers.