Image by flickr user Maria Belhassan
While student engagement is essential to actualizing powerful instruction and authentic learning, engaging students remains challenging for teachers. Persistent student disengagement may not reflect teachers’ lack of attention to engagement. In fact, teachers we spoke with seemed to overwhelmingly recognize engagement as vital to students’ learning. Disengagement also does not seem to reflect a lack of available information about best practices, evident in the recent popularity of student engagement resources and the strategic focus on student engagement at the school with which we worked. These conditions suggest that developing our knowledge of how teachers utilize and make sense of student engagement information could inform and strengthen future engagement efforts.
Student engagement consists of dynamic behavioral, emotional, and cognitive elements simultaneously at play. Behavioral engagement denotes a student remaining on task or participating in class. Emotional engagement entails a student experiencing positive feelings in class. Cognitive engagement involves students exerting mental effort to actively learn. This multidimensional nature of student engagement seems to contribute to its illusiveness because engaging students calls for diverse approaches within the same classroom, and not just acknowledgment that engagement is important. Based on our focus group conversations with teachers over three years, engaging students in learning can be further complicated by pressures to prepare students for mandated exams or limited understanding of how external factors like home life and job responsibilities impact students’ engagement.
Teachers’ beliefs on student engagement may be durable, but sustained professional development (PD) focused on building support for teachers through learning and student outcomes has the potential to impact individual belief systems. Teachers’ conceptions of student engagement tend to evolve from their lived experiences, and these conceptions impact how teachers facilitate engagement. In turn, PD offers a potentially meaningful space to immerse teachers in experiences that encourage their ongoing reflection.
In our mixed-methods longitudinal study entitled, “Reflectiveness, Adaptivity, and Support: How Teacher Agency Promotes Student Engagement,” we examined teachers’ perceptions of student engagement over three years as they receive student survey data and PD aimed at engagement. We surveyed Lincoln High School’s 2,380 students annually on their perceptions of engagement and experiences in the range of classes offered by Lincoln’s 165 teachers. After generating individual, confidential student engagement reports for all teachers, we distributed these at an annual PD seminar we coordinated at Lincoln. We then organized annual focus group sessions to explore how teachers conceptualized student engagement in light of their survey data and Lincoln’s overall engagement aims.
“High-engagement teachers seemed to demonstrate more reflectiveness than low-engagement teachers, captured by one’s ability to objectively assess practice and modify their approach based on new information. Whereas high-engagement teachers described what they did personally to engage students, low-engagement teachers tended to describe more generally what teachers should do.”
Our sample for this study includes 17 teachers who participated in focus groups for at least two consecutive years. The 17 teachers varied in factors such as years of teaching experience, subjects taught, and educational philosophy. When analyzing the data, we categorized these 17 teachers into three groups by using six of the 19 total student survey items that linked directly to behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement. We computed student engagement mean scores for individual teachers and a school mean for Lincoln each year. High-engagement teachers, of which there were seven, had average student survey scores consistently above the school mean, while six low-engagement teachers had average student engagement survey scores below the school mean each year. The four transitional teachers fluctuated by year and received average engagement scores above and below the school mean. These groupings – high-engagement, low-engagement, and transitional – enabled us to extend our analysis and consider how teachers’ uses of student engagement data differed for teachers identified as relatively more or less engaging.
We noticed little change over time in teachers’ individual perceptions of engagement, yet some teachers seemed to note that student engagement had become a persistent school goal. Notable cleavages, though, emerged between high-engagement and low-engagement teachers in their orientation towards engagement. Teachers identified as relatively more engaging tended to be more open to information from PD and surveys, to integrate that and other information into practice, and to be more sensitive to external factors impacting students’ engagement. We frame these characteristics as reflectiveness, adaptivity, and support.
High-engagement teachers seemed to demonstrate more reflectiveness than low-engagement teachers, captured by one’s ability to objectively assess practice and modify their approach based on new information. Whereas high-engagement teachers described what they did personally to engage students, low-engagement teachers tended to describe more generally what teachers should do. High-engagement teachers’ use of more concrete examples in connecting student engagement theory and data seemed to contribute to their view of instructional practice as being constantly in development. Adaptivity, or one’s ability to recalibrate practice based on instructional evidence, emerged as more characteristic of high-engagement teachers as well. Teachers identified as relatively less engaging tended to modify instruction based on their preferences and learning style. High-engagement teachers on the other hand seemed to rely on student reactions and work products to adapt instruction and increase engagement. The responsiveness of teachers identified as relatively more engaging reflected a willingness and ability to understand their students’ lives. We characterize this trait as support, and noted how high engagement teachers were more likely to account for what students experienced outside of the classroom While low-engagement teachers also showed support for students by recognizing external conditions, they tended to view students’ home lives more deterministically. In turn, low-engagement teachers did not seem to respond to the individual conditions of each student as powerfully as high-engagement teachers.
Reflectiveness, adaptivity, and support contribute to a teacher’s sense of agency, or their sense of power to impact or reject change. Developing habits of mind among teachers that support change through increased agency over engagement offers potential to ultimately increase student engagement. Encouraging teachers to experiment and try different instructional strategies, as well as structuring more teacher collaboration and one-on-one coaching to reflect on the engagement impacts of those strategies, could potentially foster more purposeful, agentic approaches to engaging students.