Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How to engage students - advice from the experts!

Students in in family groups from years 1 to 8 engaged in 'seeking, using and creating' knowledge about Antarctic exploration that they have been fully involved in planning and completing.

Engaging students at the year 7 to 10 year age groups seems to be a growing challenge worldwide as non 'academic' students are finding their learning boring or irrelevant.

The obvious answer would seem to be to ask the experts themselves - the students!

This is what was done by the innovative Australian project 'Negotiating the Curriculum' of the early 80s edited by Garth Boomer.The book is now unfortunately out of print but it was a wonderful source of practical ideas to involve (or engage) students in their own learning from juniors to senior classes. Just found the book was reprinted in 1992

The question is, if we want all students to develop their learning power, under what conditions do students learn most effectively? Do they all learn the same way? And, a pertinent question for teachers is, how would they fare as a learner in their own class?

And, if we want students to learn independently, how come we see so few students' questions in our classrooms? Their is no doubt that students need to know how they learn as part of their education - it may well be the most important thing they learn. My guess is that few students, or their teachers, can articulate their learning theory?

When students were asked, 'how they learn best' ( loosely defined as coming to new understandings) their answers are shown to exhibit a remarkable consistency.

Their answers are listed under aspects of the learning process.

1 Engagement. We learn best when we intend to learn, when we become personally involved and interested in the learning we are to do. Our learning should be purposeful - our purposes not the teachers! We need to know what we are to do and why and how we are to do it, but we do like our intentions to 'mesh' with the teachers so that, as much as is possible, we are all thinking along the same lines. Our intention to learn becomes engaged when we become curious or puzzled by things we are to learn. It matters to us that we solve our puzzlement and find satisfactory solutions to our own problems.

2 Exploration. We need it acknowledge that we are all not equal in experience in what we know and can do so we need learning experiences personalised as much as possible to cater for our differences in starting points, needs and interests. We like the teacher to open up a range of options to give us some choices in our learning.
We need to be helped to inquire in ways that suit our needs and to learn through trial and error, and by finding out, rather than being told by the teacher. We need to be involved actively in real learning experiences and not be passive receivers. We understand best when we do things ourselves and arrive at new knowledge through our own discovery.

We need to work and relate with other learners and our teacher. We like working individually, in groups, and as a whole class but small groups is our preferred option because it allows us to learn together, and from each other, as we go along. We like to use each other as sounding boards and as an audience for our ideas. We feel most secure working in groups.

We need help from our teachers, but not dominance by them.We want a supporter, a facilitator, not a dictator. We need to take risks as we struggle for new understandings but will only take those risks in a supportive environment - one in which we are both challenged and encouraged to stretch our thinking. We don't like being frightened of being wrong and like it when teachers help us through any difficulties.

Besides this supportive role we want the teacher to be available to work with us when we need help. We don't want to be bored or confused by the teacher telling things to the class when we already know what is being explained or are hopelessly lost because don't know enough to understand. Anyway in the whole class situations all too often we can't ask real questions or talk things through and we need to do those things.

3 Reflection. At the need of the learning experience we want to feel we have achieved something worthwhile to us. We need to come up with products that mean something important to us and that will please the audience we are preparing for. We don't doing things for no reason at all. We like to share what we have found and the sharing is a way to show others how well we have learnt.

We need to think about what we have done and how we could do it better next time. Out of such reflection new questions, challenges, and ideas will arise that we can use to continue our learning.

Seems like some good ideas to solve the problem of lack of engagement?

Be interesting to ask your own students?

And how would you really enjoy being in your own class?


Anonymous said...

I find it hard to accept that humans, who are born with brains programmed to learn, can become 'disengaged' and leave school with little to show for their time. 'Compulsory mis-education' it seems! 'Turning off' learning comes easy to some teachers - dysfunctional teachers and schools are the problem. The 'disengagement' increases as the children grow older.

Your 'blog' indicates answers to the problem.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I sure agree with you. I do appreciate that many students come to school with a considerable learning disadvantage but if teachers placed their focus on the recovery of a sense of awe and wonder those young students could be re-connected to their own sense of curiosity.

And if the teachers placed their emphasis on helping students make sense of their own lived experience and were open to environmental experiences students wouldn't become disengaged. In such classrooms the curriculum 'emerges' fron the questions and concerns of the learners themselves.

As Jerome Bruner wisely wrote many years ago , ' Teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation'.

'Learnacy' should come before a narrow focus on literacy and numerarcy.

Unknown said...

my question would be how can we inspire students so they become engage in participating in being contributor of their own learning. Student when ask wants to do things and seem interested but at the moment of making it happen if not constantly being pushed and have an adult engaging them they do not show/have internal motivation to follow their desision. Can someone share any ideas..

Bruce Hammonds said...

Students who are not skilled at learning for themselves, in fact all learners, need a supportive and encouraging environment. They need to be exposed to learning that appeals to them - that they 'see the point in' ,and they need to be helped to develop any missing skills so they can achieve reasonably good work. An important part in all this is a postive relationship of mutual respect between the learner and the teacher. As students see their efforts being rewarded they will be become more independent and self motivated. Very few ,I guess, will ever become totally independent.We all need a supportive environment. And it will take time to turn around students who have been taught not to learn for themselves.