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Call to Action: Engage and Motivate Students

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This post is by Bob Lenz, founder and chief of innovation at Envision Education.

Education in America is at an important crossroads: while the overall graduation rate is rising, student engagement and motivation are floundering.  A new national report and companion survey from the Education Week Research Center investigates the role that student engagement and motivation play in academic success, and the findings reveal that our nation's schools have a lot of work to do to increase student ownership over their own education.  The survey, completed by more than 500 educators, reveals an "Engagement Gap" in our country:  While educators identified student engagement and motivation as the most important drivers of student achievement, only four in 10 of them say that the majority of students at their schools are highly engaged and motivated.  Most feel that too little attention is given to promoting engagement among their students.

Christopher B. Swanson, Vice President of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit organization that publishes Education Week, had this to say: "Despite the fact that teachers and administrators believe that engagement in schooling is the most important contributor to student success, most of those educators say that less than half their students are highly engaged and motivated. The views of the nation's educators should serve as both a reality check and a wake-up call."

The good news is that there are networks and schools across the country that are already wide awake on these issues and successfully meeting the "Engagement Challenge."  These schools are giving students the kind of education that fires them up and keeps them connected, motivated, and engaged.

Schools like those using the Linked Learning Pathway, those in the Deeper Learning Network, and my organization's three high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area have moved away from the old three R's of education - remember, regurgitate, repeat - and embraced new ones: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. These schools understand the importance of student-centered practices that are responsive to students' needs. They emphasize positive and supportive relationships between students and adult educators, enabling students to persist and succeed in academic environments that are challenging, relevant, and collaborative. And they give students intellectually challenging work that delivers the necessary content while building students' abilities to communicate, think critically, manage complex projects, and collaborate with others. 

And they are succeeding. The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education recently released a set of Student-Centered Schools case studies, looking closely at four California high schools that use either the Linked Learning or Envision Schools models, and highlighting how they are achieving positive outcomes for their students, who are predominately low-income students of color.

These schools have designed their curriculum purposefully to provide students not only the right academic skills, but also the fortitude to persist through challenges and to be successful in either college or career. Even after enrolling in college, the quality of students' high school preparation influences their persistence rate in college. Not surprisingly, the persistence rates for graduates of these student-centered schools are impressive:

For graduates from City Arts and Tech, 97 percent, and for Life Academy, 69 percent, of those enrolled in four-year colleges were still enrolled in their fourth year of college. These rates far exceed national averages, particularly for students who are first in their family to attend college. Survey data of graduates suggest that particular high school practices of relationship-building, high standards, deep learning, and instructional relevance contribute to students' success in college.

So how do these and similar schools build motivation and engagement?  By giving students work that matters. 

For example, at Envision Schools, we use project-based learning to help students develop both academic mastery over content and the critical leadership skills they need to be life-long learners.  The goal of each assignment, lesson, and class is for students to take what they've learned and use it for a real purpose, as opposed to simply writing a paper or taking a test.  Frequently, our students present their work in exhibitions or special events--a voter information night for Spanish-speaking voters, a lesson delivered to a classroom full of elementary students, or a Town Hall debate covering all sides of an issue--where their work has a real impact on the people and the world around them.  When students are given these kinds of meaningful projects and asked to do creative work, they rise to the challenge.  One Envision teacher describes his students this way:

"Students are working for much more powerful reasons than the grade they'll receive at the quarter. They're putting in over 100 hours on their projects; they've gone so far above an A after about the 10th hour, so what's kicking in? What motivates those 90 more hours? I really think it's that audience that they all want to entertain, and inform, and impress."

Visitors to our schools can see this in action.  We recently hosted a group of policy-makers and education leaders on a trip hosted by the American Youth Policy Forum. One visitor had this to say when asked for her favorite part of the trip. She described watching an Algebra II class at Envision Academy in Oakland: 

"They were studying statistics on capital punishment--looking at the probabilities that the inmates would be sentenced to death based on race of the perpetrator and race of the victim. They were discussing the implications of those probabilities. It could just have easily been a social studies, sociology, or statistics class. They were engaging in the learning and demonstrating mastery around it in three different ways--one-on-one with the teacher, explaining and providing feedback in small peer groups, and at their own pace on Khan Academy modules--just on that one topic. [This was] probably my favorite moment of the trip, to see students engaging so deeply in their learning in such a cross-curricular way."

And suddenly, Algebra II comes alive for these students, who, because of the way the material is presented and how they are asked to use it, show high levels of engagement in the process. 

The end goal--the impact their learning will have--garners their engagement and motivates them to do their best. They want their work to be excellent because they own it: when that happens, they learn more, are happier in school, and are equipped for life with the skills for success.

CALL TO ACTION: In order to not only increase our high school graduation rate but engage and motivate our students for success in college and life, we need to redesign teaching, learning, and schools to be intellectually challenging for all students; to engage students in meaningful and authentic assignments; and to create the culture and structures so that every student is well known and supported by at least one adult in every school. 

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The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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