Engagement: An Engine for Ensuring Equity

Engagement: An Engine for Ensuring Equity

By Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers (originally published in the January 2019 issue of AC&E)

A prevailing myth in education is that children and teens from low-income families cannot be expected to learn at high levels of academic achievement. The truth is that there are many classrooms where high expectations and effective instruction result in significant academic gains by all students.

The challenge is that many low-income students arrive at school without the advantage of resources that support their learning. And, studies show that standard approaches for teaching children in poverty such as retaining them a grade and teaching watered-down curriculum, put impoverished students at risk of academic failure.

Student Engagement is Key

Keeping the above in mind, what do teachers in high poverty schools do to work toward successful student outcomes? Effective teachers view learning not as rote memorization, but as mental engagement. At its best, teaching engages students and inspires them to cultivate a love of learning and to develop a thirst for new knowledge and skills. Teaching to the broader goal of student engagement is exceedingly important for students from less privileged backgrounds.

The goal of teaching to engage reflects a teacher’s desire to make a positive difference in students’ lives. Such teachers may define their job as the continuous initiation and maintenance of student interest and involvement. This approach goes beyond a more traditional approach to teaching, which often places a greater emphasis on discipline or teacher control. The discipline focused approach essentially considers the teacher as a classroom manager who is more concerned with control and order than learning. In contrast, effective teachers, especially in high poverty schools, are those who stimulate student interest. These teachers can help students to develop an internal sense of satisfaction and pride in learning that goes beyond external rewards.

Five Strategies for Enhancing Student Interest and Involvement

Model a love of learning

A teacher who is passionate and curious is far more likely to generate these characteristics in his or her students from poverty—or for that matter, any student—than someone who is dispassionate about knowledge. Moreover, even if students do not share a particular teacher’s interests, they will be shown the value of intrinsic motivation and developing one’s passions.

Set high expectations for all students, regardless of their past performance

Virtually every young child who arrives at school has a growing active brain eager to learn from experience. However, as they grow children and teenagers absorb adult beliefs from school and the community about what they can achieve. Since teacher expectations have a profound effect on student achievement, setting a positive and optimistic tone is imperative.

Show that you care

I [Donna] have a story about the power of a caring teacher in a situation in my life where I was quite fearful of not being able to succeed. Through simple human kindnesses, my stretching instructor, Elaine, taught in a caring way. An obvious and important way she showed caring was through praise when I did something correctly. For example, although I was not able to stretch my hamstring muscles nearly as far as she did, when I held my legs up until they shook, she said, “Great! You are trying hard! This is good effort and you will soon get better.” Then, she showed me how by the end of the session, I had progressed on this stretch, which was one of the most difficult ones for me.

As I walked away after my first session, I was looking already looking forward to the next. Elaine had explained why the benefits of stretching as we mature, hooked me into thinking that I can learn this new material, and emphasized that I will enjoy using it across my life span. By the way, it is of critical importance for educators to practice good self-care with good our nutritional habits, regular exercise, and a positive social network and support system.

Give students options in what they read and learn and how they learn

Effective teachers understand that students have their own personal interests and learn in their own way. When students have appropriate options in what they learn and how they learn it, the biology of the brain changes; motivation is increased; and teachers are able to reach more learners more often. To facilitate the power of options in learning, teachers may want to find ways to work with your colleagues to identify different ways for students to learn. Here are a few ideas:

Give students choices so they can decide what they would like to read and projects they would like to think about and do.

  • With key literary works, have all students read the same book and give them a choice about which character they would like to act out.
  • After students finish a project or read a book, give them a choice about how they are assessed.
  • Regularly vary classroom instruction, for example, with the use of whole group reflection time, partner learning, silent reading time, movement, passionate mini-lecture, and projects. The idea here is that there is something to pique every student’s interest sometime during the day.

If students are wary of being “wrong” teachers must convey that it is a safe place to make mistakes

For often, students do not want to make a mistake in front of their peers and are unwilling to expend effort in the likelihood of perceived failure. The best teachers explicitly teach the concept that mistakes are normal and desirable aspects of learning.

Together, after spending 100+ years in schools and universities, first as students then in various roles with children, teenagers, and educational professionals, we are convinced that for many youth, school offers the best chance for a good life. As you touch the lives of students from poverty, know that you make a difference.

Drs. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers, ASCD authors of Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, are co-founders of BrainSMART, a professional development group dedicated to improving teaching and learning through innovative frameworks and strategies for putting research into practice. They are authors of 20 books and 75 articles and developers of the world’s first graduate degree programs in brain-based teaching. The duo’s original approach is featured on ASCD’s new video series, Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains. On the videos Donna and four classroom teachers model teaching elementary students about their brilliant brains and how they can discover how to how to learn at higher levels.


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