Student “engagement” declining dramatically – and what schools can do

Joe Nathan Column — What can five- and  six-year-olds learn from building a playground, or high school students learn by helping to produce a play, writing a history of their community, creating You-Tube videos about the value of Dual (High School/College) credit courses, conducting water quality testing, or planning and then building a community garden?

The answer is clear:  Students who participate in such hands-on, active learning generally will be more “engaged” in their learning.  And, a 2012 Gallup poll of almost 500,000 American students, grades 5-12, helps explain why student engagement is so important.

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

The poll also shows a dramatic decline in student engagement as students move thorough our public schools.

How do we “engage” students?
•    Students at the School for Environmental Sciences have researched and help create exhibits for the Minnesota Zoo.
•    Students in many communities, including Apple Valley, Eastview, Eagan, Lakeville,  the Main Street School for Performing Arts in Hopkins,  and Richfield have produced musicals that won awards from the Hennepin Theatre Trust.
•    In Little Falls, students in a combined Biology/English/Social Studies class read
•     and wrote about the history of the Mississippi.  They also did water quality testing on the river discovering at one point that there was an unacceptably high level of bacteria in the water.
•    In Houston, students interviewed local residents for an area history.  They discovered one elderly woman who had been a member of the French Resistance during World War II, causing them to do a lot of reflection about her and their high school years.
•    In St. Paul, students researched, planned and then built a playground with a zero budget.  It was a very big day in the life of the seven-year old co-chairs of the “sand committee” when six truck loads of sand, that they had arranged for, arrived.

Let’s be clear.  This is NOT an attack on teachers.  That’s because teachers are being pushed hard to focus on standardized, multiple-choice tests.

But as the national Gallup organization points out, we should care about this because “Hope, engagement and well being of students accounts for one third of the variance of student success.  Yet schools don’t measure these things.  Hope, for example, is a better predictor of student success than SAT scores, ACT scores, or grade point average.”

* Gallup found that from elementary to secondary school, student engagement drops from 76 percent to 44 percent.

*  Gallup concluded “There are several things that might help to explain why this is happening — ranging from our overzealous focus on standardized testing and curricula to our lack of experiential and project-based learning pathways for students — not to mention the lack of pathways for students who will not and do not want to go on to college.”

We want students to read, write and do mathematics.  We also want them to be active, constructive citizens.  We need to measure whether they are developing hope and a sense that they can accomplish important things.
You can read the report here:

There are great examples of these applied projects at

Many families and employers want youngsters who are active, positive, able to work with others…engaged.  Not just people with academic skills.

Academic skills are important, but not enough.  Being “engaged” helps many students see the value of and develop those “3-R” skills, along with a belief that they can set goals and make a difference.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome,

  • Scott sands

    True. We must move away from meaningless accountability measures toward igniting students curiosity.

  • Holly Marsh

    Great post!

    I like to say that learning is a partnership. Students will only absorb and retain information when they are willing and engaged to do so. During high school, short-and long-term goal setting was a very important aspect of my education. My teachers and I would sit down together on a regular basis and take stock of where I was in different aspects of my educational and personal development, then devise plans of how to reach personal and academic benchmarks. I was put in the driver’s seat of my education, and as standards and targets became primarily my responsibility, they became relevant to my life and future plans. When I embarked on a specific learning standard, it was up to me to engage with the material and to recognize when a particular approach was not effective. My teachers were portals to information; gateways through which I could access resources. They did not simply deliver knowledge and expect me to absorb and regurgitate it.

    As our nation takes up the Common Core standards, I urge policy makers to take into consideration relevancy. If students cannot see the relevancy of the work they are doing, motivation decreases. Speaking of a relevancy gap, John Dewey wrote “From the standpoint of the student, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school; while, on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school.” Restrictive time structures formed for the purpose of promoting standardization and limited views on the value of applying outside education to in-school activities inhibit the logical cross-application. Students become resolved to the idea that learning is a compulsory activity that takes place during school hours, within school walls.

    The greatest gift that my primary and secondary education (four years as a homeschooler and six in a charter school) gave me was relevance. By engaging in my community through organizations, political activities, and policy debates, I was able to voice my opinions and connect the “in-school” education with the greater world. I built a resume while in high school that is serving me now as a full-time employed part-time college student, and I learned how to set goals. Perhaps more importantly, however, I really engaged with the learning standards that were required of me and through process and personal reflection, recognized the value within those subjects.

  • John Miller

    Brilliant, Joe! And very hopeful (as well as helpful)! Thank you.

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