Five Paths of Student Engagement: An Interview with Dennis Shirley

…now is the time to re-engage our youth in their learning, and to find our own justly-earned portion of joy and fulfillment in doing so.

This week’s post features an interview with Dennis Shirley, author with Andy Hargreaves of Five Paths of Student Engagement:  Blazing the Trail to Learning and Success and Well-Being in Schools: Three Forces That Will Uplift Your Students in a Volatile World. Shirley is Professor of Education at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College, and author of The New Imperatives of Educational Change: Achievement with Integrity. 

IEN: Why this book focusing student engagement now? 

Dennis Shirley: One challenge with schooling is that teachers want students to focus on the curriculum they’ve chosen, and students have other interests and concerns that lead them to daydream or disrupt instruction. In the US, Gallup polls tell us that about half of our students in grades 5-12 are engaged with their learning.  About a quarter are passively disengaged, and another quarter are actively disengaged. What can we do to help those students who are disconnected with their schools to feel more motivated to learn?  This is the question that motivated Andy Hargreaves and me to write this book.

In the US, about half of our students in grades 5-12 are engaged with their learning.  About a quarter are passively disengaged, and another quarter are actively disengaged. What can we do to help those students who are disconnected with their schools to feel more motivated to learn?

Since the book has come out in June of last year, I’ve been privileged to present its key ideas to educators all over the world in webinars and interactive workshops. One might think that with COVID-19 causing so many disruptions that educators would be preoccupied with simply managing the pandemic, but I’ve been pleased to find that they are more determined than ever to make sure that their students are deeply engaged with their learning. Every presentation that I’ve done has been followed by spirited discussions about how our young people have changed as a result of the pandemic and how our educational systems should adjust as a consequence.

IEN: What did you learn in working on this book that you didn’t know before?

DS: In Five Paths of Student Engagement, we challenge three big myths of student engagement.  The first myth is that all learning has to be socially relevant.  We tend to hear this a lot from many colleagues and especially from those who are involved with social justice agendas that they want their students to promote.  These concerns speak to legitimate aspirations for students to receive educations that help them to be active citizens in the future. What some educators tend to forget, however, is that children and young people have interests of their own.  Sometimes these interests concern outlandish things like dinosaurs, unicorns, hobbits, and muggles that could be powerful levers for promoting their engagement with learning. The young adult sections of our book stores are packed with best-selling books that cater to these cravings of today’s youth for adventure and fantasy.

The second myth is that all learning has to be facilitated with technology. Old-fashioned, “brick and mortar” schools are out, it is said; digital learning is in.  Of course, there are technological tools that promote student engagement; I use them myself in online courses that I teach in a new Master’s degree program we’ve started in global perspectives on educational change.. But all we have to do is venture into a school where students are riffing in a jazz quartet or are conducting experiments with chemicals that they have just learned about to know that first-hand, three-dimensional experiences still have an important place in education.  Especially when it comes to the restorative power of nature, we can do much more to get our students outside of their school buildings and exploring their local ecosystems, even in the most densely populated communities. Andy and I discuss this more in our new ASCD book entitled Well-being in Schools:  Three Forces to Uplift Your Students in a Volatile World.

The third myth is that all learning has to be fun. Happiness, exuberance, and excitement are delightful parts of learning when we can get them, but should these be the only emotions our students experience in their schools? If you think about it, there’s not much fun to be found in learning about racism or climate change, but these contemporary challenges are important parts of any credible social studies or science curriculum. Let’s not limit ourselves to the superficial pursuit of superficial forms of emotional gratification when we could and should be going for genuine gravitas instead.

Let’s not limit ourselves to the superficial pursuit of superficial forms of emotional gratification when we could and should be going for genuine gravitas instead.

IEN: What’s happened since you completed the book? 

DS: We gathered most of the data for our book by working cheek-by-jowl with educators in a network of rural educators in the Pacific Northwest of the US. It was a very different world when we began this work all the way back in 2013. At the time few people seriously imagined that the United Kingdom would actually break away from the European Union or that Donald Trump could become president of the United States. We had no idea that the COVID-19 pandemic would be coming our way and that it would so profoundly disrupt schools and learning around the globe. 

These transformations meant that we had to write a very different kind of book than that which we initially imagined. While the on-the-ground work of teaching and learning in schools continued without interruption up until the spring of 2020, we found that we had to rework many passages of the manuscript and revise some of our interpretations in light of the new circumstances. 

In our introduction we write about the transition from an outmoded Age of Achievement and Effort to a new Age of Engagement, Well-being, and Identity. This change was evident before the arrival of the pandemic and has now become obvious to all of us. I’ve argued elsewhere that anyone who thinks that the way that we are going to get young people more engaged with learning when the pandemic winds down will be by giving them more test preparatory activities is seriously disconnected from our world today. 

…anyone who thinks that the way that we are going to get young people more engaged with learning when the pandemic winds down will be by giving them more test preparatory activities is seriously disconnected from our world today

IEN: What’s next — what are you working on now?

DS: The persistence of COVID-19 means that in the short term, Andy and I are presenting a lot of webinars and online workshops related to the theme of student engagement.  Engagement is the kind of topic that can change your life, really: I often find myself noticing if my attention has lapsed when dealing with something, and then I go back and try to ascertain why it did so.  In that way the book has been helpful and transformative in my personal life, and not just in my professional pursuits.

Five Paths of Student Engagement and Well-being in Schools were initially part of a single book manuscript, along with a third section on identity and belonging. As that original manuscript kept growing larger and larger, however, Andy and I eventually agreed that it needed to be divided up into three shorter books. We’re currently more than half-way done with the book on identity and belonging and are aiming to have it completed and published by Corwin Press in 2022. 

IEN: What’s your hope for the future and what do you hope this book will contribute to it? 

DS: In spite of some missteps, on the whole I’m delighted with how agile our educators and schools have been in responding to COVID-19. We’ve seen a resurgence of long-suppressed creativity that should give us all great hope for the future. The new visibility of the ethos of care that brings people into our profession has been uplifting, too.  I love learning about teachers who have done things like convert their home dining room into a Hogwarts library to engage their students with online learning, or who transform their backyard tree house into a classroom to excite their students’ imagination and to increase their motivation. Even the simplest things, like when a principal tells teachers to let the kids go outside and play more frequently than was done in the past, can be very significant in the lives of the young.

Last year a survey of young Americans conducted by Harvard University revealed widespread optimism about the future in spite of many contemporary challenges. The hopefulness of African-American young people was especially striking, from a dismal 18% who were optimistic in 2017 to 72% who were hopeful in 2021. That young people can look towards the future with determination and commitment when the “bad news bias” of the media is so prevalent across the political spectrum should chasten those pundits who indulge in fashionable pessimism so relentlessly. 

That young people can look towards the future with determination and commitment when the “bad news bias” of the media is so prevalent across the political spectrum should chasten those pundits who indulge in fashionable pessimism so relentlessly.

The schools that Andy and I conducted our research in in the Pacific Northwest were often dreadfully underfunded, and the communities frequently were struggling economically. In one discussion with a classroom of students in a small town in Idaho, not one single student saw a plausible future for themselves in their hometown. Yet their resilience, and their determination to make the most of themselves, remains indelibly printed in my memory. So in spite of all of our obstacles and worries, now is the time to re-engage our youth in their learning, and to find our own justly-earned portion of joy and fulfillment in doing so.

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