Friday, February 22, 2013

4 Immediate Steps Teachers Can Take to Re-engage the Dis-engaged Student

“If tomorrow, every teacher in America spent 20 minutes of class time asking each student what her or his passion was, and then later used that information to understand each student more deeply and differentiate their instruction accordingly, education would take giant positive steps forward overnight.” Marc Prensky, From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning

Sometimes the solutions that have the biggest impact on the most difficult issues our schools face aren't complicated, scientific solutions; they are solutions staring us right in the face. One of those issues with obvious solutions is how to deal with disengaged, disconnected students. Because our education system asks students to “check their interests and passions at the door” widespread student disengagement in our schools is stubborn and persistent. Our education system stubbornly hangs on to the “impersonal, assembly-line-approach” of the 20th century that did not concern itself with students’ interests and passions. Such a system cares not what students think, nor what students care about. That same underlying, obsolete philosophy is the reason why we struggle constantly with students who see what we are doing in school as totally irrelevant. In the 21st century, if we want to reach all students, we should take Prensky’s advice. Let’s pause today, and talk with students about their passions and interests, then use the new understanding to engage them in classroom learning they care about.

The truth is we don’t have to wait for waves of reform and experts on high to have a big impact on student disengagement and disconnection. We can begin to re-engage and reconnect students immediately. In From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning, Marc Prensky offers teachers a list of what he calls “Easy to Do---Big Impact Actions Teachers Can Take to Connect with Students.” This kind of list gives teachers an immediate list of actions to begin the process of re-engaging and reconnecting with students. But to implement these kinds of actions, our schools must set aside their “Just-take-your-medicine-approach-to-education” in which students are told your passions and interests are irrelevant.  At the heart of the "educational medicine philosophy" is the belief that, “Education is done to students; it doesn't matter if they take part or not. It’s for their own good.” With that kind of thinking it is no wonder we can’t get a grip on the drop-out rate and our students see our schools as the most boring places on earth.

What do we do? Is it still acceptable to just accept those disengaged, disconnected students as casualties or collateral damage of an education system that destroys passion, imagination, and creativity? Not if our goal is to bring back the disengaged students and lower drop-out rates and ensure all students are ready for life in the 21st century. We can begin today by doing little things that reconnect our classrooms and schools to students’ passions and interests. Marc Prensky’s list of “Easy to Do---Big Impact Actions to Connect with Students” might be a starting point. But, inspired by Prensky, I would like to offer my own list based on my own 16 years in the classroom teaching everybody’s favorite subject, English language arts. (Said with obvious sarcasm!)

To immediately begin reconnecting with students, teachers can:
  • Listen to students more, and do less “professing” and “telling.” The old myth that “students are going to sit on the edge of their seats and eagerly await your words of wisdom and knowledge” was never true.  Begin today by taking an “almost-vow-of-silence” and let students do more talking and sharing of what they think. Of course you are going to have to resist your eager impulses to butt in and share what you think too, but giving students time to share and discuss will go a long way to re-engaging and reconnecting them to your classroom and your content.
  • Make it relevant---connect content with current events and the real world. If students come in chattering about the latest happenings in town, the country or the world, find a way to connect that interest to content, but do it subtly. If students know they are being railroaded into learning something, they disconnect faster than I do when getting a phone call from a telemarketer. If you want students to reconnect, you have to bring your content back to the real-world and that means bringing in the things they are passionate and care about.
  • Prensky says to reconnect students, we “treat them like learning partners." I agree. Throw out the window the whole idea that you are the “Lord-of-the-Realm-of-Knowledge” and be with students as a fellow learner. The best example of this one comes from my days in the classroom. If I asked students to write an essay, I did it too. There was total surprise when I pulled out my handwritten response to an essay assignment and shared it with them, just before they did theirs. I did caution them though, “Anyone caught stealing my ideas” would be doomed to an endless lecture in their most hated subject, and I would arrange it. Treating students like learning partners means “YOU ARE A LEARNER TOO!" You have to get your hands dirty too. You can re-engage and reconnect with students by treating them as partners in learning, not as empty vessels in which you will pour forth your knowledge.
  • Get students using their tools of choice and don’t get hung up on the methodology. If they want to draft their essay on their laptop or iPhone, let them do it. If they want to want write out their first draft in purple ink, let them do it. We all remember those teachers who demanded that we meet painstaking standards such as write only on one side of the paper, in blue or black ink, only on the night of a new moon. In fact, if I were totally honest, when I started teaching I found myself making those same impossible demands. No wonder so many of my students didn't turn in their essays or bothering doing them. I still remember one of my high school English teachers throwing my first draft away because I put my name on the top-left instead of top-right. When I began teaching, you would have thought I would have shown more mercy, but I suppose the adage, "We teach as we were taught" is hard to break. But using these kinds of classroom practices today will push a student to place you and your content in the dead zone for eternity. Letting students choose their tools and tactics will go a long way to re-engaging and reconnecting them to your content and your classroom.
If we want our schools and classrooms to effectively deal with the disconnected, disengaged student, we don’t have to wait for the experts to come up with complicated, research-based solutions. We can tackle the problem of disengaged, disconnected students immediately. We might have to repent and give up the mantra that says, “It’s my job to teach, so if students don’t get it, it’s their fault,” but there are immediate steps we can take transform our classrooms and schools into places where we engage students’ passions and interests, not turn them into Zombies.


  1. Another great posting of information. I may just stop watching the police blogs and stick with education sites.
    This applies across the board, and this statement from your post is exactly what we do in the cop culture;

    "Because our education system asks students to “check their interests and passions at the door” widespread student disengagement in our schools is stubborn and persistent."

    We drive people away from schools and professions thet love.

  2. I had a student show me her draft with color coded passages that represent points with similar ideas. She said she will turn them into paragraphs before she submits the final copy. The colors helped her organize her ideas. But she understood there was an expected format that should be part of the final submission. Good thinking on her part.