What kind of work in school truly engages students, work that enables them to learn what they need in order to succeed in the world? One set of answers comes from my past associate Phil Schlechty, author of "Working on the Work." In list form, these qualities are as follows:
•Personal Response: Work that engages students almost always focuses on a product or performance of significance to them. When students explain their answers (or the logic and reasoning behind those answers), they are invested in their personal response. It is making connections, comparisons, analogies, predictions, and offering opinions. It is "I think... because..." It is not recall of answers or just the one "right" answer.
•Clear/Modeled Expectations - Students Know What Success Looks Like: Students prefer knowing exactly what is expected of them, and how those expectations relate to something they care about. It is the teacher providing a clear learning objective and why it is important. It is "modeling" of a strategy to accomplish the objective. It is visual exemplars, clear formats and procedures that persist throughout the learning.
•Emotional/Intellectual Safety - Freedom to Take Risks: Students are more engaged when they try tasks without fear of embarrassment, punishment or implications that they are inadequate. Personal response activities that students must support with logic, reasoning or explanation require more intellectual safety than answering a question that has only one right answer. It is a teacher who provides a "safe" environment for mistake-making. It is not answering "yes/no" questions, answers without explanation, or students being "correct" or "incorrect."
•Learning with Others or Affiliation - Learning Has A Social Component: Students are more likely to be engaged by work that permits, encourages, and supports opportunities for them to work interdependently with others. It is small-group discussion, quality circles, "think/pair/share," peer revision or review. It is not taking turns talking or group grades in isolation. It is "When my classmate talked about symbolism, I thought..."
•Sense of Audience -Student Work Is Shared: Students are more highly motivated when their parents, teachers, fellow students and significant others make it known that they think the student's work is important. Portfolio assignments - which collect student work for scrutiny by people other than the teacher - can play a significant role in making student work more "visible." It is student work as exemplars, proficient work posted, connections to audience and purpose. It is not being inappropriately "singled out."
•Choice - Students Have Meaningful Options: When students have some degree of control over what they are doing, they are more likely to feel committed to doing it. This doesn't mean students should dictate school curriculum. However, schools must distinguish between giving students choices in what they do and letting them choose what they will learn. It is selecting tasks from a list, tiered assignments, "I chose to present my thoughts in graphic form..." It is not opting out of standards, avoiding an assignment, or an overwhelming number of choices.
•Novelty and Variety - Learning Experiences are Unusual or Unexpected: Students are more likely to engage in the work asked of them if they are continuously exposed to new and different ways of doing things. Teachers who have "many tools in their toolbox"- especially technology-oriented for this digital generation - are more likely to gain student commitment. It is about a variety of products and processes, games, simulations and role-play, competitions, and diverse perspectives. It is not chaos or a lack of procedure or protocols.
•Authenticity - Connections to Experience or Prior Learning: This term is bandied about quite often by educators, so much that the power of the concept is sometimes lost. Clearly, however, when students are given tasks that are meaningless, contrived and inconsequential, they are less likely to take them seriously and be engaged by them. It is relevance to age group, real-life activities, inquiry or discovery learning, hands-on manipulatives, current events/issues, use of classroom or home technology. It is not vocabulary in isolation, contrived activities, practice without context, or repetition of low-level work.
Phil Schlechty has spent a lifetime studying the qualities of engaging student work in schools and the positive learning outcomes that are derived from it. For all others, perhaps just a few minutes of review would be a great way to start the school year, especially in light of the new and more rigorous Common Core State Standards.
Gary Mathews is Superintendent of the Newton County School System.