Student engagement and Phil Schlechty

A school district superintendent asked me to dig into the issue of student engagement, and while I found several pieces that discuss this issue, it was this review by Elizabeth Bowen that provided some quick answers and a summary of Phil Schlechty’s design qualities, ten qualities that he feels foster student engagement in the classroom, that get at the answer to this question: “What do teachers, schools, and school districts need to do in order to ensure that more students are engaged in learning activities more of the time?”

Schlechty runs the Schlechty Center in Louisville and is most well know for his “working on the work” approach – that is, as it says at the center’s website, the “link between the caliber of schoolwork students are provided and the willingness of students to engage in schoolwork. When students engage in and persist with their work, they are much more likely to learn that which schools, parents, and the community deem important.”

I like this approach. It tells me that, when implemented at a school or district, kids are not to blame for engagement issues but, rather, the work they’re asked to undertake – the curriculum and its accompanying instruction. My radar pings madly when I hear a teacher or principal say, “These kids are really not very motivated.” Schlechty has these folks examine more carefully their own curricular and instructional practices, for it’s not the kids but those practices.

OK, back to a few of Schlechty’s design qualities that foster student engagement. They, I think, will give you some idea of what he’s getting at.

Product Focus, or work assigned to students that connects to a meaningful end result – one that is meaningful to the students. Schlechty states that “tasks students are assigned and the activities students are encouraged to undertake are clearly linked in the minds of the teacher and the students to problems, issues, products, performances, and exhibitions about which the students care and upon which students place value.”

Affirmation of Performance, or people important to the learner verify the importance of the learner’s work. Again from Schlechty: “Persons who are significant in the lives of students, including parents, siblings, peers, public audiences, and younger students, are positioned to observe, participate in, and benefit from student performances and to affirm the significance and importance of the activity being undertaken.” Students want an audience beyond the teacher. (My son the drummer and his band competed in a “battle of the bands” two weekends ago. Boy, oh, boy, did they have an audience beyond the usual suspects. A scary and powerful experience for them.)

Authenticity: Students undertake work that is genuine, that is more than just a random textbook assignment. Once more from Schlechty: “The tasks students are assigned and the work students are encouraged to undertake have meaning and significance in the present lives of students and are related to consequences to which students attach importance.”

A few years ago, I worked with a school that felt strongly about the authenticity of the work that its students would do, and I helped it develop a curricular plan to ensure that student work was authentic, not just random assignments. The school paired this work with affirmation of purpose, since the school believed that an outside audience was an important way to measure that authentic work. Students would “exhibit” their work to panels of experts – in fact, see this past post about “exhibitions” – and they experienced firsthand how their work fit in the real world, not just in the classroom or school building. A powerful learning experience.

I got the image of kids working here.

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