Creating Space for Student Engagement

Finding the Experience in Learning:

Creating Space for the Ebb and Flow of Student Engagement

(this article was originally published in the CASS Connection: the Official Magazine for the College of Alberta Superintendents, Spring 2011)
Shelley Robinson, PhD, is a writer, educator, researcher and mother (not necessarily in this order). 
“It is the function of the educator to examine deeply his own thoughts and feelings and to put aside those values which have given him security and comfort, for only then can he help his students to be self-aware and to understand their own urges and fears” (Krishnamurti, 1953, p. 38).
Some Trends and an Essential Question
Recently, in the educational institutions across our province, there has been considerable interest in 1) defining; 2) interpreting; 3) implementing; 4) measuring; and 5) further developing promising practice (all reciprocally) around the concept of student engagement (Inspiring Education, 2010; What Did You Do In School Today, 2009; Rocky View School Division Alberta Initiative for School Improvement Cycle 2 Research, 2003-2006).

I find it refreshing that the Engaging Minds Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) Project recently, and humbly concluded that “we don’t really understand what student engagement means yet…[and that it is] an emerging concept [that] we need to work on together” (2011). This response should not be a surprising reaction from educators as some schools grapple with a Tell Them From Me survey snapshot of students in Alberta who are being compared to relatively low national norms responding in the positive to whether they are “interested and motivated in their learning” (ex. Grade 7-9 national average is 34%) (Learning Bar, 2010-, np).
Student engagement is commonly strategized in classrooms as a series of enjoyable, and stimulating “intellectually” targeted learning activities with some attention paid to the affective learning domain, especially in light of educational research that considers the whole child and the various learning dispositions, as well as brain-based research (Gadsden, 2008; Gardner, 1993; Gregory, 2005; Jensen, 2006; Parry & Gregory, 2003; Sousa, 2006; Woolf, 2001). The drive for educators continues to focus on higher order thinking skills and problem solving (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Puccio & Murdock, 2001; Sousa, 2006), partly because this type of learning is measurable in terms of achievement.
Unfortunately, this type of stimulating cognitive and even “metacognitive” engagement (Fogarty, 1994; Foster, et al., 2002) does not always report well when students rate their level of student engagement. Adequate attention is not always paid to engaging pedagogy that balances all of the learning domains (cognitive, affective, conative-motivational, physical and spiritual) (Riggs, 1998; Robinson, 2009) in order to create a fully engaging learning experience.
It can be perplexing as educators that despite our “promising practices” (Robinson, 2008), we do not always have high positive statistics with student engagement. It draws attention to the possibility that when looking at the desired educational experience of our students, we might not be able to simply focus on the cognitive learning domain without making it integrally connected to other learning domains (Covey, 2004; Goleman, 1995; Lampert, 2006; Robinson, 2009).
In other words, to be truly engaged, we must be in touch with our minds, hearts, bodies and souls during and surrounding the learning experience. By doing so, the progressive educational language of “timeless learning” will need to enter our educational lexicon with inspiring words such as: “holistic/integrative; embodied; connected; soulful; transformative; flow[ing]; participatory; nondualistic; mysterious; and immeasurable” (Miller, 2006, pp. 5-12).
Perhaps then, we can reconsider “authentic engagement” (Schlechty, 2002) with this essential question in mind: What does the optimal learning experience need to be in order for students to know that they are engaged as whole learners in enjoyable, purposeful and satisfying ways?
The Ebb and Flow of Learner Engagement
First and foremost, students need to be “mindful” or truly “present” in the learning experience as this contributes to the students’ identification and appreciation of the learning experience (Gunaratana, 2002; Miller, 2006). Being “mindful” requires that students live the learning or the experience of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990 and 1996; Belitz and Lundstrom, 1998). Being “reflective” is different than being “mindful” as it requires students to step out of this “pure experience” (Gunartana, 2002) and “decenter” (Robinson, 2009) about their thinking (during or after the experience) in any of the following ways: “meta‐cognitively, meta‐conatively, meta‐affectively, meta‐kinesthetically, and meta‐spiritually” (Robinson, 2009). By doing so, it is yet another way to deepen and broaden the learning experience. Both mindful and reflective learning require creative uses of time and space.
When we want learning to be rigorously and richly engaging, we intrinsically know that creativity is a pivotal part of this experience (Sousa, 2006). However, to be truly creative, there needs to be a rhythm to learning that is facilitated by teachers within the course of a school day, week, month and year where students regularly experience two contrasting states: 1) mindful rejuv-engagement (ebb); and 2) engagement (flow).
If both the ebb and flow of learning are not experienced, it becomes very difficult for students to adequately digest their learning experiences (Robinson, 2009). When students are helped by teachers to mindfully ebb and flow in their own learning in multiple learning domains and through various learning dispositions, real inspired learning has room to take place. I have discovered that I am in good company as a student and writer that where I am afforded the time to experience both creative on-task and off-task time in all of the learning domains, I am also most inspired; and as a result, this is where my creative participation, output and self-reflection are greatest (Robinson, 2009).
How do we teach students to appreciate the natural ebb and flow of learning? Teachers often facilitate the pace of their school programs with input from their students. However, when engagement is overly attached to achievement and productivity, it has been my observation that there becomes a frenetic effort to perform instead of teaching students how to be in the ebb and flow of learning engagement. Students and teachers sometimes experience “initiative fatigue” (Reeves, 2009) that might explain some of the staff attrition (Alberta Education Work Force Planning, 1996 to 2002, 2010) and the higher than desirable school dropout rate in Alberta (AB Ed, Accountability Pillars, 2010; Alberta Education, High School Completion, 2006).
We need to show students how to be present and restful in learning, just as we need to show them how to be active and engaged in their learning. The creative “slow‐hunch” then has a chance to develop in the mindful classroom, and as well, “collide with other ideas” (Johnson, 2010) in the active classroom. The fine arts programs often model this type of creative process (Fineberg, 2004). Both aspects of the ebb and flow of student engagement are an essential part of a positive learning experience.
Living the Day in the Life of a Student: Conclusion
I imagine that a radical re-thinking of our practice would occur if we had to walk a day in our students’ moccasins right from morning homeroom period, through each class period (with short breaks in between), concluded by the end-of-day homeroom period; then followed by some rigorous extra-curricular programs (in and out of school), and/or work, and/or family responsibilities (Brooks, 2011).
Although there are pockets of innovative teaching and learning happening in our schools, I still believe that the confines of some of our academic systems in Alberta (ranging from traditional to contemporary organization and practice) would disable me (and others, Brooks, 2011) from experiencing learning optimally. Now that I know what I know about myself as a learner and about the range of possibilities to educators in the field when provided the creative space to revitalize programs and think outside of our educational “brick (facilities), time (schedule) and mind (paradigm) boxes” (Frank, 2011), I believe that we need to think about school differently if student engagement is truly what we are after. What is not good enough for us as re-visiting student educators in our provincial classrooms, is not good enough for our students (Brooks, 2011).
A truly mindful, engaging and reflective practice in a system that supports it, is a healthier practice for both teachers and students (Miller, 2006). A healthier practice encourages more positive relationships (Chopra, 2009). As a result, students remember these quality experiences and the value they placed on how they felt about these experiences. In the end, they might even report on these experiences so that we can measure them. However, the “essence” of learning (Aoki, 2005) can sometimes be fleeting, intangible and immeasurable. Perhaps we need to trust our own “integral inquiry” (Miller, 2006) as educators to know that positive learning experiences happened in our schools today.

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