Getting children and teens to offer information about school can often be more difficult than pulling teeth. “What did you do in school today?” usually elicits the all-too-familiar response: “Nothing.” Did anything interesting happen? “Nope.” Did you like it? “It was O.K.” What began is a routine question, ends up becoming a rather futile daily inquisition.
Renowned American child psychologist Michael Thompson once described this daily after-school ritual as “interviewing for pain.” Parenting experts in Canada are so concerned about the matter that they actually offer “do’s and don’ts to increase your child’s willingness to share useful and important information about his school experience.” http://www.canadianparents.com/article/what-did-you-learn-in-school-today
The question “What did you do in school today?” even became the theme for a national study, conducted by J. Douglas Willms, Sharon Friesen and Penny Milton for the Canadian Education Association, in collaboration with the Canadian Council on Learning and school districts across Canada. The CEA initiative’s first report, in May 2009, attempted to tackle the question of student engagement in the classroom, including the possible connections among adolescent learning, student achievement and effective teaching.
A Canadian Student Survey in 2007-2008, involving 32,000 students in 93 schools covering 10 different school districts turned up some troubling results. Too many students are disengaged from learning in school; gaps in student achievement levels persist; and there is growing concern about whether the current models of schooling prepare all young people for future success in life and the workplace. http://www.ccl-cca.ca/pdfs/otherreports/WDYDIST_National_Report_EN.pdf
The key findings were startling: Overall levels of social and academic engagement were quite low, but intellectual engagement was even lower in the schools. Levels of intellectual engagement declined significantly from grades 6 to 12, dropping from 60% to less than 40% of all students. While students continued to feel a “sense of belonging,” they also reported a major drop in regular attendance.
School and class climate were surveyed extensively, but students were not asked an obvious question: What lay at the root of the lack of intellectual engagement? Simply put, were they BORED by the academic expectations in class?
The original Tell Them From Me survey, designed by Willms and Patrick Flanagan, is not really intended to get at the root of the problem. It’s an an assessment system that measures a wide variety of indicators of student engagement, wellness, classroom atmosphere, and school climate, focusing heavily on outside influences affecting learning outcomes. Among the areas covered are: perceptions of testing, involvement in sports teams and clubs, attendance, hours spent watching TV, a sense of belonging, post-graduation goals, bullying, self esteem, student anxiety and depression. http://www.changelearning.ca/~cl/programs/tell-them-me-canadian-students-speak-about-their-schools
The CEA-funded survey, in fact, asks everything except whether students are challenged enough academically or to high enough behavioural standards. Indeed, the CEA’s initiative is now looking to students themselves to help solve the myriad social problems that have, for generations, bedeviled the system. “CEA believes, ” we are told in a remarkably naive proclamation, that ” students have an important part to play in shaping how we tackle these issues, think about learning environments, and consider the purposes of schooling.” http://www.cea-ace.ca/programs-initiatives/wdydist
Why do leading Canadian educators continue to focus on the branches rather than the roots of the problem of student disengagement? With over 60% of high schoolers reporting a lack of “intellectual engagement,” why look outside the system for the answer? Was John Taylor Gatto completely wrong 20 years ago when he warned in Dumbing Us Down (1992) that the “hidden curriculum” of compulsory state schooling had a “deadening effect” on learning? Could it be that sound, challenging curriculum provides the best guarantor of student engagement?