Monday, October 28, 2013

Answers to Government Survey, Part 4: Student Engagement (Question 5)

Here is my answer to Question 5 of the government survey on the future of education in Ontario. (For an explanation of the survey, and the public consultation process of which it is a part, see here.)

Question 5: What more can we all do to keep students engaged, foster their curiosity and creativity, and help them develop a love of life-long learning?

I’m not sure how we can keep students engaged, when we haven’t actually engaged them in the first place. Part of the reason schools fail to engage kids is that school isn’t really about kids. Kids in our current educational system are viewed as a means to whatever social end adults in power (within ministries of education and in the corporations that have policy-makers’ ears) have deemed appropriate and necessary. At the moment, kids in this country are burdened with task of learning the skills that will (we hope) enable Canada to remain competitive in the global economy. In our anxiety over whether the next generation is acquiring these skills—STEM skills, in particular—we subject students to near constant measuring and testing; after all, we need to make sure they’re keeping up their end of the social bargain to which they never consented!

True engagement cannot occur until we stop treating kids in this instrumental way—until we stop treating childhood and adolescence as merely preparation for a specific type of adulthood, rather than as its own phase of life, worthy of its own goals and desires. If we were to do that (which is a huge “if,” I realize), we would begin to see that the question should not be “how do we engage kids” but rather “how do we provide the conditions that would allow kids to self-engage”?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to such an admittedly abstract question, but I do think it’s pretty clear that engagement, creativity and a love of lifelong learning are unlikely to be fostered in an educational system that deprives kids of all power. Coercion and engagement would seem to me to be incompatible processes. So on a practical level, maybe we can move towards allowing kids to self-engage by giving them some power over their own schooling. We could begin by taking small steps towards democratizing schools: for example, we could solicit students’ opinions and involve them in decision-making, not only about how school is run, but also about the content of the curriculum and the means (or necessity) of evaluation.* Only when students are given at least partial control over their learning will they be able to figure out their true interests, and only when they are truly interested will they be able to self-engage.

Of course, just as coercion is incompatible with genuine engagement, genuine engagement on the part of kids may be incompatible with a society’s social and economic expectations of education. And therein lies the intractable paradox at the heart of any project of progressive education reform (of which this Great to Excellent survey is an example): it may be that individual traits like “creativity” or the kind of curiosity that leads to engagement and “life-long learning” cannot be readily harnessed to serve non-individual, socio-economic goals.

Nonetheless, it's important to at least begin the conversation about how to change school environments so as to allow for the possibility of kids discovering their true interests and passions. The alternative is to keep treating students as a means to an end, which will not only continue to demoralize them (and ruin their childhoods), but is pretty much guaranteed not to produce the adaptable twenty-first century learners and workers that governments dream of. If you insist that kids be sheep, you will end up with . . . adult sheep. I'm not sure how interested in lifelong learning sheep are. I could be underestimating them.

*Or we could turn the evaluation tables around by, for example, making course evaluations in elementary and secondary school mandatory.


  1. OMG....That was your best response so far. Every paragraph you just nailed. You just made a connection for me, too, about work engagement as well, because the corporate world worries about "employee engagement" as well. Because we are thinking beings, as soon as we are compelled to do anything, talking about engagement is ridiculous. There is no way to sugar coat it. All the perks in the world are not going to change the employee mindset if they are not self-engaged.
    Thank you....many light bulbs have gone off in my head today.

    1. Thanks Shirley! I think the connection between corporate concern about "employee engagement" and the worry in educational circles about "student engagement" is not accidental. There seems to be a very permeable boundary these days between the corporate and educational spheres, but with the influence flowing mostly (or so it seems to me) from the corporate world into education, rather than vice versa. I worry about this influence, as may be apparent from some of my other posts. ☺

      But you’re definitely right that compulsion, whether in the workplace or in school, is not a fertile breeding ground for engagement.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.