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There is an ongoing discussion on student disengagement in grades K-12, and whether the fault lies with the teachers or with the students themselves.  Teachers such as Pernille Ripp have recognized that their teaching styles play a significant role in student disengagement, along with the student’s sense of not belonging or being valued.  Teachers and other experts have been brainstorming reasons behind this issue in order to fix the problem, but should they have to do this?  It has been claimed that teachers are more concerned with the children’s success than the actual students are, meaning that kids are not putting forth the effort necessary to perform well in school.  Although there is no record of student disengagement overtime, there always seems to be students who lack motivation or get bored in every classroom.  The results of engaging young learners will extend beyond their preparation for the following academic year.  More students will pursue challenging careers, racial borders will be broken, and students will feel that they can make a difference in our society.  In striving for this goal, instructors across the country have been trying tactics from forming mathematics programs for low-income students to smaller scale actions such as relating topics to real life situations or creating time for hands-on activities during class.  Other teachers believe in putting more of their efforts towards encouraging self-motivation among their students.  Different strategies may be more effective than others, but the overall push for engaging students in the classroom is very evident.

Elliot Washer and Charles Mojkowski, authors for Big Picture Learning, have pointed out that the source of problems such as high dropout rates and poor performing students in low-income communities is student disengagement.  From their investigations, they have concluded that the reason behind student disengagement is that the students do not feel that the school cares about them or who they want to be in the future.  Schools do not alter their rules or curriculums to fit the interests of children.  These two authors have identified ten main expectations that students have in the classroom.  Among these are having a choice of when and how they learn, understanding the significance of what they learn to the community outside of school, and being provided adequate time to comprehend material and learn at their own pace.  When these essential expectations are not met, the students check out mentally.  Disengaged students that make passing grades and graduate with this mentality are not beneficial citizens to society, as they aren’t prepared to take on the demanding tasks of either the workforce or studying at a university.

The suggestion made by Washer and Mojkowski in their book Leaving to Learn is to redesign the school system so that students’ interests may be incorporated in learning outside of normal school hours.  As many teachers point out, every minute of class is crucial, and they struggle to fit in all of the parts of the daily lessons into a short time frame.  If students are provided with opportunities outside of class to form relationships with teachers and peers who can help them reach personal goals and focus on certain topics, the schools that offer these options will see improvements in the issue of student disengagement.

Teacher and author Pernille Ripp has expanded on the reasons behind student disengagement by asking some of her students to directly explain why they were uninterested.  She found that the beginning of the school year is when there is a disconnect between student and teacher, a weak relationship that often leads to students being unmotivated and disengaged.  In agreement with Washer and Mojkowski, Ripp mentions the necessity of teachers to give some type of power to the students, whether its in the form of choosing where they sit or providing other options during the day.  Two other K-12 teachers collaborated on five strategies to reach disengaged students that have shown results in their classrooms.  Hands-on activities such as the use of whiteboards, devices with learning apps, and incorporating tiles and blocks when learning mathematics topics seem to keep young students engaged in what they’re learning.  In addition, providing students with time to talk to a partner about specific ideas and subjects allows them to have productive conversation instead of distracting chats.  To ensure that all of the children are paying attention in class, teachers have also constructed a system either by hand or using technology to call on students randomly so that they will be more inclined to listen.

On the other hand, constantly attempting to adjust lessons to fit every student’s learning style and coming up with innovative ways to teach the material can be exhausting for teachers.  It seems that the responsibility of learning has shifted to the teachers instead of the students.  The belief that the role of teachers is to make learning a fun experience is common among children, parents, and even school administrators.  If a student deems a lesson uninteresting, they disregard the material and  their obligation to learn.

Laura Hudgens, a high school teacher and mom of four, argues that students today need not rely on teachers to engage them in their academic subjects, but should instead train themselves to be self-motivated.  Children need to know that they will be expected to complete that dull assignment to the best of their ability, even if it is of no interest to them.  In order to promote self-motivation, the focus of education should be on the role that students play in their own learning.  Instead of teachers simulating a video game for their lesson in order to keep their students engaged, they should emphasize the responsibility of the student to work hard and persevere.  Mrs. Hudgens believes that by giving a student smaller tasks that work towards a larger goal, students can see gradual improvements and identify learning strategies that will help them in the future.  She guides them in these challenges by offering tips such as how to effectively take notes or find a study partner.  When the student accomplishes these small tasks, they will be more inspired to apply themselves to other subjects, thus strengthening their desire to learn.

Various creative methods of engaging students in learning outside of school have shown outstanding success in recent years.  The movie Hidden Figures has been an excellent source of motivation and inspiration for students of all ages.  Schools have been taking their students to see this movie that is based on NASA’s African-American female mathematicians that played a significant role in the space race against the Soviet Union, all while facing discrimination in their workplace.  This trend was set by Bulkeley Principal Gayle Allen-Greene, who believed that the movie would spark an interest in STEM fields, an area where women and women of color are inadequately represented.  Hidden Figures has given courage to students to pursue challenging careers, such as with Aisha Minteh, who is now more determined than ever to follow her dream of becoming a neurosurgeon.

If you thought that toys were only for kids five and under, think again.  The Zubi Flyer was created by Kyle Muir and mother of three Kristi Sevy, who wanted her daughters to have a toy that supported science and technology learning.  This product introduces a different way to engage children in learning at a young age by fueling this generation’s passion for technology to draw them towards science.  The Flyer can be hacked using coding and a magic wand, attached to a computer to practice programming, and contains other advanced learning opportunities within.  As schools strive to engage students in learning, specifically within the STEM fields, toys such as the Zubi Flyer could prove highly beneficial.

It has been argued that these opportunities are only available to privileged students that come from wealthy, white families, but Daniel Zaharopol suspended his graduate studies of algebraic topology in order to address this concern.  He started BEAM, a program designed for students attending public schools in low-income areas of New York City, to provide elite mathematical instruction during the summer following the students’ sixth grade year.  The reason why so many professionals, such as Dr. Bernstein, support programs such as BEAM is due to the under-representation of African-American and Latinos in high paying, STEM based occupations.  The statistics of students that normally participate in these mathematics camps simply emphasizes privilege in our society, but with a wider availability of these advanced programs, the stereotypes and doubts may be overcome.

More states, such as California, are adopting an approach to STEM fields within their school systems.  The governor of California, Jerry Brown, recently signed a bill that implements a detailed plan to increase computer science education in public schools.  Gavin Newson explains that California has an overwhelming amount of open jobs in this field, but the requirements do not align with the current education system.  It is quite possible that students are inclined to study STEM fields, but aren’t introduced to the disciplines in a way that interests them to continue these studies.  It is important that these students are introduced to these fields at a young age so that they may engage in learning the material effectively to prepare them for success in the workforce.   Newsom also hopes that by by signing this bill, gender and racial divisions can be mended, due to the low percentage of females taking computer science courses.  I believe that while this is not a simple process by any means, more schools should strive to adopt such programs.

A controversial technique used by many teachers today is giving heavily weighted exams or raising the academic standards in classes.  While some teachers believe that this motivates studying, it also creates an idea that the grades and expectations are not attainable or realistic, and can actually discourage students from putting forth their best effort on their studies.   It is argued by James Crotty that altering the curriculum and improving class instruction is useless without the involvement of people close to the child in their academic life. Research has shown that academic motivation can be encouraged or discouraged based on four criteria that can be supplied by teachers, parents, or other figures present.   The student must either feel capable of completing the assignment, feel that they can control the outcome by choosing which action to take, be given a task that is of interest to them, or be rewarded in some way upon completion of the task.   For example, many schools believe that acceptance into college alone is a good motivator to do well in secondary school, but students instead need to be shown the path to attending a university and why it should be of value to them specifically.  The problem is not poor teachers or the format of tests.  It is the alarming lack of student engagement in their academic environment.

As you can see, the problem of how to address student disengagement has been approached from many different angles and styles.  It is difficult to determine what the single most effective method of engaging students in a learning environment is, and there probably is not only one answer to this problem.  Students become uninterested in school for other reasons not mentioned above, and other factors such as family issues and other challenging situations also demand attention away from their studies.  It is difficult to address all possible circumstances at once, but a strong goal to strive for at this moment is to engage as many students as possible in the subjects taught so that they may become successful citizens of society.  This may require adjustments to current education systems, the addition of other programs and strategies, or holding students more accountable for their own learning.  A mixture of efforts from the teacher, student, and other members associated with the child’s education is likely to reflect an increase in student engagement overall.

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