The Need for Engagement by Charles Debelak

A View from History: The Need for Engagement

The Need for Engagement by Charles Debelak

Birchwood School of Hawken Parent

In “Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do,” Laurence Steinberg explains the result of his 10 year study examining the factors that lead to student success in middle school and high school. He identifies student engagement as the most important of all factors. Steinberg concluded that a student who comes to school ready and eager to learn, is the student who will learn. Even in a poor educational environment, the engaged student learns. However, if a student comes to school not interested in learning, if a child is preoccupied with interests that do not enhance the learning process, then no matter who the teacher or what school, learning will be stunted.

For Steinberg, student engagement means a child goes to school with the determination and will to learn. This factor alone, not only insures learning will take place, but even overcomes deficiencies in teacher competency or school environment. Steinberg’s scientific research supports what we have known for more than a century in America. Children who attend school with an understanding that education is the pathway to a richer and fuller life: personally, professionally, monetarily and even socially or emotionally, struggle to gain as much as they can from their education. This phenomenon is especially pronounced in the immigrant’s experience in America. Even when faced with inferior educational opportunities, or with inadequate educational resources, children who embrace the opportunities in education and engage in their own education, overcome all odds to get a superior education and live on a higher plane.

My own experience in the classroom tells the same story. Children who come to my class ready to engage are the ones who learn. Most often these children have been taught by their parents to value education and work hard. Their attitude in class is positive and productive. When I have such students, I am able to instruct them to the highest levels of achievement.

But my experience also tells the sad story of unengaged students. If children attend my math classes disinterested because they are disproportionately focused on video games, social media, TV, athletics or social relationships, then my efforts to incite, excite and educate are limited. Progress is slowed.

What can a parent do? At least two things. First, talk to your children frequently about the importance and value of learning in school and learning as a way of life. By word and deed, make education and achievement a priority in the home. Second, understand there are countless distractions in your child’s life that provide far more enticing engagement, in the short term, than education and learning. For this reason, you need to become your child’s educational coach in a manner like that of a music teacher or an athletic coach who guides and reinforces attitudes about learning and performance. These mentors, hoping to inspire their students toward excellence, explain the difference between immediate gratification and long-term gratification. In so doing, they teach their students to make wise choices about how to spend their time and how to remain engaged in activities which will provide the greatest return.


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