Student Engagement: It has to come First

Looks Like at SGIS

In response to the question, “What does outstanding academic achievement “look like” at St. George’s?“, faculty members responded with a resounding emphasis on “ENGAGEMENT”. They should. There can be many priorities in teaching and learning, and given different moments in the life of a school, those priorities can, should, and will shift. However, engagement, student engagement, comes first. It is Alpha. Without it, there is no traction for learning. With it, everything becomes possible.

I am writing this from Gate 66 in the LAX Delta terminal after catching a shuttle from San Francisco on my way to Atlanta on a red-eye, followed by an early morning final leg back to Memphis. Memphis generally, and my school specifically, have been much on my mind over the last few days as I have attended three gatherings. On Wednesday I represented St. George’s at its Winter INMAX meeting. INMAX is a consortium of twelve relatively large, and certainly complex, independent day schools. Over the next two days I attended the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference.The top highlight for me was seeing Sarah Cowan, our Director of Communications, present alongside Patti Crane about school marketing and branding strategies. Starting Friday evening and wrapping up this afternoon, I finished my time in San Francisco by participating in a unique design gathering called SPARKplaces, led by Carla Silver of Leadership+Design, Christian Long of Wonder, By Design, and Howard Levin of Convent and Stuart Hall Schools.

View from the library of the Flood Mansion, hone to the Convent and Stuart Hall Schools and location of SPARKplaces
View from the library of the Flood Mansion, home to the Convent and Stuart Hall Schools and location of SPARKplaces

It has been a remarkable week, and I know of a number of takeaways that will likely at some point find their way onto this blog. However, the thought I have this evening–as a the chaos of a busy international airport slowly shortens my temper–is that, within all our talk of thinking about schools of the future, we can not  lose sight of the primacy of student engagement in setting our teaching, learning, and design compasses for the path ahead.

Some relatively unpolished thoughts about engagement:

  • engagement begins with teachers building trusting relationships with students. In order for students to lean into the discomfort of great learning, there must be faith in the adult creating the context and driving assessment–both formative and summative.
  • students will not be engaged in the intended learning if the teacher is not.
  • deep engagement is not comfortable. It is born of curiosity and a need to know more that outweighs the desire to stay comfortable in pre-existing knowledge or belief.
  • engagement is a gateway to vital components such as collaboration and critical thinking. Once a student feels a need to know and to understand, the necessity of reaching out to others becomes natural. Efforts to create collaborative environments where critical thinking is central hinges on student engagement.
  • without engagement, academic experiences are only that–academic. Without engagement, classroom experiences are empty calories, a virtual skimming across the surface of learning. Most dangerously, such experiences can become cynical exercises in jumping through hoops for academic rewards.
  • we will fall far short of our responsibilities to our students if we are comfortable with passivity.

So much of what I found compelling this week has a direct relevance to engagement. It has to come first. Alpha.

View from my hotel room on the final morning of my visit to San Francisco
View from my hotel room on the final morning of my visit to San Francisco

[In future blog entries I plan on writing about several other ideas inspired by my various commitments in San Francisco this week. There is a lot to digest. I am perhaps most interested in this statement by the John Chubb, former head of NAIS who died late this fall: “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.”]

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