Student engagement: taking stock

Sask Bulletin
January 6, 2020
By Jane Macleod, Senior Manager, Research and Records

Re-Imagine Education invites us to re-examine existing structures in our educational system and question the extent of opportunities for authentic engagement with stakeholders.

Let’s start with students. Carol Robinson (2016) refers to students as “expert witnesses” as they have first-hand experiences in all facets of school life–its day-to-day procedures and systems, its traditions and culture, and its values. Robinson asserts that in order to reimagine education in schools today, principals must reflect on the extent of student engagement in their schools.

I suspect that many students see schools as bastions of conformity. For most, the school organization is much like that experienced by their parents and, in some cases, their grandparents. The industrial school model, characterized by class schedules, timetables, classroom regimes, etc., was no doubt established to ensure efficiency and student safety and as such, it demands compliance.

However, there is an abundance of education research supporting the critical role of problem solving and creative thinking to an individual’s success in school and in the workplace. A common theme across each of the reviews of education in Saskatchewan this year was the importance of a school experience that fostered students’ creativity and innovation.

Therein lies the conundrum and/or contradiction; how can a school, established within a system that reinforces conformity and standardization, create a culture that invites and fosters individual creativity and innovation for both students and teachers? Sir Ken Robinson asserts that individual creativity is an essential literacy and challenges schools to move beyond what he sees as a standardized fast-food model of education delivery today to a more personalized and student-centred approach.

Montgomery, Karagianni and Androutsou (2016) remind us that schools have an abundance of achievement data on students, but little information about how students feel about their school experience. Their book, Reimagining School: Is It Possible? cites a number of studies where school leaders and teachers have deliberately worked to transform their schools so that students, as key stakeholders, play a genuine role in determining the policies, practices and purpose of the school.

Montgomery et al. observe, “We are giving school children a voice, but we [are] also putting fences on what they can discuss.” While many school systems may argue that routines and standardization make life easier, an increasing number of school leaders today are recognizing the need to seek input from their students.

What might this look like in Saskatchewan schools? How can schools move beyond test scores and increase or invite student voice and participation? As with any school improvement initiative, it makes sense to begin with a vision. School staffs can start by having thoughtful, and sometimes difficult, conversations on questions such as:

•  What do we know about how students perceive their school experience?

•  What opportunities exist in our school for students to develop as learners and as citizens?

•  Where are we creating safe spaces for students to share their experiences as learners and full participants in our school community?

•  What opportunities are we giving students to have a meaningful involvement in our school decision making?

These may be challenging questions, yet they can invite conversations and new thinking on an issue near and dear to teachers: the well-being of their students as learners. Only by giving students a voice can we hope to learn about their world.