This week, I will explore what is arguably the most important word in our mission statement, “engaged.” At first blush, engaged may seem like a word that is so obviously connected with schools that is seems somewhat meaningless. For us at CSCS, it has a tremendous amount of meaning and has driven us to do things very differently.
In the process of creating CSCS, we did a lot of research and spent a lot of time and energy studying the work of others who had come before us. One of the researchers who had a significant impact on our learning and therefore the development of the school was Phil Schlechty. Dr. Schlechty had spent a lot of time studying schools and from this, he described different levels of participation that he saw in schools. The categories he developed were as follows:
Strategic compliance: This is participation in which the student does what is expected in order to get a reward they want. For example, many students work to get good grades because they believe it will help them get in to a good college.
Ritualistic compliance: This is when a student does what it is expected because it is the path of least resistance. This is the case when a student does their homework in order to ensure that the teacher or their parents won’t bug them.
Retreatism: This is when a student either physically (skipping class, complaining of illness in order to stay home) or mentally (sitting quietly in the back of class and hoping no one notices) removes themselves from the learning experience.
Rebellion: This one is pretty easy for us all to recognize. This is when a student behaves in a way that not only pulls them out of the learning experience, but also asks others to join in the resistance to what is being asked.
Engagement: This is when a student is motivated to keep working at something even when it becomes challenging. According to Schlechty, when students are engaged, they are motivated to complete the work because it is personally meaningful to them, not because of some reward they will receive when they complete it. We often use examples of playing a challenging video game and training for an athletic, musical or theatrical performance to help students understand what engagement really feels like.
Schlechty argued (and the research and our experiences backed this up) that learning really only occurs when students are engaged. Unfortunately, what Schlechty found was that the design of most schools worked against engagement and at best was designed for compliance. He also found that many of the tools that were being used to measure the level of engagement were in fact, measuring compliance (i.e, did students bring the required materials to class, did they answer questions being asked by the teacher, did they complete their homework). Because this so resonated with our lived experience and because we as veteran educators, students, parents, and community partners had seen the damage a system designed for compliance was doing to the students who were “playing the game,” to those who were fighting against it, and to those who were simply trying to survive it, we took this challenge very seriously. Resisting the temptation to revert to compliance measures became a driving force behind our decision making.
This hasn’t been without significant challenge. When you put a group of unique individuals together in a system, having some level of compliance is important to keeping everyone safe and to helping the system work effectively. There is a very real, very pragmatic reason why schools are organized around compliance systems. And yet, we knew if we wanted to create a school committed to deep learning, we had to start by looking at what people needed to be truly engaged and we had to trust that when they were truly engaged, they would work together to create effective systems to ensure safety and systemic effectiveness.
This is where our three pillars: personalized, place based, and democratic, come in. While the three are most powerful and most effective in the spaces where they overlap, I will discuss each separately in order to capture the essence of each of them. We start with personalization from the moment we begin our interactions with a prospective student and family. Questions like “What do you really love doing and learning more about?” “What are you really good at?” “What makes you happy?” “What is a new challenge you would like to take on?” form the basis of initial discussions with students and families. Often, these discussions seem strange coming from educators as unfortunately, for many students and their families, school has not been driven by these questions. In most traditional settings, the standards and prescribe scope and sequence drive the instructional system and teachers and students do their best to find places to fit the student’s interests and passions in. In our system, we strive to start with the student and we have found that in doing that, learning about and engaging in things that are new, different, or challenging naturally follows and students have the skills and dispositions they need to not just comply with expectations to learn about a breadth of topics but to actually engage.
Place-based refers to a deep commitment to connecting learning to the real history, problems, and opportunities that surround everyone all of the time and offer rich opportunities for both learning and the creation of meaningful knowledge and work in the places that matter the most to us. While schools have been seen as a center of learning, there has often been a significant disconnect between the learning that was happening in schools and the learning that was taking place in the communities surrounding the schools. At CSCS, we seek to “take down the walls” between our school and the community and help students develop a deep sense of the learning that takes place everywhere. By inviting the community into our school and spending a significant amount of time in the community, students develop an appreciation of the challenges and opportunities in their communities and an understanding of how they can play a significant role in solving problems and creating new opportunities in their communities. These authentic experiences are the best material for helping students develop the skills they will need for long term success because without strong communication, collaboration, and problem solving skills, they are not able to contribute meaningfully.
Finally, our commitment to democratic education honors that everyone engages more if they feel a sense of power and agency. Because the schools that most of our students have experienced have been designed for compliance, the voice and agency afforded to students was often afforded to only a few students and even for them, was afforded with the constraints of doing what adults in the system expected. We seek first to give students meaningful voice in decisions about what seminars will be offered, what our schedule will look like, and where we should be focusing our school improvement efforts. From here, we work to help students develop the skills they need to play a meaningful role in decision making in our school and in other settings. Ultimately, we seek to create opportunities for leadership for all students in our school so they have the opportunity to practice these skills in context and develop a deeper understanding of how to work most effectively with others and how to ensure your voice is heard while honoring the voices of others and the needs of the community.
Over the course of these initial years, we have learned that a shift in education that really focuses on engagement is a very significant one. Because it is so different, we have had to get much better at understanding and communicating what it looks like when students are becoming more engaged. We continue to work on capturing this story and would love your perspective on what you have seen in CSCS students that demonstrates true engagement. We have also learned that it works! Students want to learn. Students who have found very little reason to strive for traditional success measures in school are enthusiastically talking about and sharing their learning, and students who were very good at meeting all of the traditional metrics of success are finding the freedom to really learn in a system that emphasizes engagement.
Thanks for being a part of our journey and sharing your perspective!