By Rita Shahi (Highschool teacher, MEd Student in Imaginative Education)
Many teachers express frustration that their students are disinterested, appear to not care about their learning, or seem “lazy”. Whether not handing in their work on time (or at all), distracted by their smart phones during instructions, or crickets during discussions, students are often not engaged the way teachers would like.
What accounts for this disengagement? Could it be that our current education system, despite its makeover in the form of a new BC curriculum, is not designed to meet the needs and challenges of today’s students?
According to Parsons (2015), when students are engaged, they are more likely to succeed academically. He says a “plague of disengagement exists in our classrooms” in the United States and the same could be said for students in BC classrooms, if conversations around the school have any merit (p. 223). Since we know that engagement is an important contributor to students’ learning, student engagement is an important issue that needs to be paid attention to. This is true in reading, for example. Parsons (2015) points out that “in their analysis of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Bronzo, Shiel, and Topping (2008) identified reading engagement as one of the most powerful factors affecting students’ reading achievement (p. 224).
So what can we do to engage our students?
In my current position as a Teacher On Call (TOC), I rarely have the opportunity to plan my own lessons and units and put my knowledge about Imaginative Education (IE) into practice. When I was given the opportunity to conduct action research in a classroom in Surrey, I was excited to finally use the cognitive tools of Imaginative Education in my teaching practice.
IE is concerned with students’ emotional engagement to a topic, and one of the main ways IE strives to connect students to topics emotionally is through story. There are many similarities between the IE approach and the strategies for engagement explained by Parsons (2015).
In his article, for example, Parsons argues research has demonstrated that authenticity, collaboration, choice, appropriate challenge, and sustained learning are important factors contributing to engagement in classroom tasks (p. 224). Grounded in self-determination theory, Ryan & Deci (2002) suggest that “relatedness, competence, and autonomy” are needs that guide behaviour. In a classroom, this refers to “the degree which students feel connected to others… perceiving themselves competent… and feeling a sense of control over their actions” respectively (p. 225).
Parsons’ study aims to discover what tasks students find most and least engaging, and how teachers can make literacy lessons more engaging for students. The results of Parsons’ study show that the most engaging literacy tasks for students involve authenticity, collaboration, and choice. In addition, students reported disengagement when tasks were too difficult, or confusing, and had little involvement. Furthermore, students often mentioned they wanted opportunities for collaboration and support for completing tasks (p. 227). Parsons recommends that teachers use multimodal displays (texts and visuals), increasing graphic organizer use, and focusing on interesting elements of the content to promote and support student engagement.
Interestingly, many of these suggestions parallel the suggestions Kieran Egan makes for engaging students with IE. Through the cognitive tools of the literate eye, affective mental imagery, oral stories, extremes of limits and reality, and overall, finding the emotional significance of a topic through story, students can connect to topics emotionally, promoting engagement and learning success.
My action research project focused on the following question:
“Integrating the cognitive tools: What are the effects?”
By integrating the cognitive tools of the Romantic understanding to support literacy, (Kieran Egan recommends using the tools supporting Romantic Understanding in his book, Teaching Literacy), I collected data based on students’ engagement level reporting and my own observations.
With an engagement level rating of 3 out of 5 or higher for each of the lessons and activities that students participated in, it indicated to me that students were mostly engaged in their tasks. At times, students were noisy but they were on topic with their discussions – excited, even. This was especially true when they were collaborating with their peers, which was something they enjoyed. At other times, students were distracted or distracting others, when the task was not challenging enough. Students also reported on which cognitive tools they enjoyed using the most and the least.
I learned some important lessons:
- Not all cognitive tools are engaging all of the time. Some students may find them engaging for a particular lesson activity or task, while others may not. It could be the way they are integrated or introduced, or too challenging or not challenging enough. For example, students enjoyed using graphic organizers in group activities, but not individually.
- Engagement levels can fluctuate throughout the day. I found that students were tired but willing to listen in the morning before recess, the most engaged and productive between recess and lunch, and less productive and chattier after lunch. Activities should be planned with this in mind. While an individual writing activity may be better in the morning, a collaborative game could engage students better in the afternoon.
If the problem is that students are disengaged with the content they are learning, or the way they are being taught, it is up to teachers to be proactive and try new approaches to engage students emotionally. If we can convince students about what is fascinating about a topic, and to care enough to engage with it, half of the work will be done for us. Imaginative Education is not an entirely new approach, as teachers may find that they are using some of the cognitive tools already. However, it is important to know why you are using them, and the effect they have on student engagement.
View my action research report in full below: “Integrating the Cognitive Tools: A Teacher’s Story on Using IE.”