Wednesday, June 25, 2008

From Guest Blogger Russell Smith: Student Engagement

Student Engagement

As I was riding home from the recent conference in Baltimore, I was reflecting on some of the things that I heard.  One thing that struck me during this conference was Ruth McKinney’s reference to the ultimate happiness website at UPenn.  I began to think about other things that might be slightly outside the mainstream of our normal reading that may carry some good thoughts that inform what we do.  Although there are many resources within the legal education community that are indeed helpful, it seems like some dynamite thoughts can come from many different places if we are just looking.  (I suppose just thinking this way makes me one of those global learners)

One thought that commanded my attention on the ride home was that of student engagement.  I recently read Shaking Up the Schoolhouse by Phillip Schlechty (Josey-Bass Publishers, 2000) in which he examines this topic in depth.  Although his work is generally aimed at K-12 practitioners, it seems to me that many of his thoughts are just as appropriate to legal education.  (As a former high school teacher, holder of a principal’s certificate and former school board member, I tend to hang around in K-12 circles sometimes)  Schlechty has spent his career developing the concept of “working on the work”.  According to him, the business of schools and teachers is to develop work and tasks that students will do and from which they will learn what the teachers want them to learn.  Central to his theme is the notion is that teachers must develop engaging work.  Without a student’s engagement, the likelihood of actual learning taking place is small.

For Schlechty, engagement is not just being attentive or entertained.  He views engagement as attention plus commitment.  Attention without commitment is nothing more than compliance.  Commitment without attention is potential, but not much else.  Therefore, we as teachers must satisfy both in order to affect student learning.  Students are committed to a task when they find some inherent value in what it is that we have asked them to do.  (For a fuller development of these thoughts,  I suggest looking at     www.schlechtycenter.org/pdfs/wow.pdf.) 

What does this mean for us in ASP?  Even my grossly oversimplified explanation of engagement raises a couple of questions that I believe I would do well to consider frequently.  First, are the students I work with committed or only attentive?  If they are only attentive or compliant, I may not be making much of a difference.  Second, is there some inherent value to the student in what I have asked them to do?  Can they see it?  Schlechty indicates when a student persists in spite of complications, this is a sign that there is some inherent value to the student.  Am I looking for this or indeed structuring my work to allow for this possibility?  I need to develop work and activities that will engage the student in order to bring about effective change in their learning.  In order to do this, I believe I need to ask myself constantly if the students are engaged, i.e. committed and not just attentive.  If I am successful at this, I might actually change the student.  Otherwise I might just become one more person to whom the student is required to pay attention.

To return to the bigger point, there is much out there to inform what we do.  Primary and secondary education are good places to look, but I would not stop there.  Although I like the nuts and bolts stuff and the method explanations, some of my favorite, and most informative, presentations at recent workshops dealt with topics that come from other fields, for example psychology and sociology.  It’s amazing what we can find to help us when we look around a little bit.

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