What have I learned?

For the past ten years, I have been learning how to learn all over again. It started with my son, who has learning differences – turns out his teachers were struggling to support his learning needs. Consequently, I immersed myself in research on how and why we learn, which eventually led to co-authoring five student-centered books on learning. Now I am about to complete my M.Ed. degree in curriculum and instruction design. Going back to school has been a wonderful experience and has resulted in two significant outcomes. First, I have discovered a relentless love of learning how to motivate and engage students to become responsible for their own learning process. Second, I am excited and challenged by the endless opportunities that lie ahead to embrace action research within the context of today’s learners. 

My preliminary motivations for studying student engagement are multi-faceted. Initially, the idea presented itself through a sense of frustration that then soon transformed into an intense desire to investigate the problem and challenge myself to learn more. 

The initial source of frustration stemmed from a conversation in my Instructional Decision Making course. Most of the teachers in the room (including our professor) used trial and error as their preferred method of choice when select learning activities. The following analogy comes to mind: it is like going to your toolbox and pulling out a wrench to drive a nail into a piece of wood. It works, but not as effective or efficient as a hammer. If educators have an effective understanding of their students’ needs and perceptions of levels of engagement, it is my belief, they will know in advance to opt for the hammer rather than the wrench.

Primed to investigate this dilemma, I was fortunate to have conducted a one-month student engagement study with 100 middle school language arts students. In the beginning, the teacher was confident her existing instructional practices were fine as they were, however as the study progressed, she learned to appreciate the students processing and reflecting on their own learning. The students were more than eager to share their thoughts and ideas of how to transform their learning activities to be more relevant and meaningful experiences. The teacher acknowledged their feedback and promised to consider their input in planning the next unit of study. The findings of this research demonstrated a misalignment between the teacher’s perceptions of her students’ disposition towards the learning activities. The teacher perceived the students’ final levels of engagement to be 4.5 on a 5-point scale, where the students ranked their disposition at 2.8. Clearly, there was a discrepancy between what the teacher believed prior, during, and after instruction compared to the students.

In the fall of 2008, I was a guest professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and taught a graduate course on creating sustainable social change. Of the 21 design students, more than half were from a foreign country and planned to return upon graduation. The curriculum design embraced interactive engagement, project-based learning, collaborative learning communities, and social inquiry. Several of the students shifted their thesis topic as result of their learning experiences. My experiences with these diverse and creative students were invaluable and provided meaningful insight into designing student-centered classrooms.