July 31, 2012

Achieving authentic student engagement through democratic classrooms

   "Schools for critical empowerment, not for subjugation." 
Henry Giroux

Are our students engaged? Or putting it better, are we engaging teachers? 

In order to answer this question, I went to the dictionary to look for a definition of  what it really means to be engaged. Busy, occupied, involved, tied up, preoccupied, employed, committed, unavailable, promised, and absorbed are some of the synonyms found in my search. Looking at them with more attention I could clearly see that there were two very distinct groups of synonyms and I decided to separate these in two groups. 

The first group had words such as busy, occupied, tied up, preoccupied, and employed, which seem to  be descriptors of low-energy superficial engagement. The second group, on the other hand, had synonyms like involved, committed, and absorbed, which seem to be descriptors of high-energy authentic engagement. These two distinct understanding of engagement are the tip of the iceberg as they reveal conflicting educational beliefs and imply in different ways students, parents, teachers, staff, and administrators experience schools.  

Superficial engagement can be seen when students are well-behaved, quiet, full of work, on task, giving the right answer quickly, and ready to follow commands.  Teachers, with their experience, focus on their teaching, managing timing and efficiency as the curriculum has to be fully covered. Punishment and prizes are strategies for motivating students, and private tutoring might be needed for weaker students. As a result this banking system produces people that are conformed to the system, who will be  "good citizens", good employees when told what to do. They are ready to listen and act.

If you have noticed some similarities with a production line you are right. Concepts like following commands, managing time and efficiency, and carrot and stick  aren't here by chance. These are the words used the neoliberal paradigm uses in education. 

Authentic engagement can be seen when students are euphoric, in movement, and full of ideas about their own learning, making choices, sharing discoveries, and reflecting about their progress. There are smiles and laughter, powerful motivators not only to learning, but to life. Teachers focus on students' learning, making sure that all students are reached, being also learners in this process of understanding how to make meaningful connections to students' lives. Individual and group learning discussions are powerful ways of engaging students. As a result this system allows skills such as empathetic listening, advocating speaking, individual and group awareness. These students are ready to promote change in how things are done in schools and in the world. They want to be heard and make it better.

Similarities again. Choice, sharing, reflection, reach, empathy, and change are words that are associated with democracy. Can you imagine these in a production line? I can't. This person would be kicked out as a trouble maker!

By now,  you have probably guessed that this real and authentic engagement I'm talking about can only be achieved in one way: power sharing. Here below I share some ways in which we can create more democratic classrooms: 

  • Develop your own sense of awareness, consciousness, and availability to be fully present with students, parents, peers, staff and administrators. You will see yourself more tolerant and respectful in your interactions. Meditation and mindfulness are a way of doing it. 
  • Develop new internal and external spaces of transparency, vulnerability, uncertainty, and hope to substitute old spaces of fear, repression, anger and conformity. It's ok to say: sorry, I messed up, I do not know,  I forgot, etc. Be honest. 
  • Remember you are a powerful manifestation of your values and beliefs  and that students learn these, even more than the actual content.  The ways we teachers act and behave shape our students' thoughts and actions.
  • Model language that students can use to give their opinion and have these sentences visible on boards. Create moments in which children can participate both orally and in written with what and how they would like to learn. Have a crazy ideas box. 

  • Help children deconstruct what it is to be at school. Discuss and raise awareness with them about the school culture, routines, procedures, desk positioning, and class decoration. Inspire students by creating together new social rules, social identities, and interactions. Show them that they can be agents of change in society.
    • Bring out the the hidden values and assumptions around measurement, discipline, trust, surveillance, moral, social understanding, assessment, and most importantly the definition of success. 
    • Start always by asking to value what students already know about a topic. Foster learning from then on with them as guides pointing directions. 

    • Prefer cummulative evaluation in the form of portfolios that allow students to self-reflect and self-evaluate their performance. Older students can be asked to research, discuss, study and write about their experience of schooling. A journal is a great way to empower them to share their views, involve other students and parents. 

    • Make sure to have plenty activities and discussions that foster curiosity, appreciation, and respect for the different traditions and origins of humanity, giving a broader repertoire to children.  
    • Use stories, movies, music, toys, games and puppets that deconstruct sexism, classism, and racism. Build collective identity to create solidarity. 
    • Analyze the good and bad characters in stories according to their physical appearance and race. Help them to build different mental models from the master narrative present in the media. 

    • Meet peers, share experiences, and mainly discuss the conditions of your professional practice. The coherence of the working environment and the teaching practice is essential to the flourish of democratic facilitators, who can truly influence how students experience democracy in their school lives.  

    I will always consider myself a learner in the theme of democracy. I felt the need to write this post because I often see  discussions about engagement that do not address the issue of power sharing in schools. I know that this is not an easy issue, specially in regular schools that have tight curricula. It's much easier in my setting of an independent language school for children. 

    I truly believe  that we should all invest in forms for a more robust democracy in our schools. These democratic acts can be the spark for the authentic engagement that I mentioned in the beginning. 

    These are my 2 cents on the topic! Let me know your views! 

    A big hug, 


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    1. Agree! It is such a deep topic! I want my kids being 'messy' and enjoying the classroom time! Learning and engaged!

      1. Just saw your comment now Angela! It's deep and it's always worth to pay it a visit, as we are then able to see the roots of involvement and learning. Thank you for coming here!

        Frog-hug to you!


    2. This is indeed a fantastic resource. Thank you for making this publicly available.

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      1. Thank you for your message! It's a great pleasure to share and learn with teachers around the world.

        Wishing you great classes,


    3. Thanks Juan for pointing out in our chat yesterday this post of yours. Another great one. :)

      I see through your post that empowering students means much more than let them choose an activity for example. I will keep your suggestions in mind when thinking of my own classroom. Thanks a lot. :)


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