A PRINCIPAL enters a classroom for a routine observation and finds that the lesson is highly interactive. Students and teachers are involved in what seems like a lively discussion, exchanging comments, and building upon each other’s ideas.
At the outset, it is a wonderful display of challenging young minds and teamwork in constructing ideas together. A closer look, however, reveals that it is mostly the same students who are participating in the learning — a handful of motivated and vocal ones, mostly seated in the front or centre. The ones at the back remain passive, although they do seem to be listening attentively.
As schools reopen for the new academic year, this might be a good time to rethink how to win back our disengaged students. Right through the stages of schooling, most classes tend to be divided between those who are active learners and those who choose to remain on the periphery. Some of it has to do with ability and the confidence to share ideas.
A large part of the engagement comes from the students’ rapport with the teachers, and whether students perceive them as a ‘safe zone’ to experiment, interact with, and interrogate. It is the ones often known as ‘back benchers’ who remain disengaged, and if teachers were to use inclusion strategies, these students could become involved.
As schools reopen, it is a good time to rethink how to win back disengaged students.
Not all of them will find the subject interesting or even useful, but almost all of them will respond to some kind of encouragement from the teacher. Often, this encouragement comes in the form of a ‘cold call’ that is meant to wake up an apathetic student. This strategy might work as a short cut to elicit a response, but it is essentially disconcerting for the student whose rapport with the teacher now stands threatened. A simple two-minute yoga stretch for all students is a more effective wake-up call.
Students also process information in different ways; some need more time than others to internalise the content. A ‘doodling’ student might be using the activity to process information, rather than disengaging, but may end up being told off for it.
To become active and willing participants in the classroom, students need to feel valued. This may mean that teachers sometimes have to shed their tendency to ‘correct’ or add to their ideas, and simply affirm them instead. Neutral feedback, adding detail or asking questions to clarify the thought process may encourage them to overcome the fear of being ‘wrong’.
Most students who hesitate to speak up are afraid of judgement. Others may have difficulty focusing on the topic, especially if they are carrying the emotional baggage of a cluttered mind or difficult personal lives at home. Teachers can help drive learning by winning back students who have yet to learn that mistakes are an essential part of co-constructing knowledge and that their willingness to contribute is worthy in itself.
Many students have been known to experience a transformation when they come across a teacher who becomes a mentor and devises ways to encourage, engage and become a partner in the students’ learning process. This often calls for a change in the rules of engagement, where the teacher plays a relatively passive role and allows peer responses instead of a teacher-student interaction.
For some it is less disorientating to engage with peers. Peer learning helps overcome the assumption of difficulty. A self-reflective process of what is holding back learning may unravel the problem; some students may find that the course content is not difficult, but their perceived inability to match up to others is the primary obstacle.
Identifying barriers that inhibit students’ participation in learning is an essential step towards helping them. Some very motivated students may not be able to pinpoint what is holding them back. Lack of interest is often cited as a common barrier, but it usually stems from an underlying limitation.
It might be as simple as backtracking to foundational concepts or something a little more demanding like convincing students of the value of learning by relating it to their experiences. In either case, targeted strategies can win back learners and perhaps ensure that they no more need to look for external help from tutors outside of school.
Active learning evolves through one’s ability to evaluate and assess their own learning capability and methods. Even the most well-intentioned teachers often lose students who are intimidated by learning. Not all students will value the process, but they will begin to ease into classroom engagement once a secure, judgement-free and interactive environment is created.
The writer is a lecturer of communication skills at Amity University, Dubai.
Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2019