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Assessment, Engagement, Leadership, Opinion

Engagement, Learning, Achievement – That’s the Necessary Order of Things

I believe it is commonly understood that companies that focus on immediate profitability usually fade in the long term while those that focus on quality products and services generally flourish. Is it so hard, then, to understand that schools that focus on test scores are missing the boat? (And, of course, there is the matter of customer service – but that’s another blog.)

Academic outcomes are only surrogate indicators for the ability to learn, which is the primary goal. They have some value in and of themselves, of course, but in a dynamic world where one can never know everything and knowledge is constantly evolving, it is the ability learn that really counts. I can’t remember who it was that said being educated in not a matter of arriving at a destination but of travelling with different eyes, but s/he was right.

Therefore, we should focus our attention on student learning and let the achievement take care of itself. I suppose that’s just another way of saying, “don’t teach to the test,” which means we need to go further upstream in the educational enterprise in order to achieve success – and that brings us to engagement, the actual headwaters that should concern us. Without engagement, learning suffers and achievement drops.

Does that mean that once engagement is achieved, learning follows naturally and achievement is assured? To a significant degree I think it does, and thus it is achieving engagement that should be our primary concern when thinking about everything from a lesson plan to the structure of a school system. (I’m talking about student engagement here but, of course, that is unlikely without teacher engagement so that’s yet another blog for another day.)

However, this Little Bo Peep approach  (leave them alone and they will come home wagging achievement behind them) has its limitations. Passionately engaged students won’t necessarily become competent lifelong learners with a strong foundation of background knowledge and a broad repertoire of skills. Some scaffolding is required to ensure the foundations that will enable them to become independently capable. Students also need some direct instruction so that they master a necessary core of understandings and skills – the Protective Shepherd element, if you like – before they are given increased choice and responsibility.

Notwithstanding this important caveat, a great deal of good could be done by shifting a significant part of our energy and attention from measuring achievement to stimulating engagement. At the very least it opens up a field of important generative questions that could help to reconsider the yin and yang of teacher-led and student-led action in schools.

Next Post in This Series: Teacher Engagement is the Key to Student Engagement

Afterthought – I’m sorry if the suggestion that students are like sheep put you off. Pigs are more intelligent but that get’s dicey too, doesn’t it. Metaphors have so much baggage!

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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