Board learning about student engagement

Board members and staff participated in a game as part of the presentation of the student engagement status report, May 13. They had to work together to create something without talking, which highlighted the importance of communication as a key component of the student engagement initiative.

A Chinook School Division initiative to increase student engagement and improve the high school learning experience for students is showing positive results.

Superintendent of Schools Dan Kerslake and Curriculum Coordinator Sharon Mayall presented the 21st century student engagement status report at a regular Chinook School Division board meeting, May 13.

Planning for this initiative started three years ago and the current school year is the second year of implementation.

An engagement committee was created in September 2016 to research the key principles of engagement for 21st century learners. There were focus groups in schools to ask students what would make their high school learn experience more meaningful for them.

“They gave us lots of ideas about what a great school would look like,” Mayall said after the meeting. “We really want to focus on the classroom, because our schools do a whole bunch outside the classroom piece for student engagement and we had really high results around that, but we just wanted to focus more on what in the classroom would look different.”

The committee used that feedback and information from its own research to create an engagement framework. The six principles of this frameworks are aimed at developing a collaborative classroom culture and promoting student-centred learning.

The implementation of this initiative started with an initial focus on the three components of collaborative culture, which are authentic relationships, students as partners, and a supportive environment.

“Now we’re getting into the student learning piece, and deeper learning is our focus this year,” she said.

Students have indicated they do not know why they are learning things and they do not understand what they will need the learned information for. The fact that students could not see the relevance of what they were learning was a significant barrier to engagement, and one of the goals of deeper learning is to ensure relevance.

“Another thing they said is they wanted things that were hands on and experiential,” she said. “They want to go out to try things, they want to do things. They really liked the idea of field trips, labs, things like that.”

Deeper learning therefore also aims to provide hands-on learning opportunities for students. Mayall said they did some research about relevance to determine the skills and strategies that teachers need to use.

“We created modules and professional development around it, and then we had teachers try it in the classrooms,” she mentioned. “Then we did some work on experiential learning and looking at having students ask their own questions, which is another strategy that is really important for students.”

A student’s frame of mind toward learning is a key factor in determining their level of engagement in the classroom.

“One of the biggest things that we've learned through all this is just the idea that students have some voice and choice, and that if you ask them and you check in with them regularly, it builds engagement,” she said.

Teachers can therefore build engagement by checking with students to make sure they understand and trying to build relevance through conversations.

“Even just that, making that one switch rather than standing in front talking all the time, doing more interactive classrooms, already moves the bar higher for students,” she said. “So it sounds like it’s hard, but there are some simple strategies, process things in the classroom you do differently to build up that student engagement.”

Data from the OurSCHOOL student survey for 2016-18 are already showing some positive change in the percentage of students who are interested and motivated.

Results from the course feedback survey that students complete for each high school course also showed higher positive responses. The overall score increased from 67 per for the first semester in 2017-18 to 76 per cent for the second semester in 2017-18. That score has remained constant at 76 per cent for the first semester in 2018-19. The school division’s goal is to see an increase in this course feedback score to 80 per cent in 2019-20.

Mayall said it is quite typical during the implementation of an initiative to see an initial increase in results, and then there is a bit of a levelling out period and then another period of improved outcomes.

“I’m sure we’ll see a bit of a level out and then we’ll continue to grow again,” she noted. “I think our teachers are really excited about trying some new things and seeing if it works or not. We’re encouraging them to do some risk-taking, which I think makes your job more fun and exciting. So I think that’s something that benefits students and teachers.”

She felt the student engagement initiative can be a useful tool for teachers to evaluate their approach to interact with students during the learning process, but teachers also face a challenge to implement engagement actions within their already busy schedule.

“Our high school teachers are professionals, they’re highly skilled in their content, and there’s a curriculum that’s pretty involved,” she said. “So you’re still doing that balance. I think that was the biggest thing and probably for teachers it’s tough, because of time and content and now you’re trying to go deeper, which also takes time.”

The implementation of the student engagement initiative will continue next year with a focus on assessment for learning, but there will be an ongoing effort to create a collaborative classroom culture. Coaching of teachers will increase with the hiring of two full-time high school engagement coaches.

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