There’s one heck of a problem in American education today. There seems to be absolute consensus on this point. After all, student test scores are woeful in comparison to those of other industrialized nations. And the test scores of students of color reveal a gap that exposes a culture of privileging the already privileged, that shows little sign of change. Hands are wringing and policy makers and administrators scramble to increase standards and heighten the stakes of measurable achievement. We must close failing schools, rest control away from lackadaisical districts and place it firmly into the hands of the DOE. We must weed out underperforming teachers and cajole, threaten and reward students into “success.”
The problem as I see it, however, is not low test scores. Rather low test scores are a symptom or maybe even in some indirect ways a cause of the problem. The problem is lack of engagement. The problem is disconnection, isolation, fragmentation, and a total absence of any sense of meaning, purpose, or relevance for learners and teachers alike. Students feel, (rightly) that their school work is entirely separate from their real lives and has little or no intrinsic value. Classes are “boring.” Homework is “annoying” and burdensome. Continual assessments are stressful. Meanwhile teachers are exasperated from the increasing pressure from above and the simultaneous expressions of indifference and disrespect from their charges.
Over the past twelve years, having previously left such a pedagogical culture of fragmentation and fear, I have enjoyed the incredible privilege to work in, and immerse my pedagogy in a place of engagement and engaged learning. Salmonberry School, where I have dedicated myself and my teaching practice has a by-line in its promotional material, “when a child loves school amazing things are possible.” What we’re really talking about in reference to “love” here is engagement. Not “love,” like “oh, I love chocolate,” but love as in commitment, understanding, care, trust. It is this goal of engagement or “love,” if you will, that is the driving force behind all of our pedagogical, curricular and structural decisions at Salmonberry.
We are looking to nurture children’s natural and intrinsic capacity for deep connection and engagement with the world around them. The three-year-olds who enroll at the school exude this natural sense of engaged learning. Everything they encounter is embraced fully with all senses and seems to fill them up. Unfortunately, far too often the school system, in an effort to frenetically impart “core” knowledge and skills to each learner, inadvertently yet systematically disengages children from the world around them and from their own learning. The driving force in our school is to hang on to that level of full engagement and build a culture where this kind of committment is the expectation and foundation for everything. For when learners are fully engaged, it is as if all processes become smoother, easier, and somehow better lubricated.
An engaged student sees meaning and purpose in their education. They see education as life-long and all-the-time. A disengaged learner views education as an alien-imposed obstacle course to survive with minimal contact, while avoiding any authenticity and mitigating vulnerability. Learning is something that is limited to the four walls of the classroom the hours of 9-3, and increasingly the contents of the Common Core Standards. An engaged student, by contrast, absorbs new material like a sponge, and then acts on it to make it truly their own. They swim in a sea of creativity, insight and imagination and exude a sense of passion and purpose. They are willing to take risks without fear, exposing themselves and implicitly trusting the support they will receive from others. They have internal motivation and do not need test scores, percentile ranks, letter grades or fear of punishment or humiliation to coerce their learning. An engaged learner is a joy to work with. Learning comes easily and naturally.
But the holy grail, in my pedagogical vision is not an engaged individual learner but an engaged learning community. When a community of learners, teachers and supporters (parents) come together with an expectation of engagement, that is when we witness true magic, transformation, and unlimited growth and self-actualization for all community members. In these communities of care (Noddings) or Communities of Truth (Palmer) the engagement is ubiquitous and omnipresent.
bell hooks has written a good deal about what she termed “engaged pedagogy.” Her conception, growing out of a blending of the holistic Buddhist tradition as articulated by Thich Nhat Hanh and the action-plus-reflection-based critical pedagogy of Paolo Freire, informs my own understanding. I encourage readers to check out some of her work. Here is one place to start. She goes so far as to bestow a moniker on the realization of a community of engaged pedagogy. The term she uses, quite simply, is “ecstasy.”
Have you ever glimpsed what you would call “engaged pedagogy?” What did it look like? Feel like? What are its critical attributes? And how do we get there? If engagement, rather than achievement, is the goal, then what practices must we radically re-think? I hope to give many more specific examples and more fully describe my own conception of engaged pedagogy in future posts here.