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Disengagement: Achievement Gaps, Discipline, and Dropout - Treating the Disease, Not Just the Symptoms

Let's overview anecdotal, empirical, and theoretical support for the idea that enhanced student engagement is the way to walk upstream to simultaneously reduce discipline problems, achievement gaps, and dropout. To a significant extent, all three of these problems are merely symptoms of a common cause: lack of student engagement. We will take each symptom in turn.

Discipline Problems

Let me start with a personal anecdote. I attended Beverly Hills High School in the late 1950's. At that time, there was a heavy emphasis on academic achievement. I remember what our classes looked like and felt like. When the teacher talked, we all listened attentively. In fact, for many of us the teacher was the most engaging stimulus in our world. About thirty years later I was invited back to my high school to do a workshop for the teachers. That day I had the opportunity to walk through and observe classrooms. I was shocked! What stood out for me most was the change in the body language of the students. As students, we sat up, focused on the teacher, and listened attentively. Thirty years later in those same seats, students were slouched. Many had their heads down, not even listening to their teachers. Their body language conveyed disinterest and even disdain. Facial expressions mirrored feelings of disengagement.

How had everything changed in those intervening years? Beverly Hills High School still drew from rich neighborhoods. The students still drove fancy cars and wore expensive clothes. Class size was the same. But everything had changed. Part of the change is due to the level of stimulation to which students have become accustomed. When I was a student half a century ago, there were no cell phones, text messaging, DVDs, GameBoys, MTV stations, TIVOs, color TVs, iPods, video games, Wiis, or web-based forms of information and interaction. Many of today's students are sending and receiving an average of 50 to 100 text messages a day! In my day, without all the competing stimulation, the teacher was the most exciting thing in our environment. We listened to the teacher with fixed attention because the teacher was a source of stimulation. Today, the interest level a teacher can provide pales in comparison to all the other sources of stimulation to which students are constantly exposed. Simply put, today's students are accustomed to a level of stimulation with which the lecturing teacher cannot compete. A teacher talking cannot keep most of today's students fully engaged.

What does all this have to do with discipline problems? Engaged students are not disruptive. But, if the teacher's talk is boring for the student, students either "check out" during class, or look for other sources of stimulation — talking with a peer, or worse yet, creating an incident in class. If a teacher cannot compete with the stimulus level to which a student has become accustomed, a student doesn't value teacher talk, there is little or no cost to interrupting it, unless external punishments are imposed. And that is part of the reason today's teachers are requesting discipline workshops! If their content and instructional strategies were engaging for all their students, the students would not be seeking alternative sources of stimulation.

This point, that engagement prevents discipline problems, is nicely illustrated by the experience of Alfie Kohn, one of America's most prominent educators.18 When Kohn began writing his book on discipline, he decided to observe the classrooms of a sample of teachers who had earned respect as among the very best teachers. He wanted to see how they handled disruptive students. He did hours of observations and came away saying he had absolutely nothing to write about. Why? In the classrooms of the very best teachers, students simply did not disrupt! The students were so engaged, their attention riveted on learning, they had no need or inclination to be disruptive.

I discovered this principle inadvertently years ago in another way. When I first began giving cooperative learning workshops, I was a professor of psychology and had no idea about classroom discipline issues. I had developed cooperative learning methods and was training teachers in how to use them. A pattern developed. A few weeks after the teachers began using the cooperative learning methods, very often the school principal or vice principal or whoever was in charge of discipline in the school would approach me. They would ask, "What is the new discipline program you are training?" I would be surprised, saying, "No, I am just training the teachers in cooperative learning. I am not offering any training in discipline." In some cases they would be insistent: "Oh, yes, you must be training a new discipline approach — our discipline referrals have gone way down!" I was baffled about these interactions but did not at the time give them much thought. It was only later that it made sense. I was training teachers in instructional strategies that created intense levels of engagement among all students. Being fully engaged, the students were not disruptive!

Student engagement is obtained not just by cooperative learning. The Win-Win Discipline19 approach emphasizes enhancing student engagement via instruction and management. Efficient management means less down time and more student engagement in learning, decreasing opportunities for disruptive behaviors. Win-Win management includes class meetings, student signals, student role assignments, and student input into the discipline process. The Win-Win Discipline program emphasizes four types of engaging instructional strategies: cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, differentiated instruction, and brain-based learning to enhance student engagement. Student engagement is enhanced also by offering developmentally appropriate, relevant, hands-on, meaningful, and differentiated curriculum.

The power of engaging instructional strategies to reduce discipline problems is supported by data collected in the UK.

Prior to the introduction of cooperative learning, behaviour had been a significant challenge. Within months, the positive impact of team-based learning, supported with classbuilding and teambuilding sessions, was having a significant impact in reducing the number of behaviour incidents across school. The graph illustrates the downward trend in the number of behaviour incidents. Analysis of the behaviour incidents at the onset of the use of cooperative structures showed that while overall numbers decreased there were "new additions," who previously had had low or no behaviour incidents, who began to have recorded incidents. A significant number of these new additions were learners who in group work could have been classified as "Hogs'" controlling and taking up the greater proportion of the talk time. Intensive teambuilding and classbuilding activities over a period of months saw these additions removed from the behaviour incidents with a further decrease in recorded incidents.20

A graph of behavior incidents per term per class paints the picture:

In the UK, the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) is an inspection system in which inspectors grade lessons with regard to student behavior, learner progress, inclusion, and teaching approaches. The Ofsted report noted how cooperative learning produced student engagement: "It was a pleasure to see in one class both enthusiasm with which learners moved round to high five each other as part of their learning. It was just one piece of evidence of how well learners engage in learning."

How is it that cooperative learning is so much more engaging for students? Most students come to class wanting to interact with their peers and to move. In the traditional class, they are expected to sit quietly and not interact with others. Those who have very strong needs to move or interact do so and get labeled as discipline problems. In the cooperative learning class, they are expected to interact and to move, so they can meet their need without becoming a discipline problem. Cooperative learning strategies are engaging; they allow students to do what they most want to do — interact with their peers. Engaged with the learning activities students find little opportunity or desire to become disruptive. We will explore the power of cooperative learning to engage students in greater depth as we examine the achievement gaps and why students drop out.