Student Engagement

I observed a lesson in a vocational college for 16 to 18 year-old students studying to be hairdressers earlier this week. When I arrived, the instructor, an experienced hairdresser, was demonstrating how to do color foils on a mannequin head. There were about a dozen students surrounding her, all dressed in neat salon frocks. I was immediately struck by how engaged the students were. They were attending so closely that few even looked up when I entered. The students were watching the demonstration in complete silence. I don’t know how long she had been demonstrating before I arrived, but for about 10 minutes, she talked and worked, and not a single student’s eyes were diverted. Then, she called up several students one by one to walk each through the task as the others looked on. This went on for another 10 minutes, and still, no one was off-task, no one made side comments. Then, each student went to a mannequin head and practiced the process while two teachers circulated the room giving feedback and answering individual questions. Again, no chat among students. It wasn’t until the very end of the lesson, when students seemed more confident with the task, that I heard the first chatty comments – and even those, like one about the smell of the products they were using, were related to the task.

You might try to argue that these were a uniquely motivated and focused group of students, but I had just watched these same students during the lunch break. They were typical teens – loud and raucous, talking about who was starting drama with whom and whether there would be a fight. And besides, hairdressing takes an outgoing, chatty personality. And everyone in the UK keeps telling me that students who choose a vocational path are more likely to be those students who “can’t cut it” in academic A-level settings. So why was this group so engaged?

I don’t know whether or not she was aware of it, but the teacher was following all the trendy, research-based methods: modeling, frequent and targeted feedback, switching up the presentation style, etc. But really, I think we can all recognize that the reason these students were so engaged is that they were learning something they desperately wanted to know. Take it from this blogger who went to a salon recently and shelled out £75 for a foil highlight (about $125, and that didn’t include the cut and dry – ahh, the secrets I am now willing to share with the general public), the knowledge this teacher was sharing was much more valuable than the knowledge of the difference between dramatic and situational irony, or other such bunk, that I often find myself teaching to similar students.

Teachers and education writers who complain that today’s students aren’t engaged must figure out a way to convince the students (not the research world or the blogging community) why young people need the information we are trying to teach, or we should just quit all the hand-wringing and blame when students aren’t engaged. The problem doesn’t lie within the kids. They are perfectly capable of engagement. Do we have something to share that’s worth engaging them, or don’t we?

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