Thoughts on Engaged Learning at Parish

This head line below from the Chronicle recently caught my eye:


The methodology of the Harvard research that used secret cameras to study class attendance has concerned some faculty members. But putting aside the question of whether the methodology was ethical, what did the researchers learn about classroom-attendance patterns from their study, and what were the motives behind the experiment?

Harvard, of all places, concerned about attendance in their lecture halls.  What gives? As the tides shift in education, I thought: “canary in the coalmine.”  An early – and none too transparent – acknowledgement that the 300 seat lecture hall, “sit and get” delivery model common for generations on university campuses faces a considerable challenge. Today’s youth, whether we like it or not, are immersed in readily available, digitized information.  In just the last half decade, our lives have become increasingly technology-infused. Our young people, especially, suffer from shorter attention spans and a craving for high stimulation.  For older students, a rich array of formal (massive online courses) and informal (you tube instructional videos) curriculum on most any topic connected to a passion of theirs lies just a click away.

No wonder Harvard is curious about who is showing up to their lecture halls…

Rather mundane results (beyond angering some students  and faculty) yielded from the Harvard study: more kids showed up for lectures on Wednesday than Friday and lecture attendance declined as the semester progressed.  Only 60% of students showed up for any given lecture.

The most telling and applicable piece of this research to me, though, was this quote from the survey’s author. When speaking about those classes which had the highest attendance, the researcher noted: “these differences do not appear to be a product of the instructor directly. They appear to be structural aspects of the course.”

Structural aspects – meaning not so much what we teach, or even who teaches it – but what the learner is invited, challenged, or able to do when learning something.  In short, whether the learning experience engages the learner.

At Parish, our a faculty has recognized the need for such structural change.  We have spent significant time and attention to changing the design of our learning spaces, identifying the skills we want our students to practice and develop, and creating even more engaging, learner-centered curriculum to accomplish this.  In doing so, I would suggest we have learned that engaged learning environments share several characteristics:

Work is Meaningful and Authentic


Here, 3rd grade students check out the garden beds constructed for them by 8th grade students in our Service Learning course – part of the MS ParishLeads course sequence (Ethics, Public Speaking, and Service Learning taken by every 6th, 7th, and 8th grade student, respectively).  In both instances, students have or will learn some math, some science, and interpersonal skills while doing purposeful work.

APspanishAnd what could be more authentic than creating a resume and cover letter for a job?  Here, our AP VI students created exactly that (all in Spanish, of course) for a position at the company of their choice.

Learning Is Collaborative and Relational

APchem4thGradeOur 4th grade and AP Chem classes have recently used one of our rethought spaces – the Little Den – to engage students in collaborative work.  As students create and sketch graphs together, or discover Rutherford’s AU Foil experiment, the tasks invite the learner in and provide opportunities to teach and learn from others.

Active and Creative

BugFairAs I move through our classrooms, I see that our students have been asked to bring their creativity to bear when learning concepts.

One sees it with our youngest students to the right, who designed a bug.  Or one notices it as our middle school students combine their study of The Isle of Blue Dolphins in Humanities with their investigation of topographic maps and ecosystems in Science.  And as some of our oldest envision the form and function of this year’s Moonbuggy robot, they tap into their own creativity and those of others.

As I walk our three divisions each day, I note our success making the necessary structural changes to place the learner at the center of the learning experience.  I see it in our learning spaces; it is evident in the projects and products which adorn our walls; and I hear about it when I ask students about what they are doing in class.

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