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In last week’s post, I cautioned against rushing too quickly into the comforting familiarity of traditional in-person instruction as public schools gradually re-open across the country. Instead, I suggested that we take careful stock of what is, and isn’t, working in our remote learning experiment. There may very well be some nuggets worth hanging onto.

An example I gave was actually a matter of speculation at the time, wondering if some of our more introverted and reticent students might find it easier to ask questions or offer input on-line versus assuming the inherent risk of offering their insights verbally. Any of us that have spent more than ten minutes guiding students through a discussion exercise know exactly what I mean. There are always a few kids whose hands will shoot up regularly, and there are those who never raise their hand or volunteer their thinking. It might appear that these quiet types, due to their silence, are not fully engaged. However, jumping to that conclusion disadvantages these students and weakens the classroom culture.

Happily, there is some data to substantiate my speculation. Brandon Busteed contributed a piece in the March 3, 2021 edition of Forbes citing the results of a student survey conducted by College Pulse. While it is examining the attitudes of college students, I believe these findings are applicable to K-12 as well, as the background issues are more about psychology and confidence that they are a representation of age. Two thousand students participated in the “Inside Higher Ed Student Voice” survey. Thirty-two percent (32%) of fully on-line students strongly agree that they are comfortable sharing their opinions during class discussions, while only 17% of students in fully in-person settings said the same. Does that suggest that only 17% of kids in our classrooms are willing to raise their hand and blurt out an opinion, while 32% find it safer to participate in a way they find less threatening? It may very well. It’s definitely worth thinking about.

Wait. There’s more. Thirty-one percent (31%) of the fully on-line students felt that “diverse opinions are welcomed in class,” compared to just 19% of the fully in-person respondents. The data further suggests that these differences are not a function of race as the responses of white and non-white students were the same.

The percentages presented in this survey may be surprising to many. At first blush, I thought that they had to be too low. But, then I recalled the insights I gained due to some observational strategies that I used as a school administrator in supporting teachers and their effectiveness. I might diagram the room to see if there were patterns in teacher behaviors regarding what students were called on or responded to. Or, I might tally individual student responses, again seeking patterns that might inform more equitable and inclusive participation. Thinking back through eighteen years of these types of exercises, the findings of this study are not surprising at all.

While we could probably offer some pretty accurate notions as to why the participation numbers are so low and differ so markedly between the two groups of students, we would be overlooking an important opportunity. To truly understand, and to be sincere in our efforts to increase the level of student engagement, we need only to ask the students themselves. What’s working? What would make it better for you? They’ll tell us if they believe we’re listening and are willing to follow up with action.

We have an obligation to find ways to engage all students; the loud ones and the quiet ones, the tall ones and the short ones, the white ones and the black and brown ones. If we are indeed committed to this aspiration as a profession, we need to give this data some careful consideration and develop some strategies that support this happening. Having only 17% of the kids in front of us willing to talk and only 19% of them believing that their opinions matter is a very long way from engaging all.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the spirited and lively classroom discourse that is punctuated by the eager and confident hand-raisers. Quite the opposite. And, I don’t believe that is what this data is suggesting either. What it is suggesting is that we need to thoughtfully apply the digital tools at our disposal to afford students, the reluctant 80%, an opportunity to have a voice, to engage and to participate.

Here are a few “free range” ideas that occur to me. I do not offer them as guaranteed “fail safe” strategies, but, rather, as starting points to perhaps trigger the thinking of classroom practitioners.

Clearly articulated discussion expectations. “I want to hear from everyone. Your thoughts and opinions are important. You don’t have to talk. You can offer your ideas in the chat space if you prefer.”

Immediate feedback. In the midst of a lively, in-person class discussion: “Everyone. Take one minute to enter your reaction to what Helen just said in the chat box.”

Share to validate. As student responses come in, read some aloud anonymously. “I’m going to read some of your opinions to the class without divulging who wrote what. You can claim your idea if you’d like by saying ‘that’s mine,’ but it’s not required.”

Exit ticket. “Take the last three minutes and send me a note. I want to know what your take away ‘big idea’ or ‘aha moment’ from today is. When I get a ticket from everyone, you may socialize until the bell rings.”

It doesn’t need to be digital. Card Shuffle. “Everyone, write your response to this question on the index card I’ve given you. I’ll collect them in this basket, mix them up, and then each of you will take a card (not your own) to read aloud.” Again, students may claim ownership if they choose.

Aside from their lack of brilliance, these ideas have something in common that is critical. In each, there is no “opt out” opportunity. The stated, and implied, expectation is that all students will participate, all will offer their opinions, thoughts, ideas or concerns. Of equal importance is the communicated notion that each of their contributions and insights have value and are worthy of being heard.

How to effectively engage students in the process of learning is, perhaps, the greatest challenge facing educators. It is of little consequence how compelling the curriculum may be or what antics a teacher may apply to gain a student’s attention in the absence of engagement. But, here’s the good news. Kids will engage if the following conditions are met:

  • They understand the importance of what is being studied,

  • They perceive the task before them as having value,

  • They can make personally relevant connections to the task at hand,

  • They believe that their opinions, thoughts and ideas are valued, and

  • They have a voice with which to communicate their opinions, thoughts and ideas.

And maybe, just maybe, some kids (certainly not all) may find digital tools helpful in finding their voice. Why would we deny any of them this opportunity when the tools are so readily at our disposal?

Having an effective voice is something all kids deserve.


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