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Forget the ‘factory’ model: reimagine schools to support engagement

During the pandemic, school engagement among adolescents dropped to crisis levels. That makes now the perfect time to reinvent the traditional school model — once and for all.

Article written by Matt Gonzales.

On April 19, Seattle student Ezra Bent woke up and did something he hadn’t done for more than a year. He went to school in real life — or “IRL,” as he put it.

It was a day of mixed emotions. One the one hand, the 15-year-old sophomore disliked being stuck at home all school year. 

“Your sophomore year is a year where you really become an adult and learn how to do things on your own,” he says. Yet when the time came to get back to the classroom, his heart wasn’t in it. “I’m like, ‘I have to take a shower? Get dressed? Brush my teeth? I don’t want to do this.’” Bent says the extended isolation of the pandemic triggered a shift in his psychology. “It’s almost like it chemically changed the way I think and act,” he says. “I feel like I’m more introverted than I have been in the past.”

That same week, across town in South Seattle, middle school teacher Matt Burke also returned to the classroom for the first time in a year. Burke had been teaching his students online for eight months, but he had trouble recognizing them when they arrived for the first time in person. 

“I had to ask them their names during attendance,” he says. 

Burke’s experience isn’t uncommon among teachers who’ve spent most of the year teaching virtually. Although schools have used videoconferencing apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, students have often opted to keep their cameras off during class. Burke says it made it difficult to know “how engaged and focused” his students were at any given time. 

Correlating strongly with motivation and achievement, student engagement is critical to education success. Research has shown that academic motivation tends to drop off during adolescence. When the pandemic led to extended virtual learning for middle- and high-schoolers, researchers suspected the decline might worsen. 

Ellen Galinsky, chief science officer at the Bezos Family Foundation, wondered how students were faring during the pandemic. Having already gathered data in late 2019 on a nationally representative group of adolescents and their parents, she and her colleagues conducted a follow-up survey in August 2020 to see how students and their parents were managing. What she found was troubling: The number of students who reported being “not engaged” had doubled during the virtual learning period. 

While this might suggest a crisis, Galinsky and other researchers view it as a critical opportunity. The traditional school model, they say, has proven unsuccessful at engaging most adolescents for decades. Other studies have found that 40% to 60% of high school students show signs of disengagement. As the pandemic winds down and schools continue the return to in-person learning, it’s the ideal time to redesign schools to support engagement by meeting adolescents where they are.

A close-cropped image of a female seated at a laptop, outside. She’s holding a pen with both hands and appears to be studying the screen. There is another person seated at the table but they are largely cropped out of the photo.

Getting into ‘flow’

What exactly is engagement in the context of education? Galinsky compares it to the concept of “flow,” pioneered by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It involves feeling energetic, dedicated to, and absorbed in what one is learning.

When virtual learning began, Galinsky suspected that adolescent students would struggle to find flow in an online school environment where interaction with peers and teachers is severely limited. Her preliminary research found that 69% of students she surveyed were “rarely engaged or not engaged” during online learning. Galinsky says it’s an amplification of a problem that has festered in schools for years. “School engagement among adolescents wasn’t high before the pandemic,” she says. “So, this really is an opportunity, as any disruption is, to see what can we learn to engage children in school better because it will lead to better learning.”

A good start, Galinsky says, is for schools to design curriculum and implement instructional methods that align with the developmental needs of adolescent students. For example, her study found that students who felt a sense of belonging during virtual school were more likely to be engaged. “A sense of belonging was protective against a loss of engagement,” she says. Other factors, such as teachers providing choices and meaningful work to students, also helped. 

Galinsky says a lesson for schools and families is to take what worked in engaging students well in online learning and continue to do it. “Returning to the status quo won’t work,” she says. “We have to use this crisis as an opportunity to improve.”

A close-cropped image of a person seated at a small living room table, hands on the keyboard of an open laptop. The room appears to be an apartment in a city, there is a building visible through the large window of the apartment.

Relationships vs. remediation

Although Bent “hated” virtual learning, he knows he’s grateful to have had the support of family. His parents — both college professors who worked from home during the pandemic — were patient with him when his performance dropped precipitously early in the school year. They gently encouraged him to push through the tedium and isolation of online school. Eventually, his grades improved.

Not every child has had the privilege of that kind of comfort and support. As recently reported in a Washington Post story, low-income and students of color have been hit especially hard. Many spent virtual school taking care of siblings instead of logging into class. Some took part-time jobs to supplement their family’s income. They are also more likely to have experienced a COVID-related life event, such as the serious illness or loss of a loved one. 

For these students, lack of engagement in school has been a simple function of survival. Galinsky worries schools may be tempted to focus on “aggressive remediation” for these students when they return to school. That would be a mistake for a couple of reasons, she says. Not only would it label students who are already marginalized as “behind” their peers, but it would address a symptom and not the root of the engagement problem that has plagued schools for years. The key to supporting students, she says, starts with centering the developmental needs of adolescents: caring connections, agency, mastery, and purpose.

Seattle teacher Burke agrees. “I don’t think the goal is getting back to normal, because we know that normal is inequitable,” he says. He hopes schools will use this opportunity “to examine what we’ve learned over the last year and replace the worst effects of what was considered ‘normal.’” 

Two female students are seated next to each other on a bench in a park or garden, working on homework together. The student seated to the left is writing something in a notebook with a pencil. The student to the right has a laptop open.

Rejecting the ‘factory model’

Linda Darling-Hammond has big ideas about how schools can better engage adolescents in a post-pandemic world. A professor of education emeritus at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Darling-Hammond recently headed up the education transition team for President Biden. She agrees that now is the time to reimagine schools, starting by meeting students where they are instead of sorting them into categories. 

Consider, she says, that students who were most disengaged during the pandemic are from low-income communities and communities of color. Adhering stubbornly to the traditional school model would increase academic performance disparities that exists between them and their more privileged peers. Instead, Darling-Hammond says schools actively help kids get socially and emotionally calibrated after the trauma of the pandemic. “For kids who have had overwhelming experiences, they need to process what they’ve been through and make meaning out of it,” she says.

She argues for a “supportive” school return that prioritizes warm relationships and social-emotional support. Schools that were already using a relationship-focused model before the pandemic suffered less disengagement during virtual school, she says. “Schools that are project-based, have advisory systems, and community wraparound services did better than those stuck in the old factory model.”

To those who argue that reinventing schools at scale is unrealistic, Darling-Hammond points to the past. “I came up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when a lot of change came on the heels of a disruptive time,” she says. “Plus, I see a lot of state leaders, district leaders, and teachers who are eager to figure this out. I think we have a policy environment and a social consciousness that is ready to do this.” 

Plus, the stakes are too high to accept the status quo. “We’re at a moment when people see there’s a need for education that prepares kids to be engaged, thoughtful, compassionate learners,” Darling-Hammond says. “Because that’s going to make the difference, frankly, between whether we survive or not as a species.” 

Matt Gonzales is an Indianapolis-based writer and co-founder at Matinee Creative.

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