21st Century Curriculum | Feature

The 6 Key Drivers of Student Engagement

The best way to drive student achievement is to meaningfully connect with students. The best way to do that is through technology.

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's March 2013 digital edition.

The following is an excerpt from the book Every Child, Every Day: A Digital Conversion Model for Student Achievement, published by Pearson. Edwards is the superintendent of Mooresville (NC) Graded School District (MGSD), whose districtwide 1-to-1 program earned it the 2012 Sylvia Charp Award.

We believe that relevant, personalized, collaborative, and connected learning experiences enhance student engagement, which in turn drives student achievement. Although these learning experiences were available in a more limited way before the advent of technology, digital conversion has taken them to an entirely new level.

Relevant Learning
There is a great deal of discussion these days about the need for relevant instruction, so that students can see the value of school. In the past, instruction has generally not connected students to the world outside of class, now or in the future, and many students have felt bored or disconnected. Digital conversion addresses this issue and allows educators to bring relevance into daily teaching and learning.

When students are using digital resources, building multimedia projects, collaborating and connecting online, and conducting online research, they are more interested in their schoolwork today, and they feel more connected to what their future holds tomorrow. Most of today's students expect that, as a matter of course, they will be using technology after high school--in college, in their future occupations, and in their personal lives--to work collaboratively, research, create, and solve problems.

The ability to connect life in school with life outside of school has a huge impact on students' "learning disposition." It allows learning to be personally centered. It helps students feel that school has meaning and purpose, which can make a world of difference in their level of engagement and achievement. When students do work that is relevant to the real world, their current lives, and their future plans, they become more curious about learning, show more initiative, and improve their analytical skills.

An important by-product of the relevance factor is that teachers and staff also feel more connected to the world outside of education and to their own future lives, creating a kinship with students in which both parties are experiencing the same thing.

Personalized Learning
When teachers harness formative data to teach with precision, differentiating learning to meet both individual and class needs, great things can happen. Personal focus is an absolute power driver for student development. The availability of real-time data permits the laser focus on personalization that we see now in our schools. The differentiated instruction that technology enables allows struggling students to learn at their own pace and helps gifted learners advance more quickly.

Real-time data gives teachers precise information to provide personalized interventions, to extend help to individual students, and to assign students to work in flexible collaborative groups--groups that can change as students progress at different rates or redirect their learning focus. Teachers can personalize group instruction for optimal productivity and to avoid any matches that may be problematic.

Collaborative Learning
Several researchers have found that the digital environment allows a collective of students and talents to come together, with an enhanced impact on learning. Thomas and Brown, in A New Culture of Learning, say that learning communities facilitated by technology allow students--both individuals and groups--to deepen and broaden their conceptual understanding of curriculum topics. And the 2010 Project RED research study found that online collaboration was one of the key factors in improved student performance: "Online collaboration contributes to improved graduation rates and other academic improvements."

We work with students on developing their collaboration skills both online and offline. Learning to collaborate as a team--using blogs, discussion boards, wikis, and more--is engaging for young learners. It also prepares them for their future, and they know it. But people often make the mistake of assuming that kids know how to collaborate from day one. They do not. Developing team skills in collaborative working groups has to be part of the curriculum.

Students in our district hear about sharing, caring, and working together from kindergarten on, but they still need to practice these skills every day. Just as sports teams and orchestras practice together, our students learn to work together and take collective as well as individual responsibility for the outcome of a project by practicing the following skills:

  • Giving and taking
  • Being flexible
  • Sharing
  • Understanding roles and responsibilities
  • Working with deadlines
  • Allowing for strengths and weaknesses

The process takes practice, patience, and planning, and our teachers now use a rubric that spells out collaboration roles and evaluation criteria. But the effort is worthwhile: When students acquire collaborative skills, they thrive. Collaboration adds new vitality to the learning experience for students and teachers alike, and builds the communication skills they need for the world of work.

Today, even very young students at MGSD see collaboration as the norm. At Park View Elementary, our third graders have been working with students in China. To them, collaboration is part of school and part of life, and they want it.

Connected Learning
Digital resources have had a significant impact on our instructional program, and the impact has grown as connected learning has become more integrated into our curriculum. Search tools and reference engines catapult students into an environment of daily research while connecting them to people, places, information, and tools to stimulate learning and the pursuit of knowledge.

Teachers make sure that online assignments are aligned by course objective while allowing students to select from several topics, all of which include online formative assessments, so that personal interests and data points are combined. Discovery Education Science, for example, provides many great opportunities to put this practice into action.

Information Literacy
Our media centers have become research centers, and our media specialists now design their work to fit the needs of the inquiry-based, exploratory environment. They review and vet online resources, work with teachers and students on a variety of online reference tools, and teach digital citizenship and research skills. To help students learn how to determine the validity of online information, they also conduct information literacy sessions that include the following practices:

  • Review credible articles in online encyclopedias and databases linked to district, school, and state websites.
  • Steer students to these resources early on to discourage quick Internet searches that lack relevancy or accuracy.
  • Demonstrate the difference in quality between built-in source citations in credible resources and web resources found via search engines.
  • Allow students to use search engines but teach them to phrase searches well and to limit their visits to the domain extensions .edu, .gov, and .org.
  • Help students look at the author of a website or articles to evaluate credibility and suitability for their research needs.

Dialogical and Dialectical Thinking
Today's students are connected to a wide variety of online opinions and information, and these connections facilitate two important kinds of thinking in our classrooms. It is vitally important to promote dialogical thinking by students--to familiarize them with the diversity of views on a particular topic and help them understand where the different views are coming from. It is equally important to promote dialectical thinking--to help students realize that what is true today may not be true in the future.

When students' perspective grows, they become more capable of formulating opinions, more adaptable to different circumstances, more understanding of complex issues, and more able to find realistic solutions to problems.