The Politics of Engagement
from schools to work
The Engagement Industry
Imagine that we could sum up everything that is both right and wrong with school and the workplace in one concept. Gallup frames engagement as a concept that might fill that role since it seems like we are suffering a crisis of engagement in both schools and the workplace.
In 2001, Gallup claimed that disengaged employees cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars. When talking about the workplace, Gallup frames engagement as something that employees choose and are responsible for, which contrasts sharply with how they depict engagement in school as a “cliff to be aware of,” outside of the control of individual students. Brandon Busteed writes, “Gallup research strongly suggests that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become.” In Gallup’s analysis, schools cause low student engagement, which then translates into low employee engagement, causing lower economic productivity.
I’m skeptical, to say the least.
There’s good reason to think that only a “sexy and overgeneralized” construct could be pressed upon to explain so much, as Jacquelynne Eccles and Ming-Te Wang argue. I once read an author who quipped that engagement is less a construct and more of an industry.1 Jacquelynne Eccles and Ming-Te Wang, So What Is Student Engagement Anyway?, p 141. In Sandra L. Christenson, Amy L. Reschly, Cathy Wylie, Handbook of Research on Student Engagement, Springer, 2012. Try as I might, I can’t find who made the quip about the engagement industry. However, I don’t want to represent it as my original thought.
I approach the topic of engagement with reluctance because the discussion can quickly become polarized, as if it were impossible to simultaneously empathize with teachers and students. I think that’s a symptom of a larger problem, one that’s about the political rather than psychological nature of engagement.
As teachers, we are not indifferent to whether or not our students are engaged. We always knew that test scores were a reductive measure of the health of our education system or classroom, and so we might welcome a focus on engagement, which has the potential to speak to the broader well-being of students.
Does the corporate obsession with employee engagement reflect a similar compassion? Or is measuring engagement just another way to link employees to the bottom line, to extract emotional commitment from people when the employers offer less security and unlivable wages?
After situating Gallup’s ‘school cliff’ in the larger context of research on engagement in schools, I turn to engagement in the workplace, which is even lower than in education. Even so-called ‘knowledge work’ allows little autonomy or imagination. Finally, I talk about the political nature of boredom and engagement and suggest what we as educators might do about it.
The School Cliff? Critical Questions about Gallup's Statistics
Consider then Gallup’s graph (2014) of what it calls the “School Cliff”:
The graph is visually striking in part because Gallup shows a selective portion of the scale. A nearly straight line makes it seem inevitable that student engagement will be crushed, as if schools were engineered for that purpose.
Gallup’s Brandon Busteed puts this graph to explicitly political ends: “Imagine what our economy would look like today if nearly eight in 10 of our high school graduates were engaged — just as they were in elementary school.” This thought experiment exactly mirrors how standardized tests and achievement have been used at least since A Nation At Risk (1983), a report in which nearly all the “indicators of risk” refer to test scores.
Now, engagement has become an ‘indicator of risk’ in the hands of those who argue that the whole premise of the reform movement is a relic of an outdated conception of education based on a Fordist model of work. Standardized test scores and achievement, part of the so-called ‘factory model’ of education, are no longer relevant to what will make America successful in the new ‘knowledge economy’, which depends on flexible, creative, and innovative talent rather than the ability to achieve well on tests. Tony Wagner leads those who argue for ‘reinvention’ rather than reform: “The failure to give all students these new skills leaves today’s youth—and our country—at an alarming competitive disadvantage. Schools haven’t changed; the world has. And so our schools are not failing. Rather, they are obsolete—even the ones that score the best on standardized tests.”2Tony Wagner, The Global Achievement Gap, p xxi. In Most Likely To Succeed, Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith call it an ‘innovation’ rather than ‘knowledge’ economy, and if you think that sounds an awful lot like Thomas Friedman, you’re not wrong. Their use of the term is idiosyncratic, and they don’t attempt to ground it in any economic or sociological theory. Gallup’s graph provides the visual spectacle to complement Wagner’s ideas.
Yet, if the knowledge economy rhetoric were true, if the workplace acts as the more engaging counterpart to school because it fosters creativity and play, then why do workplaces have even lower levels of engagement than school? “Gallup finds only 30% of all U.S. employees — and a mere 13% of workers worldwide — are engaged in their jobs.” If we add another data point – Gallup’s data on the percentage of employees who are ‘engaged’ at work – then we get an interesting picture.
By this measure, we are doing an excellent job of preparing youth for the ‘real world’ in contrast to the neoliberal rhetoric that has become increasingly popular.
I have a different thought experiment to counter Busteed’s: imagine what schools would look like if our socioeconomic system provided eight out of ten adults with meaningful work that engaged them and recognized all the other non-paid domestic and care-giving work that people contribute to our productivity. Rather than see schools as a broken stretch of pipeline that ought to supply the economy with human capital, we can see the economic system as designed to extract value from our ‘human capital’ and pay the rewards to only the top 0.01%. David Harvey calls this ‘accumulation by dispossession’, and in my final section, I suggest this as a common cause of low engagement in education and the workplace.3 David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p. 159
What does engagement mean?
While research on engagement usually includes three dimensions – emotional, behavioral, and cognitive – the Gallup questions don’t address behavioral engagement (I try hard to do well in school) or cognitive engagement (When I study, I try to connect what I am learning with my own experiences). 4 Shui-fong Lam , Bernard P. H. Wong , Hongfei Yang , and Yi Liu, Understanding Student Engagement with a Contextual Model, p. 408 in Handbook of Research on Student Engagement Engagement, as understood by researchers, encompasses persistence and effort on the part of the student, involvement in other activities outside the classroom, and positive conduct at school. Gallup’s meaning of ‘engagement’ differs so sharply from the research literature that they may as well use a different word.
Gallup’s choice to exclude items related to cognitive engagement has more significance than being a mere semantic shift because research by Duhita Mahatmya reveals that “the ability to become cognitively engaged with school is greater during adolescence compared to both early and middle childhood.” 5 Duhita Mahatmya , Brenda J. Lohman , Jennifer L. Matjasko , and Amy Feldman Farb, Engagement Across Developmental Periods, p. 55. In Handbook of Research on Student Engagement
Beyond clearly measuring all three dimensions of engagement, Shui-fong Lam recommends separating the indicators of student engagement from the contextual factors or facilitators of student engagement. 6 Shui-fong Lam , Bernard P. H. Wong , Hongfei Yang , and Yi Liu, Understanding Student Engagement with a Contextual Model, p. 404 “Indicators are the characteristics that belong inside the construct of student engagement proper, e.g., students’ effort and enthusiasm in school work. By contrast, facilitators are the causal factors outside the construct, e.g., teacher support that contributes to student engagement.” Many of Gallup’s items are facilitators of engagement (’The adults at my school care about me’) rather than indicators that students are actually engaged. Clearly separating indicators from facilitators allows researchers to examine the correlation between the two.
All of this is not to say that we shouldn’t care about what Gallup does measure, but since the survey leaves out critical measures of engagement as researchers understand the construct, we should reconsider whether ‘engagement’ is the right word to use.
How did Gallup calculate who counts as engaged?
How did Gallup decide who counts as ‘engaged’ when they constructed their ‘school cliff’ graph?
I can’t see any clear answer. The survey consists of 12 statements and students respond on a five point Likert scale from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree.’ Then, Gallup performs some mysterious operation where they determine what percentage of students counts as ‘engaged’, but they never explain this procedure. Are they using an aggregate score out of 60 (12 items x 5 points) to see who counts as ‘strongly engaged’? Or do students need to answer ‘strongly engaged’ to a certain percentage of the 12 items?
Without understanding Gallup’s methodology, we can’t really claim to understand their graph.
Scott McLeod’s graph of the 2015 data provides an honest and less alarming presentation than Gallup’s ‘cliff’ graph of the 2014 data :
Yet, we still don’t know Gallup’s methodology for calculating who counts as engaged.
In another graph, McLeod uses Gallup’s Full Results to track three separate items:
However, Gallup’s Full Results breakdown by grade level only gives numbers for ‘strongly agree’ (page 8), which makes it impossible for us to make a graph that would also include those who ‘agree’. While we might hope for a school system in which all students ‘strongly agree’, there’s no rationale for hiding the data for those who merely ‘agree’.
Gallup provides us with two other sources of data that should make us question their opaque methods.
First, in the 2015 Overall Report, Gallup shows the percentage of responses for each item on their questionnaire, though they do not break this down by grade level:
Counting those who ‘agree’ would make a significantly large difference for all of these items, in some cases doubling the percentage. Thus it’s highly misleading to present a graph by grade level that only shows those who ‘strongly agree’. For all we know, adolescents are more likely to say ‘agree’, not because they are less engaged than they were, but because they have more nuanced feelings.
Second, Gallup also provides us with the ‘Grand Mean’, which is the mean response for everyone who answered the survey as a score out of 5. This construct tells a very different story than their ‘school cliff’ graph. In their 2014 Overall Report, the ‘Grand Mean’ declines from 4.37 out of 5 (87.4%) to 3.73 out of 5 (74.6%) between 5th and 12th grade, but those who count as ‘engaged’ drops from 76% to 44%. My point is not that the ‘Grand Mean’ graph shows the real picture, but rather that it should make us question whether their ‘engaged’ construct does.
What are the limitations of Gallup’s study?
Gallup itself acknowledges significant limitations: “The online poll is completed by a convenience sample of schools and districts each fall. Schools participating in the annual Gallup Student Poll are not randomly selected … The overall data from the annual administration of the Gallup Student Poll may not reflect responses from a nationally representative sample of students, and the overall data are not statistically weighted to reflect the U.S. student population…” (page 6).
That’s no small limitation, yet I have never seen it acknowledged by people like Will Richardson (9:30) who rely on the statistics to make a point about the education system as a whole. John Tierney and Larry Ferlazzo note the limitations, and provide a more cautious assessment.
In what is perhaps the most pressing methodological shortcoming, Gallup does not analyze the variance in engagement between schools or students. The “school cliff” graph makes it appear like each student in each school faces a uniform decline in engagement across the years. As Stephen Jay Gould reminds us, “Variation is the hard reality, not a set of imperfect measures for a central tendency. Means and medians are the abstractions.” Some high schools have very high proportions of students engaged, and as Busteed acknowledges, “the best high schools in our dataset have as many as seven in 10 of their students engaged”. By not analyzing the variance, Gallup misses a chance to examine the larger systemic factors that may cause low engagement.
In his talk, Richardson says, “I have lived this line as a parent watching my kids go through school.” This is absolutely the wrong way to interpret the ‘school cliff’ graph. Gallup did not conduct a longitudinal study tracking the declining engagement of individual students as they move through school. Longitudinal studies reveal a different picture. While high school does have lower engagement rates, Ellen A. Skinner and Jennifer R. Pitzer argue that “research also documents a high level of interindividual stability” as children move through school. Students who are engaged in the early years often remain so through middle school and high school.7 Ellen A. Skinner and Jennifer R. Pitzer Developmental Dynamics of Student Engagement, Coping, and Everyday Resilience p 31, in Handbook
In Cathy Wylie and Edith Hodgen’s longitudinal study (New Zealand), they found several different engagement trajectories that students follow.8Cathy Wylie and Edith Hodgen Trajectories and Patterns of Student Engagement: Evidence from a Longitudinal Study, p 591. In Handbook of Research on Student Engagement
Their “data show considerable overlaps between school and out-of-school engagement patterns,” with enjoyment of reading being consistently high among the ‘high trajectory’ group, and hours spent watching TV and playing video games higher among the low trajectory group, which was “most likely to include those who wanted to ‘stand out’ (have lots of money to spend, lots of friends, wear the right clothes or look cool, and have an important job).”9 Cathy Wylie and Edith Hodgen Trajectories and Patterns of Student Engagement: Evidence from a Longitudinal Study, p. 595 Thus, school is not the only causal factor in the lives of adolescents.
Most importantly, Wylie and Hodgen’s research investigates the systemic inequalities that contribute to engagement. “Students whose trajectory was low between ages 10 and 16 were more than twice as likely as those whose trajectory was high to have come from homes that were low income as they approached school starting age (38% and 14%, respectively) and six times as likely to come from homes in difficult financial situations when they were age 14 (30% compared to 6% of the high trajectory group.”10 Cathy Wylie and Edith Hodgen Trajectories and Patterns of Student Engagement: Evidence from a Longitudinal Study, p. 590 They also noted that New Zeland’s indigenous people were less likely to be in the highly engaged trajectory, and we could imagine a similar legacy of damage from structural racism in Canada and the United states for Black and First Nations students.
Absent an analysis of the variation in student engagement, especially in light of the United States’ high levels of child poverty and structural racism, Gallup’ graph suggests that schools are homogeneous problem. They are not.
As Michelle Alexander argues, the New Jim Crow continues the legacy of structural racism under the guise of colorblindness. Standardized testing stands out as an obvious culprit that affects the engagement of all high school students, however only looking through that lens could well miss the ongoing racial oppression in America’s school system. Alexander writes,
“It’s important for us to understand how school discipline policies have been influenced by the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement. Many people imagine that zero tolerance rhetoric emerged within the school environment, but it’s not true. In fact, the Advancement Project published a report showing that one of the earliest examples of zero tolerance language in school discipline manuals was a cut-and-paste job from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration manual. The wave of punitiveness that washed over the United States with the rise of the drug war and the get tough movement really flooded our schools. Schools, caught up in this maelstrom, began viewing children as criminals or suspects, rather than as young people with an enormous amount of potential struggling in their own ways and their own difficult context to make it and hopefully thrive. We began viewing the youth in schools as potential violators rather than as children needing our guidance.”
Engagement is Your Responsibility: The Bored Self At Work
Not only does Gallup survey students about their engagement, they give a similar survey to employees. As I mentioned, the levels of employee engagement are lower than student engagement. However, Gallup takes a very different tone when talking about work, blaming the disengaged for their effect on organizations and the economy. When Busteed laments that workers are not engaged “as they were in elementary school,” we need to read the comment in the context where many attributes that traditionally define childhood – flexibility, playfulness, creativity – have come to be expectations of adults. As Keri Facer argues, this view obviously romanticizes childhood, and it also romanticizes ‘knowledge work’ as a kind of playground where employees regain the voice and autonomy that was taken away by schools and Fordism. 11 Keri Facer, Learning Futures, p.33
In this neoliberal narrative that equates free-markets and the entrepreneur with freedom, engagement simultaneously becomes a carrot and stick, a promise of interesting work and autonomy on the one hand, and the duty to manage the self and affect on the other. It’s not enough just to do your job, you must be passionate and emotionally committed to the company and their mission. As Carol Linehan writes, “In the movement from compliance to commitment models of employment, the employee needs to not only do their job but also internalize, and identify with, management/organizational goals while paradoxically the organization seeks to reduce its responsibility for individuals’ careers and job security” 12 Carol Linehan, Flexible Work, Flexible Selves? The Impact of Changing Work Practices on Identity, p.66
In one explanation of employee engagement, Forbes emphasizes the discretionary effort that engaged employees put in: “This means the engaged computer programmer works overtime when needed, without being asked. This means the engaged retail clerk picks up the trash on the store floor, even if the boss isn’t watching. This means the TSA agent will pull a bag suspicious bag to be searched, even if it’s the last bag on their shift.” Who knew that disengaged employees might be so dangerous?
The title of Ken Royal and Susan Sorenson’s article for Gallup, Employess are Responsible for Their Engagement Too, suggests that we as workers must take on ever more responsibility to not only do our jobs, but to manage our affect, emotions, and self. In what sounds exactly like the kind of corporatized mindfulness that ditches the dharma, they write: “But you have a choice in how you respond to daily challenges, and if there’s nothing else you can change about a situation, at least you can choose your attitude and approach.”
The condescending tone of Royal and Sorenson’s article implies that employers have been doing all the hard work: “Unless employees assume some measure of responsibility for their own engagement, the efforts of their organizations, leaders, managers and teams may have a limited effect on improving engagement.” Royal and Sorenson then use the corporate language of accountability to dilute and individualize any conception of empowerment: “Be accountable to yourself for your success. Take responsibility and empower yourself by setting measurable, realistic goals and staying focused on and heading in the right direction to attain them. … By leaning on your unique talents and strengths, you can make the most of each day at work, and engagement will follow. And be sure to celebrate your achievements and keep setting the bar higher.” While ‘empowerment’ originally signified challenging power and structural inequality, Royal and Sorenson aim to make us responsible for our own empowerment – individually, and indefinitely – as we raise our own bar higher and higher.
This shift in the meaning of ‘empowerment’ tracks the semantic change in the fields of social work and international development. As a step to becoming ‘empowered’, they suggest that you “create a personal engagement plan” and “think about the strengths you can use to get there.” Ideally, you should do what it takes to ‘strongly agree’ with each item according to Royal and Sorenson, but only the first of the twelve items is plausibly under any individual employee’s control.
This workplace survey is a powerful comment not upon the individual, but upon the narrative that we have been sold about work. Low workplace engagement shows that workers face shifting and unclear expectations, lack the materials they need, and don’t receive recognition, care, and opportunities to learn and grow. This should be first in our mind when we think of the labor involved in teaching.
Globally, neoliberal capitalism at best provides 13% of people with work that does not alienate them, and that other 87% toil in the vast supply chains and service sector – in the factories and mines, food processing plants, and fast food kitchens – essentially sacrifice zones, to borrow a term from Naomi Klein.
Gallup paints an ugly picture of those who would ‘strongly disagree’ with many of the twelve items on their workplace survey: “Actively disengaged employees are more or less out to damage their company. They monopolize managers’ time; have more on-the-job accidents; account for more quality defects; contribute to “shrinkage,” as theft is called; are sicker; miss more days; and quit at a higher rate than engaged employees do. Whatever the engaged do — such as solving problems, innovating, and creating new customers — the actively disengaged try to undo.” Much like many of the 12 items do not fall within the agency of the individual employee, having on the job accidents and getting sick fall outside the scope of what individuals can control. Perhaps the low rate of employee engagement doesn’t signal a problem with the individual employee, and instead we should talk about ‘actively alienating workplaces’ that damage the well-being of people who work there.
While Gallup pits the ‘engaged’ against the ‘actively disengaged’, they make the ‘not engaged’ sound like obstacles, “sleepwalking through their workday, putting time — but not energy or passion — into their work.” Of course, everyone must put energy into their work, but there is energy and then there is energy.
While the business management literature romanticizes jobs in the knowledge economy, even there “productivity has not come from giving people permission to think but from imposing barriers to individual initiative and control through a detailed division of labor.”13Philip Brown, Hugh Lauder, and David Ashton, The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs, and Incomes (2011), p 67 That’s the argument of Philip Brown, Hugh Lauder, and David Ashton who find that a Digital Taylorism exerts a new kind of control through routinization in the knowledge economy beyond the factory floor. Just as Frederick Winslow Taylor used ‘scientific management’ in factories, companies now use a digital form of Taylorism to standardize knowledge work. Any teacher that’s ever had a curriculum book complete with scripts thrust in their hands will know what I’m talking about.
Ethnographic studies of the knowledge economy bear this routinization thesis out.
In The Bored Self in Knowledge Work, Jana Costas and Dan Kärreman find that the business management discourse that glorifies knowledge work fails to match the day-in and day-out reality, which shouldn’t surprise most of us. “For those in mainstream office work, creativity and innovation were allowed on very specific terms when they were valued at all.” (865)
Costas and Kärreman interviewed over 100 people at two global consulting firms, spent time in training sessions with them, and even followed the consultants through their days. What they found contradicts the image of work that the company projected. Instead of a culture that fosters creativity and autonomy, they found that a bored self emerges in a context of “identity regulation” where “the target of control is not so much behavior or the measure of output as it is how employees define themselves.” (6) In teaching, it’s the difference between being accountable for your students’ performance on standardized test scores, and being accountable for your identity as a passionate teacher and a ‘connected’ educator. It is no boon to teaching to move from an statistical regulation based on standards to a therapeutic one based on identity.
Costas and Kärreman identified five “clashes between the company discourses concerning the nature of work and thus of the consultant identity and the consultants’ everyday work experience.” (13) While the discourse emphasizes the terms on the left,employees report their experiences using the terms on the right:
creativity ↔ repetition
autonomy ↔ standardization
learning ↔ de-skilling
expertise ↔ clerk work
elite identity ↔ ‘nobody’
Here is how one of the consultants described their work: “The actual nature of work it is very dry material and you actually have to approach it in a clinical, professional mindset, you can’t be necessarily creative and artistic and philosophical about it. … It is not necessarily an intellectual place… Someone referred to it once as the McDonald’s of the consultancy world. I mean it is very true.” (consultant, EC)” (13) Remember this study next time someone tells you that it’s schools that are the problem.
Yet rather than simply reject the image that the company projected, respondents formed an ‘arrested identity’, “drained from drives to mobilize alternative selves and thus engage in resistance. This might add explanation to the lack of resistance noted in such work arrangements.” (32) This arrested identity in knowledge work works against political mobilization and the ability to imagine alternative futures.
Underlying this conception of engagement is a fragmented self. Ilana Gershon has argued that this self “composed of usable traits” or “marketable capacities” is fundamentally different from other cases where the self becomes fragmented.14Ilana Gerson, Neoliberal Agency, p. 539 Thus the drive to ‘raise the bar’ is at once an injunction to not be bored in our ever-so-stimulating knowledge economy, and also it channels our energy so that it doesn’t accidentally take aim at the broken system, but remains focused on us as fragmented individuals. Our engagement journey is meant to be solitary and isolating, pitting us against each other.
What’s the dominant affect if not engagement?
Boredom and anxiety come to mind.
Compare the arguments of Plan C:
“The present dominant affect of anxiety is also known as precarity. Precarity is a type of insecurity which treats people as disposable so as to impose control. Precarity differs from misery in that the necessities of life are not simply absent. They are available, but withheld conditionally.”
And H Kapp-Klote:
“What’s making us bored is the real, material structures that restrict and patrol our imaginations – the same material structures that allow for uneven distribution of power. No matter how big, great, and vast, the world is, if one’s life is confined to only a small fragment of that world, it’s hard to escape the cycle of boredom.”
Reformers and reinventors have been pushing school firmly within the capitalist logic for 100 years now. To explain high levels of unemployment in the face of an increasing number of post-secondary graduates, CEOs argue that there is a ‘skills gap’ between what they are looking for and what schools produce. Youth become nothing more than an absence, a gap, reduced to a bundle of skills that are judged solely by their economic worth. The fact that the skills gap – a zombie idea, in Paul Krugman’s phrase – is so hard to kill suggests that it serves dominant interests rather well.
Anxiety defines many of our narratives about school. We are told that our schools are not ‘future ready’, that they have not changed in a hundred years. So too does the anxious imperative to be an engaged employee restrict our imaginations by keeping us focused on managing our selves – and others – so that we are continually immersed in a project that doesn’t involve challenging the structural conditions that keep us in a state of precarity. The focus on making school engaging for students risks keeping us powerless in the sphere of education. It’s hard to see it as some benevolent wish for the future of our children because in the very next breath or blog post, the students (a focus of care) become adults (a cause for concern).15 Researchers concerned with engagement originally focused on helping students who were at risk of dropping out or being pushed out of school. In my criticism, I target the idea that the crisis of engagement originates in an obsolete school system that just needs to be updated to fit the economy. We should obviously care deeply about the kind of disengagement that schools and the education cause as a result of their reproduction discrimination and structural barriers.
Longitudinal research by Lam shows that the real-life significance of school is the contextual factor most strongly correlated with high levels of student engagement. Of course, there are many other factors: “The more the students perceived that their teachers assigned challenging work, integrated real-life significance to learning tasks, aroused their curiosity, supported their autonomy, recognized their effort or improvement, and used formative evaluation, the more they reported that they were engaged affectively, behaviorally, and cognitively in school”16 Shui-fong Lam et al, Understanding Student Engagement with a Contextual Model, p.412
Let’s not mistake real-life significance for gamification or entertainment; nor should we imagine that it means framing everything in terms of future employment. Introducing real-life significance into the classroom is a way of opening up the imaginations of students. It’s reading Citizen by Claudia Rankine or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie instead of The Catcher in the Rye. It’s talking about growing inequality and the forty-year long stagnation of employee compensation instead of only pushing students to make entrepreneurial plans for after graduation.
We can’t make a doctor’s waiting-room more engaging for people who lack the insurance to actually get the health-care they need. Similarly, how can school be engaging for those who find no relief from structural racism within its walls, or who can only see crushing student debt in their futures? Fighting boredom and anxiety means imagining new possibilities for the whole system, not just school.
Allow me to quote Henry Giroux at length on his idea of what engagement might mean:
“Many young people today do not see a connection between their lives and what is taught in their classrooms, nor do they have a language for recognizing such connections. The problem we face as teachers is how do we make issues meaningful so as to make them critical in order to make them transformative. At one level, this suggests making sure that the knowledge we teach connects with the students’ different sense of location, history, language, experiences, and agency. We face the challenge of convincing them, for example, that what happens outside of the realm of their immediate experiences has relevance for how they understand their own lives. By linking their own concerns to what is happening in the world and to what it means to develop a sense of responsibility, not merely to themselves but to others, students can become responsible citizens and publicly engaged agents. Their boredom is not a personal problem; it is a political issue. Cynicism is manufactured; it is part of what it means both to translate public issues exclusively into private ones and to reduce politics, if not citizenship itself, to an utterly privatized experience—measured largely by the degree to which it titillates our desires and fulfills our consumer-driven fantasies.”
It isn’t the vastness or abundance of the world that matters, but our ability to connect with it in deep and meaningful ways. What we need then is pedagogy and curriculum that draws connections between the things that restrict our ability to imagine the world being different, the material and ideological conditions of our existence, with a vocabulary to talk about oppression and hope. We teachers can empower students to imagine better futures by leading the way and fighting for them.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Jacquelynne Eccles and Ming-Te Wang, So What Is Student Engagement Anyway?, p 141. In Sandra L. Christenson, Amy L. Reschly, Cathy Wylie, Handbook of Research on Student Engagement, Springer, 2012. Try as I might, I can’t find who made the quip about the engagement industry. However, I don’t want to represent it as my original thought.|
|2.||↑||Tony Wagner, The Global Achievement Gap, p xxi. In Most Likely To Succeed, Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith call it an ‘innovation’ rather than ‘knowledge’ economy, and if you think that sounds an awful lot like Thomas Friedman, you’re not wrong. Their use of the term is idiosyncratic, and they don’t attempt to ground it in any economic or sociological theory.|
|3.||↑||David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p. 159|
|4.||↑||Shui-fong Lam , Bernard P. H. Wong , Hongfei Yang , and Yi Liu, Understanding Student Engagement with a Contextual Model, p. 408 in Handbook of Research on Student Engagement|
|5.||↑||Duhita Mahatmya , Brenda J. Lohman , Jennifer L. Matjasko , and Amy Feldman Farb, Engagement Across Developmental Periods, p. 55. In Handbook of Research on Student Engagement|
|6.||↑||Shui-fong Lam , Bernard P. H. Wong , Hongfei Yang , and Yi Liu, Understanding Student Engagement with a Contextual Model, p. 404 “Indicators are the characteristics that belong inside the construct of student engagement proper, e.g., students’ effort and enthusiasm in school work. By contrast, facilitators are the causal factors outside the construct, e.g., teacher support that contributes to student engagement.”|
|7.||↑||Ellen A. Skinner and Jennifer R. Pitzer Developmental Dynamics of Student Engagement, Coping, and Everyday Resilience p 31, in Handbook|
|8.||↑||Cathy Wylie and Edith Hodgen Trajectories and Patterns of Student Engagement: Evidence from a Longitudinal Study, p 591. In Handbook of Research on Student Engagement|
|9.||↑||Cathy Wylie and Edith Hodgen Trajectories and Patterns of Student Engagement: Evidence from a Longitudinal Study, p. 595|
|10.||↑||Cathy Wylie and Edith Hodgen Trajectories and Patterns of Student Engagement: Evidence from a Longitudinal Study, p. 590|
|11.||↑||Keri Facer, Learning Futures, p.33|
|12.||↑||Carol Linehan, Flexible Work, Flexible Selves? The Impact of Changing Work Practices on Identity, p.66|
|13.||↑||Philip Brown, Hugh Lauder, and David Ashton, The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs, and Incomes (2011), p 67|
|14.||↑||Ilana Gerson, Neoliberal Agency, p. 539|
|15.||↑||Researchers concerned with engagement originally focused on helping students who were at risk of dropping out or being pushed out of school. In my criticism, I target the idea that the crisis of engagement originates in an obsolete school system that just needs to be updated to fit the economy. We should obviously care deeply about the kind of disengagement that schools and the education cause as a result of their reproduction discrimination and structural barriers.|
|16.||↑||Shui-fong Lam et al, Understanding Student Engagement with a Contextual Model, p.412|